Bennet, Heinrich, and Morrison introduce bill to create a new tool for producers in combatting drought

Simpson: ‘It's in alignment with what we've been working on’

ALAMOSA — Earlier this week, Senator Michael Bennet partnered with Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and their Republican colleague Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas in introducing bipartisan legislation, the Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act that gives family farmers and ranchers the flexibility to protect groundwater sources now and into the future while also keeping their agricultural lands in production.

Of all those whose job it is to monitor the impact of a climate that is growing increasingly hotter and drier, farmers and ranchers in the West are at the top. Most of the producers in the San Luis Valley have been decades ahead of their time in focusing on declining levels of water in the Valley’s aquifers and creating practices to manage it to sustainability.

A myriad of programs and practices have been put into place such as regenerative farming, concentrated efforts on improving soil health and, most noteworthy, the formation of subdistricts where producers agree to pay a fee for pumping water that their fathers and grandfathers pumped for free. In the case of Subdistrict No. 1, producers pay a hefty fee for pumping more water out of the aquifer than they put back in.

State and federal programs have also been put into place to incentivize the conservation of water, such as the Conservation Resource Enhance Program (CREP) where, for a period that’s typically 10 to 15 years long, farmers and ranchers voluntarily agree to take land out of production and revegetate in exchange for an annual rental payment along with other state and federal incentives outlined in the agreement. State Senator Cleave Simpson also managed to get passed — by unanimous vote — SB22-028 which allocated about $30 million of state funding to incentivize farmers in the San Luis Valley to sell their water rights and retire acreage from farming, another step in long-term conservation of groundwater to replenish the Valley’s aquifers.

But those in agriculture who wish to take permanent steps to reduce groundwater usage have, in some cases, been reluctant to do so, sometimes because of the economic impact it would have on their families and sometimes because it meant they could no longer farm or ranch on land that had been in their family for generations.

The Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act provides the path to accomplish both things — a financial incentive to permanently reduce dependence upon groundwater and help to assure the future of agriculture in the San Luis Valley in the future while also continuing to farm.  

The legislation creates a new voluntary groundwater easement program at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) within the Agricultural Conservation Easements Program (ACEP).

Each year, ACEP receives $450 million in mandatory funding through USDA and benefits from the additional $20 billionfor conservation programs that Bennet fought to include in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Passage of the legislation would give the voluntary groundwater easement program access to that funding and ensure that farmers are fairly compensated using a payment based on the market value for the water right instead of a per-acre payment.

The easement program proposed at the federal level is modeled after the first-ever groundwater conservation easement in the nation that was signed into effect in the San Luis Valley in December of 2022.

Crafted by Colorado Open Lands with extensive input from the Rio Grande Headwaters Conservation Trust, state engineer Craig Cotton, Simpson and others, the agreement was signed with Gail and Ron Bowman, owners of the 1800-acre Peachwood Farms in the San Luis Valley.

In that instance, Colorado Open Lands secured over $7 million in funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to fund groundwater focused conservation easements, together with new management practices to support reduced water use.

Sally Weir, Colorado Open Lands Groundwater Conservation Project Manager for the San Luis Valley, emphasizes the importance of flexibility in the easement.

“Most producers are already working very hard on their water conservation efforts,” Weir said. “The bill guarantees long-term management flexibility for a producer to continue farming. They choose how they reduce their water use, as long asthey conserve the amount they’ve committed to reducing each year. That’s the biggest aspect of this bill. Instead of dry-up and fallow, this focuses on reduction of water use and flexibility in how that’s accomplished.”

Sen. Simpson has expressed his support for the bill, stating, “It’s in alignment with what we have been working on. Reducing our dependence on groundwater.” He further describes it as a permanent solution to manage water shortages that “gives farmers and ranchers more options for making money off their water rights but keeping the water in the Valley.”

“Conservation easements are a trusted permanent tool to protect farm and ranch land to secure our food production and rural economies for future generations. It was through discussions with Colorado irrigators and water managers that the idea emerged to apply this tool to support aquifer recovery. We applaud Senator Bennet for working toward solutions that keep working lands in working hands to the benefit of local economies and ecology while recognizing the urgency of our declining groundwater aquifers,” said Sarah Parmar, Conservation Director, Colorado Open Lands.

“As a farmer and rancher in the San Luis Valley, I have seen firsthand the need for flexible and voluntary funding tools for farmers to conserve water while still being able to farm. This groundwater easement tool will allow farmers to be compensated for water reductions without having to completely retire acreage, ensuring the viability of agriculture and rural communities into the future,” said James Henderson, a La Jara farmer and rancher and Vice President, Colorado Farm Bureau.