2021: Pumping numbers at an all-time low in Subdistrict 1

ALAMOSA — News about the pumping numbers from 2021 — news that Marisa Fricke, Program Manager for Subdistrict No. 1, describes as “amazing” — were announced last week. But to understand the huge significance in what those numbers mean, a little context is necessary for those unfamiliar with the complexities of agriculture.

Farmers and ranchers in Subdistrict No. 1, that is the area that relies on water from the shallowest part of the aquifer that is closest to ground level, carry a very heavy load. Not only is agriculture the single largest driver of the economy throughout the San Luis Valley, but farmers and ranchers are under increasing stress to do what they have been doing for — in some cases — three and four generations, if not longer.

The drought plaguing the San Luis Valley is now more than 20 years long. Years of low snowpack used to be an anomaly, but climate change is shaping up to where low snowpack is becoming the norm. Soil that is dry and thirsty is soaking up much-needed moisture before it can make it to rivers and streams. Input costs are higher than ever with no guarantee of return as unpredictable market prices can swing from high to low and, sometimes, lower due to factors far beyond the control of those growing the crops and raising the livestock. And, of course, a decree requires the unconfined aquifer — the lifeblood of agriculture in Subdistrict No. 1 — must be restored to 2006 levels by 2031.

A heavy load is almost an understatement.

Yet, despite all the pressures and stressors and factors that would make even the most optimistic producer want to throw in the towel, farmers and ranchers continue. And sometimes, like this time, they do even more than that.

“This year,” Fricke announced, “Subdistrict No. 1 voluntarily reduced their pumping by 17%. As meter readings were calculated, groundwater reductions were seen across the subdistrict.

“In 2020, 246,000-acre feet were pumped out of the unconfined aquifer. This year, approximately 203,000-acre feet were withdrawn. 2020 and 2021 were similar in terms of precipitation. A united effort achieved this impressive cut back in water usage.” 

In a dry year following a dry year, farmers and ranchers voluntarily reduced the amount of water they drew from the aquifer by close to a fifth of what they had drawn in the previous, equally dry year.

And it wasn’t just one farmer or rancher that accomplished this on their own. Despite fierce climatic conditions, escalating input costs and a declining aquifer, a “united” and collective effort was made across the subdistrict, which includes all of Alamosa County as well as parts of Rio Grande and Saguache.

“A variety of efforts were utilized to accomplish this reduction in groundwater,” Fricke says. “More cover crops were planted, less acres were planted, and there is an ever so heightened awareness that reduction in pumping has to continue.”

The bounty of the season is upon us and now, perhaps more than ever, it is time to thank the farmers and ranchers who, in the face of a myriad of uncontrollable factors, continue to help the San Luis Valley prosper. 

“The San Luis Valley agriculture community continues to rise to the challenges and make sacrifices while continuing to grow food for our tables,” Fricke says. “For this, we are thankful.”

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