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Bringing the Vital Conditions to Life: Thriving Natural World
Part of our Vital Conditions series that’s designed to help you bridge the connection from understanding each Vital Condition to identifying ways to improve it in your community and where to start.
Inspired by our organization’s name -- IP3 -- we’ve structured this series to showcase People successfully improving Conditions at the local level, Places who have built up momentum worth modeling, and inspiring Possibilities to drive your work.
What is a Thriving Natural World?
Our environment dictates the conditions under which we all live—shelter, water, and food. A thriving natural environment provides an abundance of resources that enhance the quality of life for every part of our ecosystem. While change is a constant in the natural world, the impact created by humans over the past hundred years is greater than any ever experienced in history and is a threat to future generations. Learn more
Why is this considered a vital condition for health?
The condition of the natural world and its impact on population health has a greater significance as the realities of rapid climate change become apparent. Air pollution and water scarcity are seen as the biggest environmental dangers to human health, but other factors such soil health, pollinator extinction, and community resilience from weather events are just as important. Learn more
Only about seven inches of rain falls each year in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, but it takes 18 to 20 inches of moisture to grow the region's staple crops of potatoes, barley, quinoa, and alfalfa. For hundreds of years, the aquifer located below the valley supplied that extra water, but the area was living on borrowed time. When a drought began in 2002 that continued for a decade, the aquifer level dropped significantly, and wells went dry.
The San Luis Valley (SLV) is a high-altitude desert climate - most of it above 7,000 feet - and is home to 45,000 families, many of them farmers and ranchers. That deep connection to the land, and their “do it ourselves” attitude is what saved this community from devastation, and lead them to be a national model for water and soil conservation in a changing natural world.
When the water crisis became apparent, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District created six subdistricts throughout the area. Working closely with the farmers and ranchers of Subdistrict 1, a plan was put in place that charges $75 per acre-foot for groundwater that’s pumped, and in turn the funds raised are used to pay farmers to not plant on some portions of their fields, limiting demand on the water supply.
Since the farmers and ranchers themselves helped create the subdistrict rules, compliance has been high, leading to a third less water being pumped and over 10,000 acres resting fallow. “This has been a good exercise in self-governance,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, in the High Country News. “It’s been a success story in people coming together and trying things that my grandpa’s era would have thought were crazy.”
It’s hard to change several generations of “how things are done around here,” but Erin Nissen of Nissen Farms, LLC is helping to usher in a new way of thinking about land and water usage in the SLV. As a fourth generation farmer, Nissen and her father Lyle run their family farm using techniques that save money and the natural environment at the same time.
After graduating from Texas Tech in 2013, Nissen returned to the farm to apply the practices she learned in college to manage their land. Crop rotation and the planting of cover crops are just a few of their methods. Cover crops, which can include radishes, field greens and legumes, are not meant for human consumption, but instead the growth is chopped up and fed back to the soil to restore organic matter and nutrients to the land. This increases the soil’s ability to hold water and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. These cover crops are then put into a three-year rotation with other marketable crops, such as potatoes and barley.
Named a Soil Health Champion in 2018, Nissen is committed to good soil management, not only for her family, but for the community as well. She works to promote the use of soil health management systems throughout the SLV and sets a positive example through her own farms use of crop rotation, cover crops, and organic practices.
The title Soil Health Champion is awarded by the National Association of Conservation Districts, which is the non-profit organization that represents the over 3,000 local conservation districts in the U.S. Those districts work with landowners and operators to help them manage and protect resources on private and public lands in the United States.
Two other SLV farmers, Patrick O’Neill and Cody Burns, have also received the Soil Health Champion distinction for providing strong voices for positive conservation practices in the San Luis Valley community.