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A Colorado farmer makes a sacrifice to keep neighboring farms up and running

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A Colorado farmer is being paid not to water his crops. He's doing that for the benefit of neighboring farms. A conservation group says an underground aquifer just doesn't have enough water. And the answer to that problem may be a model for other places. Here's Michael Elizabeth Sakas of Colorado Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS, BYLINE: A line of grain silos overlook a 150-year-old farm next to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado. Sarah Parmar is with Colorado Open Lands, a conservation group. She recounts the tour the farmer gave her last summer.

SARAH PARMAR: He had a mix of peas and oats that he was growing, and they were up to his waist.

SAKAS: Now these 1,800 acres are dry. Usually, the farmer pumps water up from the ground to grow his crop. Instead, he's working with Parmar on a deal to get paid to not use that water to keep other farms in operation. The farmer, who wanted to stay anonymous, has agreed to a groundwater conservation easement. Palmer believes it might be the first of its kind in the country. Usually, a conservation easement would keep this farm in production by tying the land and the water together.

PARMAR: And in this case, we're actually saying we want you to change the property by no longer irrigating.

SAKAS: Parmar says the benefit from that is keeping nearly 400 million gallons of water under the San Luis Valley, which is desperately needed. The aquifer is drying up with drought, climate change and overuse. So local leaders are working to get the system back in balance. Parmar says this farmer wanted to be part of the solution.

PARMAR: He said to me, you know, I love this farm, but, you know, my wife and I were never able to have children. And I see the challenge that we're facing. And my neighbors - most of them have a next generation that they're trying to pass along their farm to.

SAKAS: By putting this farm out of production, the groundwater levels here will return to a sustainable level, which means other farms close by can keep growing food, because if sustainable water targets aren't met, the state has threatened to shut off lots of farms all at once.

Chris Ivers is a program manager for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

CHRIS IVERS: The state - they issued a lot more well permits than this area can support. And so we're dealing with sort of the sins of our fathers trying to reduce the draw on the aquifer and get back into a sustainable balance.

SAKAS: This groundwater conservation easement is a permanent solution. Ivers says farmers agreeing to cut back on their water use for a season or two hasn't been enough.

IVERS: I think most of us in this business of water management in the valley are realizing that we need to see some land come out of production.

SAKAS: That's bad news for the San Luis Valley, where farmland is the economic driver. Republican State Senator Cleave Simpson is the head of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. He uses groundwater to grow alfalfa, which is one of the most water-intensive crops.

CLEAVE SIMPSON: I lay awake at night thinking, I don't think I can keep doing what I've been doing and what my family has been doing for decades. I don't think it's sustainable.

SAKAS: Simpson says his farm and ones like it are part of the problem. He's experimenting with growing drought friendly crops. And he says new ideas, like a groundwater conservation easement, are necessary. It means farmers and ranchers are compensated to gradually get back in balance with nature. But he says that's getting harder to pull off.

SIMPSON: This isn't 20 years of drought. This is truly the aridification of the West.

SAKAS: Simpson is referring to research that shows climate change is making drought a permanent problem. That means if farmers in southern Colorado want to keep making a living, they'll have to survive with less water.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Elizabeth Sakas in Alamosa, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "BEHIND THE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.