Shared from the 2018-06-24 The Denver Post eEdition
Thirst for water clouds the future
By Bruce Finley The Denver Post
Alfalfa hay grower Cleave Simpson, who serves as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, decided not to plant as much of the crop as he normally does because of the lack of irrigation water. Photos by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
￼Colorado Department of Natural Resources water engineer Craig Cotton, based in Alamosa, which is near these crop circles, says farmers “are pretty much going to take all the flow of the Conejos River and the Rio Grande this year.”
￼The low snow and meager surface flows in the Rio Grande are pressuring farmers to draw down the aquifer again. RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
￼Cleave Simpson, pictured working on his alfalfa hay farm in Alamosa this month, is worried about water shortage in the area and what it means for his property. RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
MONTE VISTA» Seldom has the Rio Grande, the nation’s fourth-longest river and the one that nourishes the most drought-prone terrain, flowed so low. ¶ One headwaters tributary curling around the Great Sand Dunes National Park has dried up. The main stem of the Rio Grande probably won’t make it out of Colorado to New Mexico this summer, state water authorities calculate, let alone Texas and Mexico.
The federal government has designated the San Luis Valley, like most of the land along the Rio Grande’s route to the Gulf of Mexico, as in “extreme drought.” And years of gains by farmers ordered to replenish a depleted underground aquifer, the water equivalent of a savings account, may be lost if farmers with wells turn back to pumping to survive.
“It’s getting scary. We’re a way over-appropriated system,” said alfalfa grower Greg Higel as he stood at the edge of his 9,000 acres by a paltry, ankle-deep flow, shaking his head. He doesn’t have the option of drawing from a well. “We’re going to be out of water in 10 days.”
The pressure hitting food growers along the Rio Grande headwaters in southern Colorado reflects a widening water squeeze that has revealed the precariousness of life across the southwestern United States, where prolonged dry times and climate change increasingly force adaptation.
Exceptionally low snow in the Rocky Mountain region this year, at 37 percent of “normal” atop the Rio Grande River Basin, is playing out in water volumes less than 20 percent of the 120-year average.
San Luis Valley agricultural leaders warn that the low flows may accelerate a projected loss of 100,000 acres of irrigated land, a fifth of the food production in an area dependent on farming. The low water also is hurting ecosystems, hastening the slide toward extinction of endangered species, including the southwestern willow flycatcher, western yellow-billed cuckoo and Rio Grande silvery minnow.
Another troubled river
These troubles add to the intensifying and more publicized problems in the adjacent Colorado River Basin, where an 18-year trend toward less water strains the growing population of 40 million people who use more each year than what the river provides. Tensions flared this year when Arizona officials planned to siphon more water faster from the Lake Mead reservoir.
The North American Atmospheric Administration last week issued a forecast estimating that upper Colorado River Basin flows into Lake Powell reservoir will be 39 percent of average, compelling completion of drought-response plans in seven states. Federal restrictions on recreational fishing have been imposed in some areas to help species survive. The Colorado River Research Group of scientists recently concluded that increasing temperatures from climate change are converting a vast western area to “likely permanent aridity.”
“The overall point is that river flows are being affected by climate change. We can expect lower flows than the historical average going forward. We need to prepare for that,” said former U.S. interior secretary for water and science Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado.
Southern Colorado, including the San Luis Valley, stands out — with water flows in the Gunnison, Animas, Dolores and San Miguel rivers all less than half of average this year — among the fastest-changing areas.
“Our farming economy, the agricultural heritage of Colorado, is something we want to maintain. We don’t want to lose our agriculture. It is part of what our state is, our way of life. We will need to be more creative in how we use and share water,” Castle said. “When flows go low, the sectors most at risk are farmers, the tribes and ecosystems. We cannot just let these sectors take a hit. We have to get out ahead of this.”
A struggle to survive on less water increasingly grips farmers here.
Colorado Department of Natural Resources water engineer Craig Cotton, based in Alamosa, recently looked over San Luis Valley irrigation ditches during a Water Education Foundation forum and said farmers “are pretty much going to take all the flow of the Conejos River and the Rio Grande this year.” (The Conejos flows into the Rio Grande.)
Water that Colorado owes to downriver New Mexico and Texas — set under the Rio Grande Compact that allocates shares, which are reduced during dry years — already was delivered during winter when farmers weren’t irrigating, Cotton said. “And from an administrative standpoint, Colorado is entitled to take pretty much all of the river system this year.”
Yet the water flows within Colorado are sinking so low that even this ability to drain the river brings little comfort.
One recent morning, alfalfa hay grower Cleave Simpson, who serves as general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, checked levels at the measuring station near Del Norte used for compact accounting and administration of local priority-based water rights.
Simpson saw a reading of 630 cubic feet per second, only 18 percent of the 3,500 cfs that has been the average flow over 120 years.
“What’s going through my mind?” Simpson said. “I have a junior water right here on the Rio Grande. This time of year, I normally have water available to irrigate my crops. As of two weeks ago, that water supply was cut off. How do I manage?”
Like many people, Simpson has access to wells drilled into Rio Grande headwaters alluvial sediment. But he has avoided tapping this source. “I can pump groundwater, but there are consequences of us continuing to overdraft our aquifers,” he said.
Tapping the aquifer
Decades of overpumping to get through periodic dry times by switching from surface to groundwater connected to the Rio Grande now compounds farmers’ difficulties.
The tapping of groundwater that enabled survival in a harsh environment — only 7 inches of rain fall a year on average in the San Luis Valley, temperatures swing from 90 degrees to minus 20 and wind scours at sparse natural vegetation and sweeps through weak soils — cannot legally continue. New Mexico and Texas cried foul when they found less water in the river, then took legal action. Colorado now is obligated to replenish the aquifer within 20 years, and state lawmakers ordered sustainable use of the aquifer — the only groundwater in Colorado that is regulated this way.
Rather than rely on the state to control pumping, the farmers since 2012 have been setting their own limits. They’ve imposed fees that discourage pumping groundwater. Over the past three years, state records show a stabilization with farmers leaving significantly more water in the ground.
But this year, the low snow and meager surface flows in the Rio Grande are pressuring farmers to draw down the aquifer again.
Simpson urged restraint. “We know we’re not sustainable where we are at, and if we were to continue down that path, … we can pump out water to the bottom of the aquifer and eventually we will lose 300,000 acres of irrigated land instead of 100,000 acres. Or we can manage our water withdrawals,” he said. “The world is not stagnant. You’ve got to accept change. You cannot continue the way it historically was. We will see more effort around tourism, wildlife and recreationalism.”
Yet many farmers and state officials reckon aquifer depletion this summer is inevitable, forced by the changing climate.
“Usually, this time of year, we see water running at 1,500 cfs to 1,800 cfs in this river,” said alfalfa farmer Nathan Coombs of Manassa, chairman of the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, walking along the Conejos. “We’ve got about 250 cfs, all from snow-pack. Rains won’t affect it significantly. We don’t get that kind of precipitation, so when there’s no water from snowpack, water isn’t there. And our dependence on groundwater goes up.”
Coombs and Simpson said the dry times mean they will grow less hay this year, and they hope for rising prices, now at $260 a ton, to ease an economic bludgeoning.
Experimentation is increasing.
At Rockey Farms, north of Center, growers have shifted from planting a cash crop mix of potatoes and barley to leafy legume and grass “cover crops” designed to enrich soil. By doing this, manager Brendon Rockey has cut his irrigation in half and stopped using synthetic chemicals — leading to a more profitable operation. Less water can be used to grow more, he said, pointing out that agriculture in Colorado and the West still consumes 85 percent of the available water.
“Fear creates change. It is going to drive us to make positive changes. Not enough has changed yet,” Rockey said. “I don’t want people to go broke. I don’t want people to leave this community in order for some of us to keep farming. We want to have a community where we all can grow. But that’s going to take some drastic changes.
“When you look at agriculture now, we’re very inefficient in our water use.There’s so much room for improvement. Soil is the first step. If we can improve the soil, we can improve how it functions with water.”
Meanwhile, discontent festers downriver, despite the compact that locks in each state’s share of Rio Grande water.
That compact, finalized in 1938, ignores environmental needs. And this year, the low flows along headwaters already have led to a dry-up of the Rio Grande through sensitive stretches south of Albuquerque, hastening the demise of the silvery minnow, one of the nation’s most endangered fish.
“Climate change is exposing the flaws in our system, and these low flows are showing that we cannot continue to allocate water the way we do,” said Jen Pelz, an attorney for WildEarth Guardians, which has filed lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act seeking reduced human use to save species. “Farmers have been given the right to water. But the river does not have any right to water. And when a river does not have water, the trees, the ecosystems, do not receive water. If there’s another dry year, we will have a critical situation on our hands.”
Others, too, suggest adjusting shares of water in the future. Mexico is entitled, under the compact, to 60,000 acre-feet a year that it has not claimed. While the compact remains a binding contract, farmers increasingly sense the changing conditions and brace for challenges, Coombs said. “You’d be crazy not to.”
This year, three unresolved interstate water conflicts, including one between Texas and New Mexico over Rio Grande water, reached the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s unusual, legal experts said, reflecting rising tensions around water as the nation’s population expands.
State Sen. Larry Crowder, who represents counties in southern Colorado, said agricultural communities are all concerned about the dry times.
“Our snowpack is hurting us this year. If we can get back to a normal snowpack, we will be OK. We used to have some tough winters. But winters have become milder. And we have had multiple droughts,” Crowder said.
He added: “Nobody here wants to see that compact opened up. Texas has a lot more money than we do to fight.”
The impact on farmers cut back reverberates from town to town.
“Everybody is just holding their breath. The river flow is coming pretty close to ending. You can see how everything is so brown. It should be green right now. We worry about fires. It is a lot of nervousness. There is a sadness. There’s a lot of unknowns. When there are unknowns, there’s discomfort,” said longtime resident Cindy Medina, who runs a local “water keeper” group that has fought for valley water interests since the 1980s, when American Water Development Inc. pushed a plan to export water to Front Range cities, including creek contamination from a toxic mine that required a federal Superfund cleanup.
At a river conference last year, Medina heard from a colleague in New Mexico how Colorado farmers “are hogging the water” of the Rio Grande. The friend wanted to confront San Luis Valley farmers about “keeping all the water to themselves.”
“I told her, ‘That’s not going to go very well,’ ” Medina said, noting the ferocity of those past water battles. “It all depends on how much snow falls.
“When you grow up in this area, these ranchers and farmers are your neighbors. We may not all get along all the time, but when somebody comes in and tries to take our water, we are instantly together.”