Letter to the Editor: Sub-district fee increase putting farmers out of business

We are writing this letter to oppose Subdistrict 1’s rate hike from $75 to $90 per acre foot of water and the subdistrict’s surface water credit program. Although water has always been a contentious topic among farmers and ranchers of the west, it is likely that not all of your readership understands the implications of this tax hike and credit program.

To give a little background to this situation, the drought conditions which our area is currently facing is having serious implications to the farmers and ranchers of the valley and therefore to the whole economy of this region. As a way to preserve the aquifer of the San Luis Valley during this prolonged drought, the state mandated that the water table of the valley must be increased to a specific level or they will begin shutting off agricultural wells.

In response to these threats, the valley farmers have banded together and created subdistricts which are supposed to use a self-governing model to control pumping of the aquafer. Ultimately, the stated goal of these subdistricts was to tax water usage and use that money to either lease and fallow or purchase and abandon marginal land. In 2011, the initial water tax for subdistrict 1 was $45 per acre foot, which increased the cost of producing a circle of potatoes by about $10,000. A few years later they raised the tax to $75 per acre foot, which equates to about $18,000 per circle. Earlier this month they again voted to raise the water tax to $90 per acre foot, which will cost farmers about $21,000 in water per circle of potatoes. Obviously, these taxes are not making it rain or increasing our snow-pack or enhancing our aquafer; they are only damaging the profitability of our valley’s economy.

Further, we believe that the board members of subdistrict 1 have veered far from their mission of protecting the aquifer; as is common in most bureaucratic models, greed has taken a front seat. Subdistrict 1 is the only subdistrict that allows surface (river) water rights to credit against pumped water. As a result, some farmers have purchased enough water credits to offset all of their pumping expenses, thus eliminating their need to curtail their water usage. In essence, the subdistrict could increase the water tax to $1 million an acre foot and these farmers would not pay a penny as they pump the valley dry! Even more, many of these farmers are the board members of subdistrict 1 who are voting in favor of the water tax hikes.

This has created predatory farming practices where farmers in subdistrict 1 are no longer working cooperatively but view their “neighbors” as competitors and these tax hikes are just strategic maneuvers toward putting their neighbors out of business. Subdistrict 1 seems to have become the latest episode of “Survivor.”

The reason we bring this issue before your readership is because these actions have a significant consequence to the communities of the San Luis Valley. Because agriculture is the foundation of our economy, it is one of the only industries that brings money into this valley. Ultimately, each farmer that is put out of business equates to the loss of many local jobs. If these water hogs reach their goal of taking 1/3 of the valley’s farm ground out of production to augment their excessive water usage, 1/3 of our economy will be lost. So, look around, imagine 1/3 of the businesses in town shut down, imagine 1/3 of your neighbors’ homes empty. Which of your friends will move away? Which of our businesses will stay? Will Adams State still be here? Land prices will plummet and schools will close.

Further, the impact of this water tax is already evident in our community. Consider the businesses that this valley has lost in the past seven years: Gemfire Diamonds, Bervig’s True Value, Lockhart’s Furniture. Businesses that were once pillars of our community are now gone leaving behind vacant buildings.

The impact of these taxes is especially evident in our neighborhood. In the past seven years, since these taxes have been in place, our neighborhood of farms has gone from being 100% locally owned by generational farmers, to a significant percentage of the land being sold to out of state investors. In one year alone, we watched three large family farms be sold to investment firms from across the nation.

These facts, coupled with the successors of Gary Boyce renewing their push to sell San Luis Valley water to the front range (remember the AWDI campaign), this valley’s future is at stake. With an increasing amount of land being sold to foreign investors, who will be left to fight for our water? We are on the same trajectory as the Arkansas Valley who in the early 2000’s sold their water to Pueblo. This act left towns such as Rocky Ford and La Junta, once centers of commerce, now ghost towns and sites of poverty, drugs, and neglect.

Therefore, we encourage your readership to get involved because this water issue affects everyone! Yes, we are in a drought, but the answer to weathering this lack of storms is to be innovative, not competitive; when we attempt to destroy our neighbors, we only destroy ourselves! Therefore, we encourage other farmers to continue to be innovative with their conservation practices and to push for the removal of surface credits for subdistrict 1 as a way of balancing the playing field. After all, TAXING FARMERS DOES NOT MAKE IT RAIN!

Ultimately, we believe that the answer to this drought is clearly found in scripture: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 4:14 NIV). If we do not remove the greed behind the management of the valley’s water, our beautiful home will literally dry up and blow away!

The Bartee Ranch


More In Opinion