In the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado, agriculture has been the area’s dominant industry for over 100 years. In a place that is home to the Great Sand Dune National Park, and surrounded by the towering San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the landscape–as well as the altitude (7600′)–are enough to take your breath away.
For an area that only receives 7 inches of rainfall per year, the San Luis Valley is quite productive. Potatoes, alfalfa, native hay, barley, and wheat are the most commonly grown crops, as well as spinach, lettuce, and carrots. Ninety-percent of the potatoes grown in Colorado come from this area. The high altitude allows for nights to be cold, but the southern latitude offers warm temperatures during the day, which produces a healthy potato crop.
Farmers allocate water from two sources. Smaller farmers use surface water which is diverted from rivers, while the larger agricultural operations pump groundwater from wells.
The surface water which small farms rely on is seasonal and almost entirely dependent on spring runoff from alpine snowpack. Smaller farms depend on a Moorish method of farming that has been used in this area for 400 years. The Moors were a group of people living in the North African Maghreb hundreds of years ago. The Maghreb in a very arid area of the world, and the Moors learned how to make use of the sparse amounts of water they had. The farmers in the San Luis Valley use Moorish water sharing techniques to ensure that even small farmers receive water during tough times. Water is diverted from streams by into smaller ditches, which are regulated by a steward. This steward determines how much water each farmer is allowed to receive depending on the weather conditions during the season.
Commercial agriculture uses groundwater which is pumped up by wells. There are currently around 6000 wells in the Valley, with 2700 center pivots for irrigation. The massive amount of groundwater pumping has severely depleted the aquifer–by 1 million acre-feet since 1976.
Beginning in 2012, farmers were required to reduce their water usage by a collective 30,000 acre-feet each year. This regulation is part of a district wide program that was created in 2006 with a goal of reducing water use in the area. The San Luis Water Conserving District realized that current business as usual operations were going to wipe out the agricultural industry in the area. Along with reducing water usage collectively, the District has increased the price of water from $45 to $75 per acre-foot, as well as created tentative goals in fallowing of cropland to preserve water resources. By 2021, 40,000 acres of cropland are to be set aside to allow for the land and water table to heal.
Farmers in the San Luis Valley understand that agriculture has been done in an unsustainable manor, and they must obey these regulations in order to preserve the future of agriculture in the area. The San Luis Valley farmers see what has happened in the similarly arid climate of the Central Valley in California and know that the consequences of water mismanagement are dire. For decades agriculture in has been over appropriated in the San Luis Valley, but returning agriculture to how it naturally should be in the area is a major key towards sustainable growing.