Our Water Matters

Last month, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) introduced the bipartisan Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act “to give family farmers and ranchers the flexibility they need to protect groundwater sources while keeping their agricultural lands in production,” according to a press release. The legislation seeks to “create a new Groundwater Conservation Easement Program at USDA to encourage voluntary, compensated reductions in groundwater consumption on agricultural land and advance local, regional, or state groundwater management goals” and “guarantee long-term management flexibility for a producer to continue farming and choose how they reduce their water use, as long as they conserve the amount they’ve committed to reducing each year.”

“Colorado’s family farmers and ranchers face a future that’s going to be a lot hotter and a lot drier — and they need us to ensure USDA’s conservation programs live up to their potential,” said Bennet. “Building off the work of Coloradans in the San Luis Valley who first used voluntary easements to support groundwater conservation to sustain the local agricultural economy and wildlife habitat, this legislation creates a new tool for farmers to voluntarily reduce their groundwater use and continue to farm.”

The San Luis Valley in Colorado is the nation’s second-largest potato growing region and also produces beer barley and alfalfa. The valley receives less than eight inches of precipitation annually and farmers have been heavily dependent on the valley’s two aquifers since the early 20th century. According to “Groundwater Conservation Easements for Aquifer Recovery in the San Luis Valley,” a report by Colorado Open Lands, “By 1972, there were thousands of wells in the San Luis Valley and the State Engineer announced a moratorium on the issuance of well permits for new groundwater appropriations.”

Heavy pumping continued in the ensuing decades, and it wasn’t until severe droughts in 2002 and 2018 that the critical condition of the valley’s aquifers and the associated “injurious depletion to senior surface water rights holders” came to the attention of Colorado lawmakers. In response, legislation was passed requiring the aquifers to be returned to sustainable production levels. According to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, aquifer sustainability occurs when “withdrawals from the aquifer match recharge to the aquifer from all sources so that mining of the aquifer is not occurring on a long-term basis.” Rather than face the shutdown of wells by the state engineer, which would have disastrous impacts on the regional economy and actually reduce the amount of water available to wildlife through the irrigated wetlands and meadows used for water delivery to crops, several groundwater subdistricts were formed in the area to sexplore voluntary efforts to achieve sustainability.

In collaboration with Colorado Open Lands and the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, a feasibility study was initiated to understand “how traditional land conservation tools could be applied to groundwater pumping,” according to the Colorado Open Lands report. “Research and expert interviews with groundwater managers in overdrafted basins in Nebraska and California revealed the functionality of conservation easements when applied to groundwater.” Such easements “are eligible for unique funding sources — including state and federal tax benefits — and represent perpetual groundwater conservation … while maintaining community vitality.”

Conservation easements are legal agreements between landowners and land trusts that restrict certain uses of a property. Benefits to landowners include “the partial purchase of a conservation easement (cash payment) and the donated value of the easement (tax benefits).” These easements address aquifer depletion by limiting groundwater pumping, which enables producers to know what amount of water they are working with and choose how to use it on their property; this further incentivizes landowners to switch crops and update irrigation technology to more flexibly apply their reduced groundwater allotment. These easements also provide groundwater subdistricts with an enforcement mechanism (well meters) to reduce uncertainty and achieve the goal of leaving water in the aquifers to increase groundwater levels, thus avoiding the blunt instrument of state intervention and/or the total depletion of the aquifers.

“Groundwater easements offer an innovative approach to addressing the West’s increasingly critical groundwater shortages,” according to Lesli Allison, chief executive officer of the Western Landowners Alliance. “We appreciate that they are voluntary, flexible, compensated and durable. These are the kinds of tools needed to sustain the working lands and natural resources on which we all depend.” 

Visit coloradoopenlands.org to learn more.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He is also chairman of the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee and president of the Marfa Parks and Recreation Board. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]