Federal dollars flowing into Colorado to benefit irrigated ag
The San Luis Valley of Colorado is exceptionally dry this year. Sen. Cleave Simpson, a farmer himself, said the rivers peaked much earlier than usual. Simpson said he has an 1890 decree out of the Rio Grande River, one he said once could be used to irrigate until July 4 if his cards were played correctly. More recently, it could be used through mid-June to hopefully allow for his first cutting of hay to be on the ground. This year, though, he said it came out of priority on June 1.
Simpson, a Republican, said water is one of the topics that motivated him to run for office, knowing the topic is likely to become more and more problematic as the state grows and changes.
“The stakes are getting higher and higher every year,” he said.
In areas of the state that irrigate out of the Republican River, he said if a farm no longer has adequate irrigation water, it can often be transferred to a dryland farm with some expectation of a harvest. In the San Luis Valley, he said, a farm without irrigation water is returned to native vegetation without any crop production at all.
Simpson’s two most recent bills were signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis. Using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), SB22-028, the Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund, will devote $60 million to purchase well permits and retire irrigated acreage in both the Rio Grande and Republican River Basins.
Ideally, Simpson said he would rather see taxpayer dollars returned to citizens, but, if the funds are to be spent via legislation, he is pleased to see them accessed for the benefit of agriculture.
The discussion between Senators Simpson and Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) began before the conclusion of the 2021 session, knowing there would be ARPA dollars flowing into the state.
“Could we potentially access those dollars to help the two basins in this state that have groundwater obligations that have a state centric to them- the Republican and its compact compliance issues with Kansas and Nebraska that require a reduction in groundwater withdrawals,” he said. “Likewise in the Rio Grande basin here in the San Luis Valley, by statute we are required- very unique to the rest of the state- to create and maintain sustainable aquifer systems.”
Of the two aquifers in the San Luis Valley, one is shallow and unconfined, and another deeper and confined. Unlike the Ogallala Aquifer, he said the aquifers in the San Luis Valley respond well to both less pumping and more manmade and natural recharge.
“We’re well positioned to really have an impact here if we can either reduce the amount of pumping withdrawals, or increase the recharge,” he said. “The money was the compliment of the efforts of both these river conservation districts- the Rio Grande and the Republican- to advance programs and objectives they’ve been pursuing for the better part of a decade.”
Over the past 10 years, he said his community in the San Luis Valley has invested $70 million to create and maintain a successful aquifer system with no assistance from Mother Nature in the form of runoff. The consequence of failing to comply with the decree with regard to the aquifer maintenance is potentially the State Engineer shutting down, in this instance, 3,000 wells and 170,000 groundwater irrigated acres. The idea is not to put irrigated farmers out of business, but to maintain the aquifers to ensure irrigated farming production in the area for years to come.
Conservation district efforts to meet the decree over the past decade have included accessing fees to members, temporary fallow programs, incentivized conservation, and green manure crops tilled into the soil.
The local efforts, he said, are working with the lowest groundwater withdrawals in 2021 in the subdistrict since metering began in 2009. The change, he said, is the decrease from 300,000 acre feet to 200,000 acre feet. It is a monumental task, he said, so when the window of opportunity for federal dollars opened, he didn’t want agriculture to be left high and dry.
The funds under the management of the conservation districts in both basins could be used to purchase groundwater rights from a producer, placing it in a conservation program and suspending the withdrawals. It could be purchasing a farm with surface and ground water, retiring the groundwater withdrawals, and utilizing the surface water for recharge to accelerate the recovery of the aquifer. All of the actions, he said, are with the intent of maintaining the aquifer and are done
“Tapping these funds gives producers an alternative because there is an effort here to buy those groundwater rights and pump them out of here and deliver them to the Front Range,” he said. “This affords an alternative. It will mean fewer irrigated acres in this Valley but the reality is we’re out of balance given the last 20 years. Our demand continues to exceed the supply.”
There is room, he said, for continued irrigation efficiency and the potential for less water consumptive crops.
“If Mother Nature doesn’t help us, without a doubt in my mind, there is some amount of production agriculture here that either won’t have a full water supply so it’ll be fallowed, or it’ll be less productive,” he said.
Among other crops, Simpson grows alfalfa, a crop he said he could likely continue to produce but is only profitable at a certain production level. Below that, profitability drives decisions.
This investment in water conservation is about $80 million total, a level he said he told the Governor is approaching what the state should be investing annually. This investment, he said, should serve as a shot in the arm for both basins to be in compliance.
HB 22-1316, The Colorado Water Conservation Board Construction Fund Project is Simpson’s other related bill, that will allow conservation districts to award dollars, mostly to fund ongoing water projects.
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