Farmers in Colorado’s San Luis Valley raise potatoes, alfalfa, barley, and quinoa. But the arid, 8,000-square-mile area between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges only receives an average of 7 inches of rainfall each year. So for decades, farmers have irrigated their fields from the subsurface groundwater.
In the early 2000s, when a drought threatened the area’s water resources, farmers began to notice the reduced flow of the Rio Grande. Some of the valley’s 6,000 wells ran dry due to the depleted aquifer. State water regulators considered shutting off thousands of wells. So the valley’s farmers decided to take action.
After years of court cases and deliberation, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and San Luis Valley water users decided on a solution: they would charge $75 per acre-foot for the water pumped from the aquifer, and they would use the fees to pay other farmers to fallow their fields, reducing demand on the water supply.
“We couldn’t sit back and just pump to the bottom of the aquifer,” Cleave Simpson, who heads up the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, told NPR. His concern was that the lack of water would set in motion a series of consequences. Without water, farms would vanish. Without farms, the community would suffer.
The plan to incentivize conservation worked. Farmers who had to pay the fees ultimately reduced their water pumping by 30%. In fact, High Country News reports that water users in sub-district 1 pumped one-third less water, “down to about 200,000 acre-feet last year compared to more than 320,000 before the project.”
As a result, the aquifer began to rebound. Since 2013, the aquifer has recovered nearly 250,000 acre-feet of water.
“It seems stupid to actually tax yourselves and cost yourself more money,” potato farmer Doug Messick explained to NPR. “But the big picture is you stay in business, you keep your community whole, and everybody gives a little.”
Do you think that this template could serve as an effective model for groundwater management in other farming communities?