Farmers agree to tax those who deplete groundwater

Amid drought and climate change in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, farmers vote for a new approach to rein in their overpumping of 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

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George Whitten's piece of ground sits at the end of Saguache Creek, which rarely gets wet anymore. Whitten is a slight but sturdy man with wise eyes, strong opinions about sustainable agriculture and an independent mind. Thirty years ago, he stopped baling hay; he rakes it into piles airy enough not to mold and thatched enough not to blow away, and lets his cows nose through snow to get to it. It's a cheap system well-suited to this arid clime, he said, but it's raised eyebrows over the years.

Whitten, long active in valley water issues, has caught flak from neighbors for his take on the sub-districts, too. The meadow surrounding his home is a knapweed-bordered anomaly: Chunky native grass maintained through intensive, rotational grazing, inspired by holistic grazing guru Allan Savory. "We use livestock to prepare the soil, so when it rains, the seed is planted and fertilized," he explained. "But I've prepared the soil for rain, and there's been no rain."

He relies primarily on an artesian well to flood-irrigate the meadow. If a sub-district did get started in his neighborhood, it would either save him or put him under. He owns surface water on a property clear across the valley, but because of the distance, he's unsure he could use it to cover his pumping. And his margins are too tight to pay high water bills.

Despite the uncertainty, sitting at his kitchen table, warmed by sun streaming through wraparound windows, he said: "I believe in the premise of the sub-district, which is to recover the aquifer. And to do that in a way that's reasonable, and not just say, 'This is the priority system, and we haven't lived by it for the last 25 years, but today we start?' I mean, that's just collapse. It would be anarchy."

Not that he's an apologist for Big Ag. He owns a pasture just south of North Star Farm, and believes the North Star wells have left it dusty and ashen, like Nielsen's. The valley's heavily fertilized, mechanized farms represent what Whitten detests about modern agriculture. "We're thinking about that monoculture farm as the jewel," he said. "It's the problem."

Getting a sub-district started around Saguache won't be easy, he says, because there's resistance to using anything other than a strict priority system to manage water. Still, Whitten believes it's time to evolve. Lately, he's engaged in his own magical thinking. "If you have livestock that are migratory, you go where the resource is," he said. "If we could migrate every year from here to Albuquerque and back, the cattle (would) never be out of feed. Twenty years ago, I wasn't even dreaming about anything like that. Stewardship, that was the way of the future." Now, he said, only half-jokingly, perhaps we'll all end up drinking our own pee in "stillsuits," the moisture-retaining armor worn by survivalists on an alien desert planet in the 1965 sci-fi novel Dune.

He doesn't expect others to entertain such radical notions. But the sub-districts are at least a small step in a new direction. "That we've created this wonderful oasis (on our ranch) is no different than the fact that they've created a wonderful potato field," he says. "(Wells aren't) a natural thing. I'm as big a part of the problem as anybody else. So that's why the sub-district thing makes sense to me. It's a way we can start to have a conversation as a community and actually set things in motion." He skipped a beat, then added: "I'm disappointed that it doesn't rain and it doesn't snow."

This story was made possible with support from the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources and the Kenney Brothers Foundation.

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