Growers still grappling with shortage of water

09/14/2011 09:42:00 AM
Tara Schupner

Water availability continues to be a problem in the San Luis Valley, and the issue of water management this year reached the state’s highest court.

Water is critical for crops, but it’s expensive to provide in the San Luis Valley. Because the area receives little rainfall, it depends on melting snow and an underground aquifer for moisture.

“We have a huge aquifer, but we’ve been having a hard time keeping it at a sustainable level since 2002 because we’ve been pretty much in a drought condition,” said Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, Monte Vista.

Some growers have had a hard time keeping up with irrigating this season, Ehrlich said.

The area’s lack of snowfall kept aquifer levels low, and some growers haven’t been able to pump much water.

“We’re not getting the moisture we need to replace the underground water supplies,” said Steve Tillman, manager of grower-shipper Monte Vista Potato Grower Co-op Association, Monte Vista.

He said Monte Vista Potato’s growers typically irrigate, and there was some concern about the water levels this season. In late August, David Tonso, partner at Cañon Potato Co., Center, Colo., said some growers had not been watering as much as they’d like because they were trying to limit usage.

Bill Metz, owner of Metz Potato Co. LLC, Monte Vista, said that though the area was dry, he had not needed to irrigate the crops more than usual.

In a typical season, he irrigates about every 2 ½ to three days, and that’s what he’s been doing throughout this summer, he said.

In an effort to manage usage, some growers created the first water sub-district of the Rio Grande Conservation District to regulate pumping, but the issue of private water management is caught up in the state’s courts, Ehrlich said.

The sub-district created fees for growers based on the amount of water pumped. The intent was to incentivize growers to plant fewer acres.

Tillman said he thought the self-imposed fee was good because it allowed growers to maintain control rather than being subjected to state regulation.

This is the first year the sub-district has collected fees, but objections to its management plan have reached the state’s Supreme Court and have hamstrung its operation.

The Pueblo Chieftain reported in June that oral arguments might begin this fall.



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