Changing Crops in San Luis Valley

ALAMOSA, CO — In Colorado’s San Luis Valley, water is becoming more and more valuable. Surface water is drying up and groundwater is steadily increasing in price. The valleys main use is farming, requiring complex irrigation systems to carry water over long distances. Many of the crops grown here are water intensive.

“Without agriculture, the Valley would suffer,” said Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water District and fourth-generation farmer. “We built an agricultural community around a water system that we don’t have anymore.”

To deter the farmers from using excessive amounts of groundwater, the district has begun to impose fees. $75 for every acre foot (326,000 gallons) of water pumped from the aquifer which is being drained because of the lack of surface water caused by the recent droughts.

They’re down nearly a million acre feet, almost half a million olympic sized swimming pools.

State government officials have ordered San Luis Valley farmers to let the aquifer recharge with at least 910,000 acre feet by 2030. If they don’t meet that order, many or most of the farmers in the area will receive a cease and desist notice and be forced to stop farming, Simpson said.

Currently, the RGWD is paying farmers them to stop farming for a year.

A farmer with a crop like alfalfa, the most water intensive in the valley, will stop making a profit with the continually rising cost of water, said Simpson.

“We should be leading change, not responding to it,” he said. “I don’t know what the future looks like.”

“We have to stop manipulating resources,” said Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Eco Council. “We need good land stewards.”

Simpson has begun to adapt to the new water shortages, growing industrial hemp, a water-efficient and profitable crop. It’s becoming more common around the valley. A few farmers have also started to grow quinoa and several other water efficient crops.

But the harvesting and marketing of those crops is hard, and many farmers would rather pay for more water.

Many of these water efficient crops are easier to grow in the Midwest, where water isn’t as hard to find. If farmers here in the valley can grow hemp and quinoa, then Midwestern farmers will likely realize that they can too. And do it far more efficiently with higher profit margins, said Simpson.

The 90-day growing season in the valley doesn’t help growers, limiting their choice of crops.

Converting water hungry crops like alfalfa to more sustainable ones like industrial hemp and quinoa will help reduce water usage in the valley, Simpson said. “But if Mother Nature doesn’t stop the drought, then it won’t do much.”

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