Farmers agree to tax those who deplete groundwater

  • Irrigated fields are surrounded by the high desert of Colorado's San Luis Valley.

    John Wark
  • A center-pivot sprinkler stands idle in a field of weeds growing in perfect rows on the east side of Colorado's San Luis Valley.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Brian Brownell in a field of Sudan grass he planted instead of a water-hungry commercial crop.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Potatoes are a mainstay of the San Luis Valley economy, with more than 50,000 acres in production.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Ed Nielsen has senior water rights on his ranch, where he flood irrigates with creek water. But pumpers have diminished the water table, leaving some of his fields dry.

    Andrew Cullen
  • George Whitten, with his apprentice, Martha Skelly, uses holistic practices at his ranch on Saguache Creek. Whitten is hopeful that the sub-districts can help restore the aquifer, although it may mean the end of his own business.

    Andrew Cullen
  • George Whitten shows how dry the soil is on a former grazing area.

  • A center-pivot sprinkler stands unused over a field in Colorado's San Luis Valley.

    Andrew Cullen


In the early 1990s, bumper stickers throughout this valley screamed "STOP AWDI" -- shorthand for American Water Development Inc., Canadian millionaire Maurice Strong's company, which wanted to sell the groundwater underneath his local ranch to distant cities. Farmers and ranchers allied with environmentalists, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and even a New Age ashram in protest, fearing that exporting water would obliterate crops, pastures and wetlands used by migratory birds. Locals overwhelmingly approved a tax to help fund a lawsuit against the plan. At a courthouse rally, musician Don Richmond crooned:

Some of us have taken only what we need,
Some of us have seen the need turn into greed,

Some of us would sell our future down the drain,
Washed down by water from the land of little rain.

Strong lost, and a few years later, a similar water-export scheme was similarly skunked. People here had accomplished something remarkable: Together, they resisted the pressure to grow cities with water once used to grow crops.

"That's always been the fear -- that we're going to lose our water to somebody else," says seed potato grower Brian Brownell. And there is water to lose, even in this high-desert valley southwest of Colorado Springs. It receives less rain than Phoenix -- a mere seven inches or so annually. But what it lacks aboveground it makes up for below: A deep artesian aquifer and a shallower underground reservoir store vast amounts of water. Wells punched into the artesian pool, which is trapped and pressurized by a clay cap, once flowed as freely as 19th century oil gushers, freezing into ice towers in winter that transformed parts of the valley into a sprawling, frozen sculpture garden.

But those sopping glory days are gone. For the last decade, the Rio Grande Basin, which the valley crowns, has endured record-setting drought. The aquifers are rapidly draining, pulling river and stream levels after them. If the farmers who use these aquifers don't begin to turn things around, the state's water regulators could shut off thousands of wells -- a devastating economic blow.

The West is thick with similar stories, with groundwater loosely policed and especially vulnerable to the tragedies that befall common resources -- problems that will only worsen in the drier years that climate change is expected to usher in. What's different here is the response: Instead of denying or ignoring the problem, farmers are facing the fact that agriculture has outgrown its water supply. They admit they must live within new limits, or perish. Determined to avoid state intervention, they've created an innovative irrigation market, charging themselves to pump and using that money to pay others to fallow their land. Thousands of acres have come out of production, and their sights are set on fallowing tens of thousands more.

Brian Brownell is among those cutting back. When I visited last September, the valley's potato harvest was in full swing, and dust clouds over fields where farmers were exhuming spuds were visible from miles away. Dust also levitated above a field on Brownell's farm, but nothing was being harvested. Instead, the Sudan grass he'd planted was being hacked to pieces and tilled into the soil. He'd received $96,000 for putting 480 of his 1,680 acres into this "green manure" instead of a more water-hungry and profitable commercial crop.

"Everybody's pumping too much water," he said. His gray sideburns bristled on tanned skin, and his lips curved down in thought. "People have to start to buy in to the community thing, instead of 'me,' 'my farm,' 'my deal.' "

This time, farmers are scrambling to save local agricultural not from outsiders who covet their water, but from themselves.

"It's only going to work," said Brownell, "if everybody does something to save the water."

The San Luis Valley's 8,000 square miles are flat as plywood, hemmed in by the San Juan Mountains to the west, and to the east by the Sangre de Cristos, a dramatic wall of serrated peaks edged by sand dunes that seem plucked from a North African desert. The valley's 46,000 residents live in scattered small towns, beneath lonely willows and cottonwoods, and around highway outposts where a few stores merit a mark on a map. It's a tough place to live, and attracts some unconventional folks: The valley is home to hot springs (and a communal kitchen) frequented by nudists, an alligator farm, a community of 1,500 with 23 spiritual centers, and a UFO watchtower unimpaired by light pollution, where camping costs $10 a night.

But mostly, there are farms -- big ones. The center-pivot sprinklers here are among the most tightly packed in the world, and their hulking aluminum spines give the valley floor the illusion of topography. The annual harvest -- largely potato, barley and alfalfa -- is worth some $300 million, and without it, a number of the towns probably wouldn't exist. There are no mines, no ski resorts, no gas wells. Alamosa, the biggest town at 8,937 residents, boasts a small college and a hospital. Almost everything else -- the fertilizer and tractor dealers, the Safeway, the county governments and K-12 schools -- is supported primarily by money from the fields.

At a more basic level, everything runs on irrigation water. From the 1850s, when Hispanic settlers dug the first ditches, until the 1950s, most of that water was diverted from the Rio Grande and its tributaries and flooded onto fields. Then, drought and technological innovation spurred a well-drilling boom. Groundwater nursed crops through dry years and the late season, when rivers shrank. Soon, center-pivot sprinklers were hooked up to wells, watering crops evenly and efficiently all season long, and many farmers started irrigating exclusively with wells, using river water merely to recharge the aquifer. Marginal land became profitable, crop yields -- and water consumption -- grew, and large-scale commercial agriculture came into its own.

For decades, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, also called the State Engineer's Office, granted well permits as generously as dentists dispense toothbrushes, ignoring basic hydrology. The water in the ground and the rivers was connected, and voracious well-pumping could lower streamflows -- a serious problem, since the river water was already claimed. Following the logic of prior appropriation -- the Westwide system that gives priority to those with the oldest water rights -- wells that were connected to streams should only pump after older river irrigators are sated. But the opposite happened. In the late '60s, the state clamped down on river irrigators to comply with the Rio Grande Compact, which requires Colorado to leave water in the river for Texas and New Mexico. Well owners, meanwhile, pumped happily away.

In 1975, the State Engineer tried to phase out a slew of wells, but a court encouraged a softer approach. Wells were drilled in the valley's "closed basin," where streams don't drain to the Rio Grande. They sipped gingerly from a high water table, "salvaging" what would otherwise evaporate and piping it to the river. The Closed Basin Project seemed like a win-win: Wells kept pumping, river irrigators got water, and regulators backed off. It produced less water than expected, but the '80s and '90s were so wet that few people cared. Mother Nature bought rounds for everyone.