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A Municipal Perspective on RWR's Export Plans

By Heather Brooks at City of Alamosa

Water users in the San Luis Valley know that the streams and aquifers of the Valley are over-appropriated. That means there is not enough water to satisfy the needs of existing water rights holders (communities and farmers), and that shortage is only growing worse.

The Valley has been in a period of persistent drought, which is a daunting problem to contend with on its own. When that is coupled with a scheme to export 22,000 acre feet per year out of the Valley, the drought problem is further magnified, and the unrecoverable economic devastation affecting all sectors of the valley, including municipalities, begins to set in.

With a population of just over 9,000, Alamosa joins over 15 other communities to provide services, education, and shopping for a rural valley of approximately 50,000 residents. Agriculture is the economic engine for not only Alamosa, but the entire San Luis Valley and is directly connected to every other economic sector. According to the State Demography Office, agriculture is Alamosa’s third largest economic driver and provides 16.5% of Alamosa’s economic activity. [1]

Agriculture plays at least twice the role in every other county in the Valley as it does in Alamosa, meaning that agriculture in the entire Valley significantly affects services. Simply put, if the agriculture industry is hurt, our communities will have fewer people purchasing goods and supplies. There will be less demand for professional services such as accounting and legal. There will be fewer customers for retail, restaurants, small businesses, etc. Locally-owned businesses will be hit hard and the ability of major employers to attract and retain employees will suffer. The crucial role that agriculture plays in the Valley economy and its impact on every single economic sector cannot be stressed enough.

The only way to make 22,000 acre feet of water available for export out of the Valley is to dry up enough Valley farm and ranch land to retire 22,000 acre feet per year of water that used to go to generating that agricultural economic activity. Farmers are already making self-imposed cuts to irrigated land to meet groundwater management plans managed by subdistricts of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the Conejos Water Conservancy District, and the Trinchera Water Conservancy District. Adding another 22,000 acre feet per year to those cuts will have a significant impact on agricultural production and in turn on the Valley’s economy.

Recognizing that the agricultural engine for the Valley lies outside our city boundaries, the City of Alamosa has become much more aggressive with water conservation in order to preserve the limited resource for agriculture while at the same time being able to sustain the municipal wells on which the City relies. The City has followed the lead of many communities in Colorado with water conservation education, water restrictions/schedules, and tiered water usage rates that become more expensive on a per gallon rate the more water is used. The City’s Water Smarts Committee has identified key public areas where xeriscape is more appropriate and rebate programs for fixtures. These measures have at times been controversial, but by and large Alamosa’s citizens have acknowledged that we must live within our means in an alpine desert.

Where the City has had to acquire senior water rights to replace stream depletions per state requirements, it has looked to do so in a way that will not adversely affect the surrounding agricultural productivity that sustains the community’s very existence.

The City partnered with the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (“RiGHT”) to work with Cactus Hill Farms along the Alamosa River to develop a lease intended to allow the City to replace depletions on the Alamosa River by diverting 5-10% of the farm’s irrigation water back to the river, and Cactus Hill to move the unirrigated acres around the farm, keeping their land healthy and productive. As Allen Law, Executive Director of RiGHT, stated, “Everyone involved brought so much creativity and energy to secure a balanced water future for the people of Alamosa, farmers and ranchers in Conejos County, and the Alamosa River. I hope that this project will serve as an inspiration and model for other land trusts, landowners, and water agencies as we continue to make progress on the goal to provide alternatives to agricultural ‘buy-and-dry’ in Colorado's Water Plan. [2]

Persistent drought is a challenge throughout Colorado and the intermountain west. Finding ways to address it that balances the needs of agriculture and growing municipal populations will only become more difficult as the climate continues to change. Alamosa hopes to continue to pursue creative and synergistic solutions to preserve the way of life its citizens cherish. Buy and dry is not among them. The RWR proposal would pull 22,000 acre feet of water out of the Valley every year to support growth in the front range at the determinant of every single community in the Valley.

[1] (2018 Base Industries plot)

[2] “Cactus Hill is a Win-Win-Win!”

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