Four Corners Public Radio | By Seth Boster/Denver Gazette

Published August 16, 2021 at 5:12 PM MDT

The Gazette/
Wildflowers line a trail along the Rio Grande, with Blanca Peak in the distance.

In the fields beyond Alamosa, it was a rare morning. Cleave Simpson found his hay damp.

“It’s frustrating when you got hay on the ground and there’s rain on it,” he said. “But when you live around here, you learn to appreciate it.”

Once again this summer, rain has been hard to come by in this historic farming valley of southern Colorado. The average annual precipitation in the middle of the San Luis Valley hovers around seven inches — about as low as it gets in all of Colorado, according to the Colorado Climate Center.

And yet farming prevails. It is the lifeblood of Alamosa, the town that rose from a once-bustling railroad and today is often passed by travelers en route to more flashy destinations on the Western Slope. Unlike other rural communities that have swapped mining or energy for tourism, the ruling industry here is and always has been agriculture.

“The hospital, the county and city offices and school district, all of those are important,” said Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman. “But farming and ranching, that’s it. That’s huge.”

It’s a legacy of resilience maintained by generations of families dating to the 1800s, when companies carved canals across this high desert to capture generous snowmelt from the mountains. Winters would be harsh and sudden freezes in the spring all too common, and summers would be hot and dry. But that runoff would provide. With grit and innovation, potato producers here would be nationally renowned.

Simpson represents his family’s fourth generation to tend the fields.

And often, he wonders if he’ll be the last. This is the modern plight of life along the Rio Grande River.

Simpson’s worries led him to seek and win his district’s Senate seat last year.

“The ag community here is feeling an abundance of pressure as electricity and fuel and seed and fertilizer and labor all continue to increase. What we get for our crops isn’t keeping up,” he said. “And then there’s this pressure about our demand for water exceeding our supply.”

That imbalance is almost as old as the state’s first water right that was decreed in this valley in 1852, where tribes and conquistadors clashed before the U.S. staked its territory. Narrow gauge tracks led the way to a central hub that would be called Alamosa, so named for a Spanish word meaning cottonwood, for the trees lining that life-giving river.

But by the turn of the 20th century, the Rio Grande was considered over-appropriated. Demand outpaced supply.

“So we’ve always lived in this area where there was this level of stress,” said Heather Dutton, manager of San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and fifth-generation native.

The difference, she said, is this century’s more dire circumstances.

Fundamental changes

A multi-agency report last year found average annual streamflows to be steadily declining since the 1930s, with drops worsening in the 2000s. Citing climate change, the report warned of that long trusted snowpack in the mountains becoming less dependable.

“Farmers and ranchers are likely to have significantly less surface water available,” researchers wrote, “and groundwater recharge may decline.”

Where Simpson’s and Dutton’s grandfathers and fathers didn’t have the Rio Grande to count on, they had groundwater. They joined drilling and pumping that ramped up in the ’30s. The shallow and “unconfined” aquifer and deeper “confined” aquifer, both remnants of an ancient lake, represented turning points for farming.

“But it was also a turning point for what my generation is now grappling with,” Dutton said, “where now we have too many wells, we have too much pumping, and we’re taking more out of the aquifer than we’re putting back in.”

The decades saw agreements for taking and giving back — for digging a hole, filling it with water and thus recharging the unconfined aquifer in hopes of making up for Mother Nature.

“By far, that’s where most of the groundwater withdrawals occur in the valley,” Simpson said. “The potatoes are grown and raised above that unconfined aquifer. Most of the intense irrigation is above that unconfined aquifer.”

Simpson manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which has tracked the aquifer’s storage since 1976. From the mid-’80s to today, charts show a staggering drop: a change amounting to about 1.3 million acre-feet of water.

The severe drought of 2002 started the steep trend of decline. Since then, there have been year-to-year gains of storage — eight years totaling 746,791 acre-feet. But there have been more years of drops, 10 totaling more than 1.7 million acre-feet. Lows this year are on par with record lows following the 2012 drought, data show.

The hope of Simpson and Dutton is to locally regulate before higher powers enforce harsher demands. The state has called on the valley to bring water back up to pre-2000 levels, or else face possible consequences of widespread shutdowns in 2030.

Simpson looks at the charts and struggles to see the line rising that high. “The clock’s ticking on us,” he said.

Farmers are taxing themselves to pump, with that money going to other farmers to pump less. Simpson and Dutton have been encouraging creativity, such as less water-needy crops like hemp and quinoa.

But they fear more drastic measures.

“There is a need to physically take land out of production,” Dutton said. “And it’s not like it’s just one person owns everything and we can just say, ‘Hey, can you cut back your farm by 30%?’ There are hundreds of families that farm and ranch here.

“And this is how they make their living, it’s in their blood, they want to do it, they’re proud of it. So trying to get people to cut back or stop farming altogether, it’s a study in psychology and human behavior. It’s really hard.”

And there are broader ramifications to consider when farms close, Simpson said. The well-being of his hometown is at stake when that happens, he said — Alamosa’s school, hospital and small businesses.

“The potential to fundamentally change this place, it’s there,” he said.

A river that binds

Alamosa is trying to change before it’s forced to. Leaders are looking to the river.

“The river is the thing that unites us,” Coleman said.

The Gazette
A biker rides the trail along the Rio Grande River near Alamosa.

Last year’s report on the Rio Grande described it as “a diverse river, starting in once-glaciated mountain valleys, spilling out onto a broad and ancient alluvial fan, and then following a rift in volcanic rock as it turns south into New Mexico.”

Equally diverse are the people the river meets on the basin floor. About half of Alamosa’s residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, many of them descendants of early settlers.

Upon his mayoral election in 2017, Coleman promised to proudly represent that diversity as a person of color. He was a newcomer in valley terms, a resident since 2010, who brought new enthusiasm to the poverty-stricken town. Coleman is known to end conversations by saying: “Don’t let anybody steal your joy.”

“The good thing about being an outsider, you can see things that people who haven’t been on the outside can’t see,” Coleman said.

Where others were taking it for granted, he saw the river as beautiful, an unrealized attraction and economic tool. His time in office has coincided with a collaboration called Revitalize the Rio, aiming to improve the stretch through town.

The mission is led by growing nonprofit San Luis Valley Great Outdoors. It’s personal for Patrick Ortiz. He represents the nonprofit and the young generation plagued by a crisis that has swept rural America, including Alamosa.

“The opioid crisis really took a big chunk,” Ortiz said. “It was a big loss of untapped talent and energy and just people power. And I think that’s what galvanized efforts like Revitalize the Rio.”

The goal is to get people to fall in love with the river and the parks and trails Ortiz is helping to build along the banks. “To put people on a path that is restorative and not destructive,” he said.

That well-being could be tied to the future well-being of the river.

Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project has been tasked with fixing outdated infrastructure and diversions, revegetating eroded banks and doing other work meant to improve flows. This is for the sake of fish, anglers, boaters and farmers, explained Emma Reesor, the project’s executive director — for the sake of improving efficiency when water does come from mountains or sky.

The work can be “overwhelming,” Reesor said. She’s seen the river’s record lows of the past decade; channels in and around Alamosa have been reduced to nothing at times. She’s seen climate projections suggesting conditions will worsen.

“It’s challenging, because in a lot of ways, we work where it is outside the control of,” she said, stopping to take a breath. “We’re trying to make the system work as hard as it can. Making every drop of water work as hard as it can.”

‘Fighting waters’

Coleman is hopeful, ever the optimist.

“Communities like Salida, where you have the river flowing through town and restaurants on the river?” he said. “Eventually, Alamosa will get to that point.”

But growth is a contentious topic in town.

“Pretty much everything comes down to water,” said Derek Heersink, whose family has farmed in the valley since 1897.

He is the next to carry on the tradition. But he also expanded his prospects; he and a buddy opened a brewery in 2017. The business wouldn’t mind more people around. Others would mind.

“I’d love to see the standard of living for the folks here improve dramatically, but I don’t know that I’d like to see more people or more industry,” Simpson said. “I don’t know how you find that balance.”

The balance he refers to is about water. It is all the more uncertain in the face of a multi-million-dollar idea to harvest the aquifer.

Backed by major real estate moguls, Renewable Water Resources has proposed dealing for water rights and exporting millions of gallons from the faltering supply to booming populations on the Front Range.

The company website dangles a promise to “enrich the local economy, bring more jobs to the area, support essential nonprofits and community groups, and improve the health of the area’s aquatic habits and wildlife.”

The local senator has contributed to the resounding “no” around the valley. “We’re not hugely prosperous, so it’s easy for big-money interests to come in and flash money,” Simpson said.

At least four times in 50 years, valley people have managed to ward off such developers — on some occasions combining funds to go to court. The message is clear, as one Alamosa city councilor recently put it: “Those are fighting waters.”

Colorado drought conditions still critical for Western Slope

But Heersink wonders if his people can keep winning.

“As long as more and more people keep going over (to the Front Range), and more and more money is going over there, it’s gonna continue to be a thing,” he said. “They’re always gonna be eyeing our water. I have a real feeling that within my lifetime, we’ll see at least some of the water end up over the hill.”

The feeling strikes Simpson during quiet moments on the farm. These have always been peaceful moments, almost meditative, coming with the satisfaction that comes with work that feels somehow sacred, deeply ingrained.

Now the moments come with worry.

“I wish I felt like my son had this really definitive, wonderful future in front of him by doing this, as well as my grandson,” Simpson said. “But you find yourself questioning: Is this really the right thing to do?”

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This story is part of an occasional series on the Colorado towns that live off of the lifeblood of the state’s rivers.

The story was written in partnership with the Denver Gazette, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.

Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.