As San Luis Valley’s water shortage intensifies, Gov. Jared Polis mulls climate warming adaptation

CENTER — The sun beat down, baking Colorado’s bone-dry, cracking San Luis Valley, where farmers for eight years have been trying to save their depleted underground water but are falling behind.

They’re fighting to survive at an epicenter of the West’s worsening water squeeze amid a 20-year shift to aridity. Federal data this past week placed 93% of Colorado in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought .

And Gov. Jared Polis was listening now, as a group of farmers sat around a patio shaking their heads, frowning, frustration etched on their faces — down by 150,000 acre-feet of water below their aquifer-pumping target as the driest months begin.

“We’re about as lean as we possibly can be. We’ve re-nozzled our sprinklers. Our pumping is as efficient as it possibly can be. We’re trying different crops,” said Tyler Mitchell, who had cut his water use by 30% after installing soil moisture sensors and shifting from barley to quinoa. “But, at the end of the day, we have too many businesses that are trying to stay in business. I don’t know how we can reduce pumping more than we already have.”

How to adapt to a hotter, drier world is emerging as a do-or-die mission for people living around the arid West. Polis was in the San Luis Valley on Tuesday, embarking on a potentially groundbreaking statewide effort to explore solutions amid increasingly harsh impacts of climate warming, including wildfires burning more than 300 square miles of western Colorado.

“It is about building resilience. It is about making preparations,” the governor said as he bounced along a dirt road between stops in the valley, the start of what administration officials cast as a continuing drought tour.

Average temperatures will keep rising for decades, federal climate scientists say, based on the thickening global atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, now around 412 parts per million, the highest in human history. Heat is depleting water across the Colorado and Rio Grande river basins, where more than 50 million people live.

Nowhere have climate warming impacts exacerbated local difficulties more than here in the Massachusetts-sized, predominantly Hispanic, low-income San Luis Valley between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains of southern Colorado.

Ute and Apache natives migrated through, sensing nature’s limits. Spanish settlers set up small-scale farming in the 18th century using an intricate Moorish irrigation system. Modern commercial farming exploded after the 1950s, when economic development promoters invited production of potatoes and hay that led farmers to drill 6,000 wells and install 2,700 center-pivots to irrigate 120-acre crop circles — temporarily turning naturally soft-hued scrub terrain bright green.

But the pumping drained underground water after 1976 by roughly 1 million acre-feet, state records show.

This year, the winter mountain snowpack that determines surface water flow in the Rio Grande River measured 33% of normal in spring. Rainfall so far, 2.7 inches, lags at around 38% of average.

And the Rio Grande barely trickles, at 7 cubic feet per second, leaving Colorado toward New Mexico and Texas. Those similarly drought-stricken states count on shares of surface water in the river under a 1938 interstate legal agreement.

Colorado farmers’ fallback habit of pumping more from the aquifers connected to the river — water use that is restricted under a locally-run, state-ordered conservation plan — has obliterated water savings painstakingly gained since 2012.

The 150,000 acre-feet draw-down this year hurled farmers practically back to their starting point. And a state-enforced deadline of 2030 for restoring the aquifer to a healthy level looms. If not met, state authorities could take control over wells.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District manager Cleave Simpson said recovery now requires a snow-dependent gain of 680,000 acre-feet — 4.5 times this year’s draw-down.

Gnawing at farmers’ nerves, developers from Colorado’s booming-yet-water-limited Front Range suburbs 180 miles away propose to buy up water rights from valley farmers and siphon away 22,000 acre-feet of water a year from 14 wells drilled 2,000 feet deep at the base of the Sangre de Cristos. This push by Renewable Water Resources, with former Gov. Bill Owens as a principal, would entail building a pipeline costing $250 million or more and pumping water northward over Poncha Pass toward expanding suburbs.

“A drier and hotter world”

Polis looked out the windows of a black utility vehicle and saw devastation spreading as climate warming impacts hit home. Hot wind churned dust around farms now abandoned and rented to newcomers struggling to get by. San Luis Valley leaders have estimated that low flows and falling water tables may lead to the dry-up of 100,000 irrigated acres, a fifth of the farmland in a valley where residents depend economically and culturally on growing food.

He saw farm crews toiling, coaxing the most from their heavy machinery, after flows from some wells had diminished and even reportedly pulled up just air.

He said he sees different dimensions of problems around climate warming.

On one hand, human emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases “are going up,” Polis said. “But, then, here in this world, it is about adapting to what is happening. I mean, the global effort needs to succeed. Climate change needs to slow down. Colorado is just a teeny piece of that — a fundamental issue affecting the entire world. America never should have pulled out of the Paris accords. I hope we return, and have a concerted international effort.

“But it is also a reality for how these farmers put food on their plate, for how their communities thrive in a drier and hotter world. … The same crops we have been growing, with one water and warm temperature profile, don’t work with the way things are now.”

Colorado agriculture commissioner Kate Greenberg said state leaders also will hear from producers enduring dry times on the Eastern Plains, where wheat harvests are expected to suffer. Agriculture statewide “is hurting” and the San Luis Valley stands out as “ground zero” in a water squeeze due to low snow, shrinking aquifers, drought and competing demands from inside and outside the valley. Legal obligations to leave water for New Mexico and Texas compel cuts that complicate solutions, Greenberg said.

“Everyone who is working on this issue here in the valley still hopes there’s a way to thread the needle. Of course, the state of Colorado has to protect itself legally and uphold their agreements in the interstate compacts,” she said. “How do we keep farmers and ranchers in business, keep agriculture as the driver of our economy, and use less water?”

Few of the farmers on the patio meeting with the governor saw much that state governments can do in the face of a possible environmental collapse.

Many have concluded that, as Jim Erlich said, “we’re going to be farming less here.” Some anticipated an agricultural landscape looking more like western Kansas.

But the farmers also saw possibilities. And they were sticking together for the most part in opposing the developers’ plans to siphon water to cities.

Polis called climate warming “the new normal.” He asked the farmers: “Where does it lead? Do you see a way forward?” State projections show conditions for at lest 15 years will be “likely hotter and drier… What does that mean in terms of crop mix? What does it mean in terms of sustainability? What does it mean in communities?”

The farmers, about a dozen, said they’ll push ahead in the “sub-districts” they’ve formed to encourage saving groundwater — as an alternative to state engineer authorities controlling wells. They now pay fees for pumping and pooled funds can be used to pay farmers for leaving fields fallow.

“We do all that,” Simpson said. “And we still lose ground.”

An entrepreneurial businessman, Polis pushed toward what might be done to create better markets for crops, such as “Colorado quinoa” that use less water, giving a global perspective. “I mean, agriculture does occur in dry parts of the world. It has to work from a water perspective.”

“Community is key”

Farmers getting by here have adapted, in some cases radically adjusting entrenched practices.

Hemp grower Dion Oakes stood by as late afternoon temperatures topped 80 degrees. Seven years ago, his family’s water situation looked so dire that he ditched potatoes in favor of hemp, which uses half as much water. Oakes harvested 3,500 acres of hemp last year and 1,000 so far this year — supplying factories in China.

U.S. garment designers led by Patagonia have committed to buy from those Chinese factories.

On Tuesday, a gaggle of Patagonia promoters gathered with Polis in a hemp field, filming as the governor touted opportunities.

Oakes looked on. “Our main reason to get hemp was the water use. We didn’t know anything about hemp. All we knew was it uses less water,” he said in an interview.

Patagonia’s role creating a new market was playing out nicely. Oakes employed three workers on his farm, and another six at a processing facility — a capacity he said must expand.

Yet amid early signs of success, Oakes worried about dry times hitting too hard and driving other farmers out of the valley. Shutting down wells to meet the 2030 deadline, if that happens, “is going to totally disrupt this valley,” he said. “It would take us out of here, too. Community is key.”

At another farm, Brendon and Sheldon Rockey showed Polis around. They’ve reduced their use of water from wells by 50% and prospered, growing 25 types of potatoes, shifting off water-intensive crops such as barley and planting more “Colorado Quinoa” along with a half dozen other growers.

Fallow fields fertilized with cows and planted with restorative “cover crops” help boost productivity by improving soil, Brendon Rockey told the governor. “I don’t have a mono-culture anywhere on this farm.”

As president of the potato producers’ council and leader of a water-saving sub-district, Sheldon Rockey is encouraging other farmers — optimistically despite increased stress around the depletion of aquifers. “We can still make it back,” he said, “if we have snow.”

Polis planned on listening more in the coming months.

“I’m impressed by the resilience of our farmers, finding a way to get through,” he said.

Some families had farmed for nearly a century, creating a vibrant, self-reliant culture.

“Hemp is part of the answer,” the governor said. And he told farmers repeatedly that he opposes water projects that require moving water out of one river basin to another, pointing to past cases where “buy-and-dry” practices decimated Colorado communities.

Polis also suggested a relaxed state approach to the 2030 deadline for replenishing the shrinking aquifer. “It is about the long-term trends. … whether goals are being met. There’s nothing that would ever be done based on one bad year.”

The farmers were hanging on that.

“He is genuinely interested in providing what support the state can to help with our water balance challenges,” Simpson concluded following this first meeting.

But “farmers are frustrated,” he said, emphasizing that aquifer recovery can happen only “if mother nature brings snow.”

And Polis left with a more detailed sense of the stakes.

“What we want here is sustainability. That’s why I oppose trans-basin water diversions,” he said. “But we have to make sure that farmers here today don’t live at the expense of farmers here tomorrow and the next decade. This valley is about agriculture. If the water is sold off, or the water is used up, it will become a dust bowl.”

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