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Funding Awarded as a Part of the Bennet-authored Regional Conservation Partnership Program

Tuesday morning, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet announced that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) will award more than $6 million to the Colorado Open Lands Rio Grande Partnership to Preserve Agriculture and Restore Aquifer (PARA).

“The Upper Rio Grande Basin is vital to our regional economy and provides important wildlife habitat,” said Bennet. “I’m delighted that the Colorado Open Lands Rio Grande Project will receive over $6 million in funding from the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. This will unlock an innovative and locally-developed new approach to groundwater management in an effort to sustain the local agricultural economy and maintain wildlife habitat. Last summer I was able to visit with producers in the San Luis Valley pursuing this project and I look forward to continuing to support their work.”

Bennet learned about this project during a visit with farmers in Rio Grande County in August 2020. In November, Bennet wrote a letter of support for the proposal. As a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee and then-Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry, and Natural Resources, Bennet helped to craft the RCPP in the 2014 Farm Bill and secured increased funding for the program in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Rio Grande Wildlife Habitat as shown on the Great Outdoors Colorado site. Photo by Andy Cook

“As a long-time resident of the San Luis Valley, I have seen this community come together time and time again to address water challenges and this RCPP award is a testament to that longstanding collaborative culture,” said Judy Lopez, Colorado Open Lands Conservation Project Manager.

Water is actually a scarce commodity in the San Luis Valley and there are great concerns over the aquifer, which is referred to as a closed basin aquifer. This innovative project will reward reduced groundwater pumping through a conservation easement concept while maintaining the community’s agricultural economy and protecting wildlife habitat.

PARA will use RCPP funds to purchase conservation easements in the San Luis Valley that will focus on groundwater pumping restrictions to keep 8,000 acre-feet of water in the aquifers. Additionally, it will enable a cost-share program to allow irrigators to install surface capture irrigation systems to remain viable as they reduce or discontinue groundwater pumping.

“Colorado Open Lands is excited to move toward implementing this idea which we’ve been developing with irrigators and water managers over the last two years to couple permanent water savings with flexibility. We hope that this not only leads to long-term viability for agricultural producers and the wildlife that benefit from their water use, but also serves as a new tool for other aquifers,” said Tony Caligiuri, Colorado Open Lands President and CEO.

Project partners include Colorado Water Conservation Board, Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, Rio Grande Water Conservation District, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, and Conejos Water Conservancy.

In total, $330 million from the RCPP was awarded to 85 locally driven, public-private partnerships across the country. These projects will support producers and also address climate change, improve the nation’s water quality, combat drought, enhance soil health, support wildlife habitat and protect agricultural viability.

A complete list of awards is available HERE.