To help refill two struggling underground aquifers, Colorado lawmakers set aside $60 million to retire irrigation wells and acres of farmland

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
The Rio Grande River weaves through the San Luis Valley on March 11, 2022.

Colorado lawmakers unanimously voted to set aside $60 million of federal COVID relief money to create a fund to help water users in two river basins meet groundwater sustainability targets.

If signed by Gov. Jared Polis, the legislation would create a groundwater compact compliance and sustainability fund administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The money would be used to buy and retire groundwater wells used to irrigate farmland in the Rio Grande River basin in the south and the Republican River basin in the east to keep the water in underground aquifers that are struggling to keep up with drought and overuse.

Farmers and ranchers in both river basins face rapidly approaching deadlines to reduce their water use, which are necessary to maintain interstate river agreements and preserve underground water supplies. If these goals aren’t met, state water officials say there could be alarming consequences — and thousands of well users could face water cuts.

In the San Luis Valley, the state water engineer is requiring some groundwater well users to limit pumping because too many wells are all pulling from the same groundwater source. Chris Ivers, the program manager for two subdistricts in the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said farmers and ranchers have levied property taxes on themselves to fund similar local efforts to meet groundwater sustainability goals.

“It’s very hard on the local economy and local producers,” Ivers said. “Any outside funds we can leverage to help get there reduces the burden on these individuals who are paying these fees.”

Ivers said that $30 million earmarked for the San Luis Valley to help with those efforts is a “huge step in the right direction for us.” 

That extra funding might also help the region compete with a private company that wants to pump water from the San Luis Valley and sell it to quickly growing Douglas County. The county, south of Denver, relies on an underground aquifer that is drying up. Commissioners are expected to vote soon on the proposal to move forward with Renewable Water Resources, a company backed by Denver developers and former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens. 

The company wants to spend millions, including some of the county’s federal COVID relief funding, to buy the water.