The San Luis Valley sub-district experiment is a rare attempt at a comprehensive solution to groundwater mining that tries to balance senior water users' expectations with the needs of economies built on wells. If it works, it could be a model for community-based groundwater management. And already, it represents a sort of evolution: The fact that farmers here are monitoring and worrying about their water table is itself a sign of progress, says water economist David Zetland, especially compared to places like California's Central Valley, where even measuring wells' appetites is controversial. "In the Central Valley, you will never hear it said publicly that restricting water use may be necessary," says Stanford University water researcher Rebecca Nelson.
Many locals believe the long-ago fights against water exporters laid the groundwork for the sub-districts by uniting the valley's sometimes-quarrelsome water users. Others credit the multigenerational roots many have here. "People talk about us as the 'Kumbaya Basin,' " says Heather Dutton, a farmer's daughter who now does Rio Grande restoration work. She repeats the valley's unofficial slogan: "We try to solve our own problems."
In 2006, after three dry years, and a wetter one that didn't boost the aquifer, a majority of the 250 farm owners representing most of the land in the most heavily irrigated part of the valley --174,000 acres north of the Rio Grande -- signed petitions to create the first sub-district. (Five additional sub-districts are in the works, pending completion of the groundwater models quantifying wells' impacts.) Ray Wright's partner, Mona Syring, remembers rallying support for the idea this way: "They talked and talked and talked and talked -- and talked and talked."
Steve Vandiver, now the Rio Grande Water Conservation District manager, and his staff are the mechanics doing the unglamorous work of putting these ideas into practice. Vandiver is broad-shouldered, with a full mustache, and his gaze tends to drift skyward when he explains the complicated business of water administration. His work is an endless stream of meetings, plans and reports. Last fall, when I visited, his staff was excavating reams of emails for a trial challenging the management plan for Sub-district 1. Vandiver was clearly spread thin, but seemed upbeat -- with a few significant caveats.
Last year was the second that Sub-district 1 charged pumping fees, and the first it inked fallowing contracts and repaid the river for ongoing pumping. Enough money was coming in, and going back out, to fallow 8,300 acres last year, Vandiver reported -- far short of the 40,000-acres-by-2021 goal, but a good start. Another 15,000 to 20,000 acres were rested through private insurance that pays farmers not to plant during droughts, and pumping dropped 20 percent. This year, Vandiver expects to offer 15-year fallowing deals by tapping federal CREP funds, as well as the annual sub-district contracts to encourage participation. Vandiver also plans to pay farmers based on their pumping reductions -- as opposed to how many acres they fallow -- to promote maximum water conservation.
Then came the "buts," which could scuttle the whole scheme. Commodity prices have soared to all-time highs. As long as farmers can fetch top dollar for barley and alfalfa -- the valley's thirstiest crop -- the pumping fees won't dissuade them from mining the aquifer. And it turns out, this community -- like any other -- is not totally united: Though everyone in the sub-district is charged for pumping -- with bills that can run zero to $200,000 per farm, and bringing in more than $5 million -- not everyone is conserving. "There's a whole group that has vowed that as long as there's water in their hole, they're going to pump it," Vandiver said.
And the biggest "bugaboo" of all, he said, is the weather. Pumping didn't drop far enough in 2012; it was another dry year, and the aquifer still lost more water than it gained. This winter looks no better. "We've seen a dramatic change in the water supply that supports this whole thing," Vandiver said flatly, leaning back in his chair. "And if that continues, it finally unravels."
The next day, I traveled to the east side of the valley, where the first threads were coming loose. As Brian Brownell's Sudan grass was plowed under -- a form of fallowing -- we discussed how the new system was working for him. The $96,000 payment from Sub-district 1 for fallowing a quarter of his total acreage was at most a third of what the Coors beer company would have paid for a rotational barley crop. But it was better than nothing. Brownell had already been rotating some of his potatoes with Sudan grass instead of a cash crop for a couple years to save water. (In total, at least half his farm was fallowed last year, but only about half of that acreage was enrolled in the sub-district program.) It was nice to get some money out of the ground for "doing the right thing," he said. "(But) it's not the money, to me, anyway. It's the resource."
Brownell acutely feels the pinch of its decline. His area's water table has always been lower than in places farther west. As it droops further, wells here have begun to spit air. "When I came into farming, we were thinking 20 years ahead," he lamented. "Now, it's maybe two years, if we're lucky."
Brownell, who just turned 58 -- a birthday celebrated with blueberry pie and a water meeting -- was just out of college and working in Kansas in 1979 when his dad called to ask if he wanted to come back to the farm. ("It was 110 degrees in Kansas," he recalled. "I thought about it for about two minutes.") He relishes the challenges of running a business, and in optimistic moments, can spin his water troubles as just the latest in a long line of problems to solve. "You have to be adaptable anymore," he said.
Cutting his farm's thirst by fallowing big chunks of it and linking sprinklers to multiple wells to water his remaining fields has helped him adapt -- so far. But last year, potato prices dropped, and even those fields were a money drain.
"If you start having a string of bad years, it's" -- he let out a resigned laugh -- "it goes from bad to worse. You have a harder time getting loans from the bank, you start seeing farm sales. But who's going to buy the farms if the water is running out? The value of things could drop pretty quickly."
"The edges of this thing will go first," Vandiver had explained. "The little guys in the places where the aquifer isn't as good, those folks will have to go somewhere else or work for somebody who survives." Farmers atop the deeper parts of the aquifer will fare better, though their future is far from assured. "If we are in some kind of drying trend, where we're going down, down, down," Vandiver said, "nothing's going to work except to just shut the wells off."
While many have grudgingly accepted sub-districts as their best option -- no one enjoys fat water bills -- a few holdouts still think the whole enterprise is a bunch of bull.
Ed Nielsen is one of them. A white-haired rancher with flushed cheeks, Nielsen settled in Saguache, in the valley's northwest corner, because subdividing Texans were ruining his native Meeker, Colo., for ranching. Now, he says, the San Luis Valley is being wrecked for ranching, too.
Nielsen drove me down a skinny two-lane along Saguache Creek, past modest pastures -- including one of his own -- that are still flood-irrigated with creek water, a method that needs a high water table to support the spread of water across the land. A number of ranchers here hold old water rights, and the state, they say, has shirked its duty to protect them.
"This is my place here. We never even got this pasture wet," Nielsen said as we pulled up to a field of patchy, brittle stubble. Economic devastation was already visiting Saguache Creek, he argued. He'd stretched himself to buy hay for winter, and couldn't do so again. "Water is finite," Nielsen bristled. "Am I going to put it on my surface crop, or are they going to pump it? It's one or the other. And I have the senior decree."
One source of his frustration lies just south of his anemic pasture: North Star Farm, one of the valley's large alfalfa operations, which taps groundwater with rights junior to those of most ranchers around here. Last year, Nielsen had water for only four days, and harvested 5 percent of his normal hay crop. North Star, meanwhile, watered thousands of acres through the fall, reaping multiple cuttings. Plus, the North Star wells and others have for years slowly strained the supply of creek water and lowered the water table.
"There's a long history of agriculture here," Nielsen said. "(It's) always survived Mother Nature's droughts. This one is partially manmade."
He ticked off some of the reasons he's skeptical of the sub-district remedy: The price of water is set artificially low. At $75 an acre-foot, farmers in Sub-district 1 pay as little as a third of what the sub-district paid for imported water -- too little to discourage moneymakers like North Star. He also believes the sub-district's timeline for recovering the aquifer -- they must show gradual gains in the next five to 10 years, and reach sustainable levels by 2031 -- is too slow. And the model the state is developing to calculate wells' impact is too coarse, he says, because it groups wells in half-mile chunks, which could obscure the impact of the worst stream depleters. (The state admits the model is imperfect, but says it can't model individual wells.) Nielsen would like to see well owners replace every drop of water they consume whenever water is short, as traditional augmentation plans require in Colorado, or be cut off.
He, a few allies, and a group from Hispanic settlements in the valley's southern end sued the water conservation district over the legality of the entire sub-district concept. They lost in Colorado's Supreme Court, but filed new lawsuits over its water management plan -- winning on points that forced tougher senior water rights protections, but scoring no major victories.
To them, it seems "well rule" has replaced "priority rule." And in a way, they're right. The state has promised well regulations for years, and they are imminent once the groundwater model is completed. But in the meantime, wells outside Sub-district 1 continue pumping.
"I guess we've done a lot of damage in the valley (with the lawsuits)," says 88-year-old Manassa cattleman Kelly Sowards, part of another surface-water group that sued the sub-district. Indeed, the lawsuits have exposed and aggravated decades-old rifts. As one sub-district farmer put it: "It's just totally unacceptable, those people and their objections. The sub-district has done everything it could to satisfy their objections. And we (still) have to pay lawyers to fight these jackasses."
"It couldn't be helped," says Sowards. Some ranchers and small farmers believe their survival is a low priority in a valley dominated by big -- and more profitable -- farms. "We're trying to get a fair shake on water that was ours at one time. I guess the wells have got so much influence, money-wise and so forth, that the state hasn't done anything for 40 years. They just let us go."