All eyes are on Subdistrict No. 1

Contributed photos Years of drought and over pumping by some farmers and ranchers has taxed the San Luis Valley’s aquifer. Some like Nissen Farms recognized what was happening and changed their farming methods, while others continued as they always did. In 2006, Subdistrict No. 1 was formed locally with the goal of restoring the ‘unconfined aquifer’ and avoid the state from stepping in.

Will San Luis Valley farmers save their aquifer — and themselves?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part look at Subdistrict No. 1 — past, present and future.

ALAMOSA — From her family’s farm near Mosca, Erin Nissen can see the Great Sand Dunes in the distance. Whether through a window or from the porch, the towering 700-hundred-foot ridges of sand are always in view, a constant reminder of what she fears may come.

“That’s how we could end up if we’re not careful,” the fourth-generation farmer says. “If we keep on draining the aquifer like we’ve been, our farm could end up being nothing but sand.”

Nissen, 30, has reason to be anxious. Drought and excessive pumping by some farmers have drained water levels in the aquifer to an almost unprecedented level, leaving the San Luis Valley at a crossroads and local water officials faced with a decision that could put some farmers out of business. 

Nissen runs Nissen Farms with her father, Lyle, whom fellow growers in the Valley describe as being “head and shoulders above everybody else” when it comes to sustainable farming.

“Lyle was doing things 20 years ago that nobody was even thinking about,” says John Kretsinger, a farmer and rancher who bought land in Alamosa in 1989 because it had one of the most responsive aquifers in the country.

In the years before Kretsinger transplanted himself from Texas to Colorado, the Valley was rich with farms growing a cornucopia of vegetables — turnips, spinach, broccoli, carrots, and lettuce. In the late 1940s, the Valley produced enormous crops of peas with entire freight cars full trucked out every week.

Don Shawcroft is a 64-year-old rancher who runs cattle in Conejos County. His family came here in the 1800s, and the Valley he remembers is a far cry from the Valley he sees now.

“When I was a kid, there were some places where the ground was so marshy, you couldn’t ride a horse across,” Shawcroft says. “Water coming out of some of those wells that were dug early on would shoot straight up in the air and over the house. Those days are over. All that water has been pumped out of the ground.”

Now, with only 7 inches of rainfall per year and “barely half the groundwater that was available just a decade ago,” everything on the Nissen’s farm — every seed they plant, every decision they make — “is all based around water,” Nissen says.

Decisions like adding radish and green manure to the soil so it retains more moisture. And choosing crops based on how much water they will need and when they will need it. And tracking how much water the farm pumps, down to 0.08 inches, and recording that amount every single day. And, ultimately, calculating how much water they can put back into the aquifer, whether through recharging ponds or other surface water, to replace what they have withdrawn.

“We’re doing different things all the time so we can keep cutting back. But it’s hard, and it’s getting harder,” Nissen says. 

But what is hardest, she notes, is “when we see other farmers doing nothing.” Because what other farmers do is crucial to the Nissen’s operation.

Though father and daughter have complete control of their own farming practices, they are part of a group of 300 farmers bound together because of the collective depletion of the aquifer. 

Water bureaucracy can be a snoozer, as can hydrology. So, for the purposes of this story, suffice it to say that the group, called Subdistrict No. 1, was formed as a political subdivision and corporate body in 2006 by holders of surface-water and ground-water rights in Alamosa County and parts of Rio Grande and Saguache counties — the heart of this alpine desert valley — specifically for the purpose of taking action to restore what is called the “unconfined aquifer.” That’s the water table closest to the surface, which is not to be confused with the “confined aquifer” several layers deeper underground. 

The gist of the collective — and why people far beyond the San Luis Valley and even Colorado state lines are watching it so closely — lies in the idea that, because there are too many farmers relying on a finite and ever-dwindling layer of groundwater in a time of prolonged drought and climate change, everyone using that water is inextricably tied.

About half of Subdistrict No. 1’s members are farmers who, like the Nissens, are committed to sustainable farming. The other half are not and continue to pump more water from the aquifer than they return to it.

No matter what members are growing or how they grow it, no matter if their families have worked the land for generations or if a farm or ranch was bought last year by anonymous hedge funders, members of the subdistrict have united in hopes of keeping their water fate in local hands rather than in those of state water regulators, who have the power to shut down their wells.

The collective actions of Subdistrict No. 1 ultimately could have more of an impact on the future of the Nissens’ farm — or any other — than the actions of individual farmers themselves.

In Colorado, the dynamics of hydrology are not the only powers and factors farmers need to fear when they take more water out of the ground than they put back in. State government has authority, wielded through the Office of the State Engineer within the Division of Water Resources, to step in and shut off irrigation wells when farmers fail to live within their means. It is power the state will use.

During a severe drought in 2002, farmers in Adams, Weld and Morgan counties along the South Platte River were locked in a legal battle over farmers’ excessive use of groundwater for irrigation impacting the rights of farmers who relied on surface water to irrigate. The State Engineer stepped in and shut down wells — 8,000 of them — until farmers using groundwater could develop a plan to replace the water they had depleted, reducing injury to the senior surface water rights holders. The shutoffs were devastating to farmers and their communities. And for the owners of about 2,000 wells, the impact was permanent since the wells were never turned back on. 

Three hundred miles to the southwest, farmers in the San Luis Valley watched the state’s response along the South Platte as it was unfolding in 2002, and what they saw was the writing on the wall. Groundwater regulations from the state were coming, and the levels of water in the aquifer, tracked since 1976, were of great concern. In the 2002 drought — the worst ever on record in the valley — withdrawals had caused an unprecedented decline of almost 400,000 acre feet. The levels continued to decline to almost 800,000 acre feet in 2006.

Cleave Simpson is a fourth-generation San Luis farmer and rancher and head of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. As he tells it, his community realized the state could just as easily come in and shut down their wells, too, and that they had to find a way to collectively manage their aquifer.

“I can’t say what was in the heads of those farmers on the South Platte. I think they knew about their problem, but they didn’t act on it aggressively enough,” Simpson says. “We were determined to have a different outcome. We were going to find our own solution.”

That determination — and the decision to create the subdistrict in 2006 — was driven by two factors:

Shutting down all 3,000 wells to the Valley’s unconfined aquifer until its water levels were restored would mean the suspension of almost all agriculture production for at least a year, if not longer. A year of not actively farming and ranching would strip between $400 million and $500 million from the valley’s economy annually and devastate not only growers, but also other businesses and local governments. Property values also would likely plummet because farmland depreciates when its wells are red tagged and water is shut off.

The likelihood of such shut offs increases each year that levels in the aquifer continue to drop.

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