Water Lines: Agriculture & urban-water partnerships
Free Press Weekly Columnist
Editor’s note: A longer version of this article first appeared as a post on the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s blog on Jan. 29; the blog can be found online at http://blog.yourwatercolorado.org.
The search for pure water is a staple activity of Colorado cities and towns. Historically and currently, this search has led directly to water used by farmers and ranchers.
“Mountain water … at any price” was a directive of the City of Grand Junction in the late 1890s; and it resulted in the city acquiring, via eminent domain, the most paramount water right from ranchers along Grand Mesa’s Kannah Creek. It was only a sliver of each ranch’s water right, but the lesson was clear: when threatened with the absence of water, cities have the power to get it.
This raw power carries with it the responsibility for domestic providers to seek alternatives to “buy and dry” before turning to the use of the district courts (“buy and cry”).
In Colorado, the estimated water supply minus projected urban demand equals deficits of between 538,000 and 813,000 acre-feet by the year 2050. What will fill the gap? Agriculture has long been the default answer. However, “basin roundtables” of water managers and stakeholders across Colorado are seeking alternatives. At a recent meeting of West Slope Basin roundtables, the need to preserve agriculture was a recurrent theme.
Why preserve agriculture? “We have to eat” goes without saying. Agriculture is part of our economic foundation. Historically, it is an enterprise of small businesses. Roundtable members want to give the little guys a chance against the juggernaut of large cities, large oil shale and energy, and large recreation. Also, agriculture does not consume 100 percent of the water diverted to fields and, as a result, also contributes to late-season streamflows and wildlife habitat through the water that seeps back into streams.
It is possible for agriculture and cities to partner in ways that are beneficial to both. Together, they hold assets that are good for both enterprises: water from the agricultural side and financial capital from the municipal side. Examples can be found locally.
Ute Water, servicing the greater part of the Grand Valley, is acquiring agricultural water from the slopes of the Grand Mesa to ensure that it can meet growing residential demands into the future. One approach Ute Water uses is to purchase ranch lands and lease the properties back to ranchers until Ute needs the water. This same template has been employed by Grand Junction in the earliest decades of the last century.
In other cases, Ute Water acquires the agricultural water rights only, and leases the water back to ranchers until Ute needs it. Both arrangements provide the rancher capital and operating funds to continue a ranch operation without immediately drying up the land.
But what happens when Ute’s demand becomes permanent, and the transfers of water result in the “dry,” many years after the original “buy?”
“We need agriculture,” says Larry Clever, general manager of Ute Water. He continues, “our buying needs to profit agriculture from now until 2050, and 100 years beyond that! We have a long-term relationship with ag, and we plan to maintain that.”
With water and money in play, alternative agricultural transfers and assets can be developed so that water is available for both agricultural and municipal uses through conservation on both sides: improved delivery methods and alternative practices on the ag side, and demand reductions on the urban side.
Leadership will be needed to visualize the mechanisms that will preserve agriculture. Rather than simply paying money, taking water, and drying land, municipal water providers have the obligation to craft more long-term, mutually beneficial solutions. Existing partnerships help point the way forward.
Like its partnership with agriculture in its source watershed, a second relationship has developed between Ute Water and the irrigation water providers in the Grand Valley. As agricultural lands transition to urban development, the agricultural “ditch” water is required to be used on the property for outdoor irrigation unless the development is xeric or absent water completely. The use of agricultural irrigation water for residential outdoor watering reduces the demand on Ute’s treated water system. Ute is making use of the agricultural water without actually acquiring it.
One wrinkle occurs when irrigation water is in short supply and the demand on Ute’s treated water system increases. To suppress this rise in treated water demand, Ute charges higher rates for high volumes of treated water.
Each municipal/agricultural relationship requires a local solution. Each stream segment, drainage, canal system, and reservoir has its own unique geographic finger print, its own water rights “genealogy,” its own historical water use and, as a result, its own return flow characteristics. “Preservation of agriculture” demands that suppliers and users mine their collective thinking for workable, local solutions.
Greg Trainor is the retired director of public works for the City of Grand Junction. This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.
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