This article was originally published in Edible Santa Fe Issue 32, Early Summer. You can find the original article at www.ediblesantafe.com. You can also read the article here.
On a crystal clear March day, Brendon Rockey palms a handful of soil from his family potato farm near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. The sandy loam still holds moisture from the last snow, though the spring sun has melted all but the highest snowpack on the surrounding Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains. Center pivots stand dormant, dotting Colorado’s San Luis Valley as they wait for the irrigation season to begin.
My colleague Daniel Fullmer and I are visiting Rockey for two projects with the National Young Farmers Coalition highlighting farmers and ranchers who build water resiliency through efficiency improvements and conservation. With five hundred acres under production, Brendon is considered small-scale for this valley, but he and his brother Sheldon, who together own and operate Rockey Farms, are among those leading the way out of a looming crisis.
Seven years ago, drought in the valley hit a new extreme. The shallow aquifer had dropped so low that many wells started spewing air. To save water, Rockey began rotating his potato crop with a cover crop, using only one quarter of the water previously used for his barley rotation. The next season his potato yields were up, his pumping costs down and the quality of his produce had nearby growers scratching their heads. Few expect this kind of success in the grips of drought.
What Rockey faces in the San Luis Valley is a marker of what is to come—or what is already here—for many agricultural regions around the West. Both surface and ground water are under unprecedented pressure as population increases and climate variability challenges the status quo. The key to Rockey’s success is the same ever-so-slight tweak of the prevailing agricultural paradigm that growers in the local foods movement also hold at their roots: instead of growing solely for yield, he focuses first on rebuilding the soil, the foundation of his enterprise. In reconnecting the farm to its ecology what began as scarcity now sprouts abundance. Through holistic thinking across agricultural sectors we can overcome the new problems facing western water—and the food it grows.
West of the Continental Divide runs a river named for the rich rusty sediment it carries toward the Sea of Cortez. This river feeds the nation, connecting all of us if not through the water in our taps, then by the food we eat. This river, the Colorado, irrigates nearly one fifth of our nation’s produce. From four-star restaurants in New York City to taco trucks in Austin from diners in Denver to grocery stores everywhere, the Colorado River runs through it. Wherever you are there is probably Colorado River water in your diet.
But, like the Rio Grande, the waters of the Colorado dwindle. Oft considered one of the most managed rivers in the world, the Colorado is piped, pumped, stored, diverted, litigated and legislated to meet the needs of over forty million people in the US and Mexico. It irrigates approximately five million acres of cropland in seven US states, including New Mexico where, in addition to irrigation, the Colorado supplements municipal water in and around Albuquerque and Santa Fe. But the Land of Enchantment feels the same strains reverberating through the rest of the system. Nearly a century ago the Colorado was divvied up in a time of unusually high flows we have yet to see again. Now we are tasked with reconciling the gap between what we have on paper and what the river channels and reservoirs actually hold.
What does this mean for agriculture in the West? Until recently, it meant water wars and, somewhat more civilly, “buy-and-dry” scenarios where thirsty cities purchase coveted agricultural water rights without mitigation, often leaving rural communities bone dry. But today, though buy-and-dry has not disappeared, new paths emerge. Once-unusual bedfellows such as farmers and conservationists look for ways to work together. They are developing alternatives to buy-and-dry, such as the Colorado River water bank, which would provide producers with revenue from voluntary, temporary leases of water that could be used to meet critical needs in times of shortage without sacrificing their operations. Groups like the Santa Fe-based Quivira Coalition have long brought together diverse constituents to restore ecological health and agricultural vitality.
The sun follows us back as Daniel and I drive west over the Continental Divide. I think of how farmers like Rockey and others on the ground need to be at the helm of what to do about water—they see the nuance, feel the shocks, and are the first pressed to adapt. But city dwellers can, and must step up, too. We can participate in conservation rebate programs, xeriscape our lawns, install low-flush toilets; we can take kids down rivers and let them get their hands dirty on farms to instill in them the value of soil and water; we can talk with people who are different from us and engage our political leaders; we can show up at the table, and do so with more questions than answers. We can either let drought buckle us at the knees or spark in us creativity and collaboration.
Though we may feel parched by aridity, the deeper we look the more we can define ourselves by abundance. We have the brainpower and the innovation; we have young people ready to tend the soil; and we have communities joining them in stewardship. Rivers like the Colorado can meet the needs of the many. Farmers can enhance the agriculture dependent on those waters as we collectively work to meet the new challenges knocking at our door. Our relationships and resilience are our abundance. In the West, we are all bound by water.
The National Young Farmers Coalition is conducting extensive outreach to gain producer input for a fall farm tour on water resiliency in the Colorado River Basin with our project partner Family Farm Alliance. In addition, with the help of our trusty team of western staff, NYFC is producing a series of farmer profiles and guest blogs sharing stories of water resiliency on farms big and small. We plan to take the stories and producers from both projects to our legislators as we continue to advocate for the melding of agricultural viability and ecological health. To share your own water story or sign our pledge for conservation visit farmersforCORiver.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on what NYFC is up to check out youngfarmers.org.
Kate Greenberg is the Western Organizer for the National Young Farmers Coalition. She lives in Durango, Colo.