Climate Change is Not a Priority for the Residents of the San Luis Valley

By Emily Stamper

The San Luis Valley is unbelievably beautiful. It is the kind of place you put on a postcard. The kind of place you wish you could live, but always make excuses for why you can’t.

It is 80,000 square miles and only has 50,000 residents…making it a hub for meditation retreats (20,000 people visit Crestone, with a population of 143, for meditation every year). The valley has the perfect perfect blend of solitude and wilderness to help clear your mind, bringing you back to peace and away from the craziness of daily life.

Driving through the quiet, snow scattered valley you will pass fields full of frolicking yaks and a UFO landing center. You will see the massive sand dunes, seeming out of place against the snow-capped mountains. You will drive through the small, hippie town of Crestone with its used book store and one gas pump for miles.

While California is burning and the Midwest is flooding, the San Luis Valley seems to be a nature-rich safety zone that climate change isn’t affecting. When the apocalypse hits, the San Luis Valley seems like the place to be. However, that isn’t necessarily true.

The San Luis Valley is struggling with environmental issues of its own. The supply of water in the newly drought-ridden valley does not meet the demand. 

The San Luis Valley is the 3rd largest producer of fresh produce in the United States, the 2nd largest producer of potatoes and the 1st largest producer of table potatoes. Potatoes need enormous amounts of water: 18 to 24 inches on average. Despite the valley’s need for water, it has had a long history of water being taken.

In 1939 the Rio Grande Compact was signed to equally distribute the water of the Rio Grande Basin between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. The Closed Basin Project, started in 1972, extracts ground water from the San Luis valley to meet those needs, as well as water owed to Mexico in a 1906 treaty. 

Between excessive water use in potato farming, the Closed Basin Project and climate change causing less snowfall and lower river levels, the valley is in desperate need for change. 

However, the people in the valley don’t always put water conservation and environmental change at the top of their priority list. 

“When we talk about potato production we talk about profit,” says Samuel Essah, the extension specialist at Colorado State University who grew up in Ghana. He stood in the CSU potato lab as he spoke, a dim lit room with concrete floors filled with paper lunch bags of potatoes to be tested for disease. 

Essah said that people in the valley, and around the world, are more concerned about making money than the environment, “that’s where the problem is.”

They valley uses huge amounts of water to grow its potatoes and Essah believes that if farmers grew vegetables that use less water it would make a big difference. He said the people of the valley know the water is dwindling and that there isn’t enough to farm potatoes, but they don’t want to change their crops because potatoes are where the money is.

This frustrates him because climate change “is all our fault. The human mind is greedy. We always want to create more, and more, and more,” Essah said.

He said that about 60% of people in the valley are trying to take the advice of cutting back on water usage. 

Sheldon Rockey is one of those people. 

Sheldon Rockey and his brother run Rockey Farm, a 500 acre family farm growing predominantly potatoes. Rockey Farm is a leader in water conservation. 

Rockey said he began to see climate change in the valley in the late 1990’s when they weren’t getting enough run off from the river. Back then his farm was using 2 acre-foot of water, and they are now only using 1 acre-foot.

The people of the San Luis Valley have to pay for their water as a way to encourage water conservation, so by cutting back on water Rockey is not only helping the environment but saving money. 

“We have a surplus of water, we want to maintain that,” Rockey said. 

Cutting the farm’s water usage in half wasn’t the only thing the farm did for the environment. Rockey and his brother also switched to using green manure. 

It was a big step to move to green manure and was scary at first. The farm had to dedicate an acre of land to producing it, an acre that could’ve been used to grow crops. Rockey was worried about how the switch would affect him financially and about “putting food on the table.” (Which is hilarious when you see how many potatoes are being stored behind his kitchen). In the end, making the switch to green manure was beneficial to the farm.

Rockey now avoids coffee shops and other local “hang-outs” because people can’t help but tell him his farm will go out of business because of the changes he made. Rockey thinks otherwise, “I’m optimistic we are going to be farming in 30 years.”

Rockey has seen the practices being used on his farm inspire other farms run by people in a younger generation than him, but he says people over 50 won’t change their ways. 

“About half of us are adapting, but there will always be that handful that doesn’t like change,” Rockey said.

 Changing farming practices, or not farming the land at all, can actually make farmers money in the San Luis Valley. Through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) farmers get paid enormous amounts of money to simply not grow on their land.

Rockey said farming is in his blood, and other farmers feel the same. People don’t want to change or give up their life and livelihood for climate change when it is what they know and love.

A love for farming isn’t the only reason why people in the valley aren’t actively concerned about climate change. 

Inside of the White Rock Specialties potato packing plant are voices unconcerned with climate change. 

White Rock is a high school turned factory. When you walk in the front door it looks like any old high school gym lobby…forgetting the smell of dirt and the glass trophy cases filled with plastic potatoes instead of basketball medals. When you open the gym door the only thing that resembles a gym is the remaining basketball hoop. It is a bustling potato factory: some people closing large boxes to be shipped, some bagging potatoes for Kroger and some loading trucks. 

There are 28 workers, most of them from one region of Guatemala. Together they put 120 large truckloads of potatoes on the road every day.

Stephanie Chandler, the head of the plant, said that most of the workers had to leave their homes because their children were dying without money for a doctor. Many of the workers send money back to Guatemala. 

Chandler said that climate change and the water crisis are not of concern to the workers. She said that they are worried about wages, not the environment. 

Francisco Sebastian, the foreman, moved to the US from Guatemala in 1977 and has been in the San Luis Valley since 1983. He has been working at White Rock for 22 years, a self proclaimed “veggie guy.” 

Sebastian doesn’t have a family to feed back in Guatemala, but he has to live and feed himself here in the States. As far as climate change goes he says it has no personal effect on him and that he is working the job simply because “it pays off my bills.”

Jerry Mallett has experienced climate change and drought in the San Luis Valley outside of the potato industry. 

He was evacuated from his gorgeous home in Salida because of the Decker fire this past September. 

Their home is in an area marked red for fires because of the extreme dryness. It didn’t used to be this way.

“Fire is going to be part of our lifestyle. Climate is getting warmer and it is only going to increase,” Mallett said. 

Mallett also said that people in the area “really don’t understand climate change” and don’t pay attention “if it is something that doesn’t hit the pocketbooks in the next couple weeks or is in the short term.”

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