Sen. Bennet gathers, shares information during Valley visit

Photo by Priscilla Waggoner Senator Michael Bennet (left) talks water and crop rotation with Tyler Mitchell while standing in a field of rye grown on Mitchell Family Farms outside of Monte Vista.

ALAMOSA — While on a two-day information gathering visit to the San Luis Valley last week, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet engaged in conversations that took place in three different counties about issues that span the scope of 170 years or more.

Even in the midst of a packed itinerary, Bennet made time to step aside for a one-to-one conversation with the Valley Courier to share information about his priorities for the farm bill that he’s in the midst of negotiating in present time.

The visit concluded with a bike ride along the levee while discussing progress on the proposed pedestrian bridge with staff from Alamosa’s Parks and Recreation Department, Development Services Department, city manager, and SLV Go! Executive Director Mick Daniel. Sen. Bennet was instrumental in the city being awarded the RAISE grant that delivered more than $4.7 million to the project.

First on the agenda was a conversation with Tyler Mitchell of Mitchell Family Farms in Monte Vista where he and Sen. Bennet focused on — of course — water and water reduction strategies in the face of increasing challenges of growing potatoes in a region that, outside of a few “wet years”, has been in a persistent drought since 2002 with even greater water scarcity predicted for the future.  

Standing next to a verdant field of Reveille russets, Mitchell briefed Bennet on the advantages of the potato which came out of the Texas A&M potato breeding program and is known for maturing earlier, which translates into a shorter growing season, and being more tolerant of drastic weather conditions. Mitchell took out his phone and showed Bennet the sophisticated, high-tech irrigation system in use on Mitchell’s farm that can measure levels of moisture in the soil below the surface.

Bennet’s bill, the “Voluntary Groundwater Easement Program”, also came up in the conversation. Sponsored by Bennet and Senators Moran (R-Kan.) and Heinrich (D-N.M.), the bill creates a workable path going forward for farmers who want to be fairly compensated for permanently reducing their water use while maintaining the freedom to farm, if they conserve the amount of water they have committed to reduce each year.

The location for the conversation was more than appropriate. The legislation introduced in July of this year has its roots in the Valley — and Mitchell’s farm, in specific — as that is where the idea was born as part of a roundtable discussion on Bennet’s last visit.

The timing was also spot on as Congress is writing the new farm bill this year.

With an eye on potential events in the future that could require a large-scale emergency response, Gigi Dennis, city manager of Monte Vista, took Senator Bennet on a tour of the Ski-Hi Complex where she gave him a first-hand look at how the flexibility in the facility’s design allows for it to be used as an emergency shelter.

Thanks in large part to the $838,000 that Bennet was key in being awarded to Monte Vista, along with almost $270,000 in grants and donations obtained from other sources, Ski-Hi will be equipped with a generator, four showers and 15 parking spots for RVs to support and supplement the services that can be provided to those needing shelter inside the facility.

Bennet also got a feeling for the SLV Fair, including the chance to watch a sorting competition, as the fair was in progress at the time.

Senator Bennet and staff also spent a half day in the southern part of the Valley which included a visit with members and supporters of S.P.M.D.T.U. at their headquarters in Antonito.

Dr. Antonio Esquibel, a noted educator and leader well versed in the history of the Hispanic civil rights organization, gave Bennet an overview of the group’s history and involvement in the landmark school desegregation case locally known as “the Maestas case.”  Bennet was already familiar with many aspects of the case, as he is familiar with Dr. Esquibel who was a principal in the Denver Public Schools while Bennet served as DPS superintendent.

As a result of significant efforts by the Maestas Committee, the case is now referenced in the state’s Social Studies Standards passed by the Colorado State Board of Education in 2022. Senator Bennet is also taking steps to elevate awareness of the case to the national level.

Earlier this year, Senator Bennet included in the Congressional Record an acknowledgment of the historic importance of the Maestas case and the role that the S.P.M.D.T.U. played in supporting the Maestas family and the lawsuit.

Known for an avid, lifelong interest in history, Bennet also went to the neighboring town of Conejos where he visited the historic site of the Lafayette Head Home and Ute Indian Agency, a place steeped in Colorado history that is listed as one of Colorado’s most endangered places. Local historian, Loretta Miston of Manassa, provided the senator, his staff and others who had accompanied him with a detailed description of the events and people that played a large role in the location’s historic significance dating back to 1855.

That was followed by a visit to the nearby Garcia house, another yet to be restored and preserved treasure of the San Luis Valley, where Michael Garcia told the story of the house that was populated by his family and the role his grandfather played in the region, who was not only a peer of Lafayette Head but also the first man who brought the first settlers to the Valley.

As he shared with those he spoke to while in Conejos County and elsewhere, Senator Bennet will continue to work in Washington to support efforts to preserve Southern Colorado’s history, including by supporting funding for National Heritage Areas.

The San Luis Valley has a myriad of attractions that draw people to the region but, today, much of the economy continues to be driven by agriculture. With that in mind, Senator Bennet shared with the Valley Courier a few thoughts on the upcoming farm bill.

“The farm bill should reflect the needs of farmers and ranchers,” Bennet said simply, and his priorities for the bill are closely aligned with theirs. Provisions for improving soil health, funding for incentives and tools that support producers in their efforts in conservation, working with potato farmers to develop policies that support them in strategies to reduce water consumption while continuing to produce.

As he has said before both on and off the campaign trail, efforts to mitigate the impact of a changing climate cannot succeed without engaging agriculture.

“We can’t balance water problems on the back of agriculture,” he told the Valley Courier. “We have to adopt policies that work and are adapted to the realities of the 21st century.” 

Bennet was also asked about members of the House Republicans’ Freedom Caucus who are currently tying passage of the Agriculture Appropriations bill to deep cuts in nutrition programs and work requirements for receiving SNAP benefits. While he did not address those demands specifically, Bennet said, “Nutrition requirements have become even more important after COVID.” In terms of holding up passage of the Ag bill until those demands from the Freedom Caucus are met, Bennet just smiled and said, “I’m confident two appropriations bills will be passed — Defense and Agriculture.”

When asked about the potential of the federal government stepping into an oversight role related to water rights, Bennet dismissed the notion.

“I don’t think the federal government should be managing water. It’s too complicated. It can’t be done.” Instead, he says, the focus should be on building consensus as a backstop to dealing with water issues that arise.