Water Usage in the San Luis Valley

by Haley Ruffner
13 December 2022 | [email protected] | 307.205.6628


In recent years, the San Luis Valley agriculture community has harbored growing concerns about its water—although the snow-fed aquifer has long made the desert climate a viable location for agriculture, lack of snowmelt to fill it and possible legislation to reroute Valley water up the Front Range have plagued farmers who built their livelihoods on the promise of plentiful water. As of 2018, 550,000 acres were being irrigated in the valley. According to Rio Grande Water Conservation District Manager Cleave Simpson, the valley’s aquifer can only support irrigation of 400,000 acres, necessitating a 20 percent reduction in irrigation to restore the aquifer to its prior level. This drastic of a reduction in farmland—over 100,000 acres—would impact hay production in the valley to a great degree, with farmers having to either transition to more drought-resistant crops, do fewer cuttings of hay, or stop farming altogether. Legislation to cut off wells, which is in the works if the aquifer does not return to prior levels, would run farmers out of business.  

Unprecedented drought is a contributing factor to the aquifer’s depletion, but overdrawing for irrigation has also been steadily lowering its water levels for decades. In the beginning of 2022, the 3rd Congressional District in Colorado proposed to pump 7 billion gallons of water per year from one of the Valley’s aquifers to send to the growing Denver suburbs. In addition, the Renewable Water Resources company has proposed to use $20 million in COVID relief funds to drill 25 new wells in the Valley and pump upwards of 20,000 acre-feet of water each year to Denver. While it seems unlikely that either of these proposals will come to fruition, the constant threat of depleting the San Luis Valley’s water supply even further puts an added layer of stress on environmentalists and farmers alike. The population of Colorado is expected to double within the next 30 years, which will only increase demand for water in growing areas. Such conditions will force the state to decide which it prioritizes: agriculture or supporting city growth. 

Legislation to prevent overuse of water has already been affecting farmers—in 2021, Saguache County saw the state shut down groundwater wells in April, May, and June due to the low confined aquifer situated at the northern end of the Valley. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District has proposed a $500 per-acre overpumping fee for farmers who don’t have enough surface water to cover groundwater withdrawals. Although the plan needs approval from the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board, the state engineer, and the state District 3 Water Court before it can be put into practice, it is likely that more strict water use rules will be put into effect if drought conditions continue and irrigation rates stay the same. 

The Rio Grande River, another local water source, originates in the San Juan Mountains and runs through the San Luis Valley. About 75% of its water is pulled for agriculture between Colorado and the Gulf of Mexico. The Rio Grande Compact between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas provides guidelines and legislation to manage water usage in the river, but despite all states being compliant the Rio Grande ran dry this summer for the first time in 40 years over a five-mile stretch in Albuquerque. While dry stretches of the river are common, they now happen earlier and further north than ever before. In addition to threatening the agriculture along its 1,885-mile path, these new dry stretches could be deadly to endangered species native to the river, like the silvery minnow. 

While an aerial view of the San Luis Valley shows thousands of green irrigated pivots with the meandering line of the Rio Grande winding through, to stand on the Valley floor in a dry spring wind feels almost apocalyptic—dust devils and tumbleweeds whip through the air, and dirt sticks to your face and stings your eyes. Some days visibility is so poor that you could drive for miles and barely be able to see the fields you’re passing or the stacks of hay that lean against the wind. A local farmer told me that, when they moved to the Valley 30 years ago, the water table was so high they had to build their root cellar above ground—dig a few feet into the earth and you’d hit water. Now, they say, that level has fallen more than 20 feet, but their above-ground root cellar still stands at the edge of their yard, a testament to the abundance of water that used to exist in the San Luis Valley.  

Increased costs for farmers to use their own wells will drive up the cost of their product accordingly. Farmers who can’t afford the higher water costs will be forced to grow more drought-resistant crops or leave their fields open, decreasing the hay supply and driving prices up further. Many farmers have also become more resourceful in finding ways to irrigate the same amount of land using less water, hence the switch from more traditional flood irrigation to pivot irrigation. Of course, nature plays a role as well—a few wet years and many of these concerns could lessen considerably. The factors that influence the hay market are always fluctuating, and water (or lack thereof) is just one of the many factors at play in the San Luis Valley.



Haley Ruffner is a Sales Broker for Aden Brook and an accomplished writer on the topic of horses.


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