Water Lines: Group discusses Colorado’s future regarding water & agriculture
Free Press Weekly Columnist
The three-evening water course, organized by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in February, focused on water for agriculture for three primary reasons: 1) agriculture is the historical foundation of western Colorado’s largest communities; 2) it remains an important feature of our economy and landscape; and 3) as the largest consumer of water in a water-short region, significant transfers from agriculture to urban areas are expected in coming decades.
The course examined the climate and legal context for agriculture, how water is used currently, and factors affecting the future of agriculture in Colorado and the rest of the Colorado River Basin. Growing urban demands and the potential for reduced supplies due to climate change are two of the primary factors affecting the water that will be available for agriculture in the future.
Irrigated agriculture accounts for about 89 percent of the water consumed in Colorado and 70-80 percent of the water consumed in the Colorado River Basin as a whole. However, that does not mean that farmers and ranchers themselves account for all that consumption. All of us who eat Colorado-grown beef, sweet corn, onions and peaches and drink Colorado wine, beer and spirits claim a share of Colorado’s consumption, and wearing Arizona-grown cotton and eating California-grown winter lettuce increases our share of Colorado River water use.
Nonetheless, since farmers are the ones whose livelihoods are dependent on access to irrigation water, they are the ones that feel the greatest unease when eyes are cast in ag’s direction to meet growing urban needs, improve flows for the environment, or to prop up water levels in Lake Powell.
East of the Continental Divide are many examples of the devastation that occurs when agricultural water is moved to cities through a simple “buy and dry” process. Once a critical mass of farmers has sold out, it’s tough for those remaining to stay in business, and weeds take over abandoned fields. Just about everyone involved in debates about the future of Colorado water agrees that this is undesirable.
As a result, there’s been lots of talk, and some legislative action, on “alternative transfer methods” that attempt to move water from farms to cities on a rotating, temporary basis that provides additional income to agriculture and keeps land and communities in agriculture over the long term. Such methods are discussed extensively in Colorado’s draft water plan.
While seen as preferable to “buy and dry,” one farmer participating in the water course noted that the acronym “ATM” was a little unsettling, and wondered if cities would really be willing to give back “temporarily” transferred water if commodity prices made using water on the land more appealing than selling it on the market.
Increasing irrigation efficiency, through methods such as drip and sprinkler irrigation and lining and piping ditches, has also been lauded as a way to help balance supply and demand and benefit the environment.
Reducing diversions can certainly benefit stream health, both by keeping flows up and reducing contaminants from agricultural runoff. Several speakers pointed out, however, that more efficiently moving water to exactly where plants can use it will not necessarily lead to an overall reduction in water use. It could instead lead to increases in the total volume of water consumed, as each plant in a field can finally get the water it needs to grow to its full potential. And reducing the amount of water that slowly seeps back to streams from fields can reduce late-season stream flows.
Another complication with agricultural efficiency measures is that they are expensive, and not every method is equally suitable to every crop and soil type — and sometimes it takes awhile to figure out what will really work well. Every mistake can cause a big hit to a farm’s productivity and income.
The silver lining behind the urgency of balancing supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin is that significant brain power and financial resources are being devoted to figuring out how to optimize the use of water in both urban and agricultural areas, and how to wring multiple benefits from every drop. Farmers are getting financial and technical assistance with testing strategies to improve the health and water-holding capacity of their soils, as well as new water delivery strategies. Multi-stakeholder groups are debating the legal and financial mechanisms for how to more flexibly move water around to enhance the resiliency of the whole basin. It’s a time for both wariness and optimism, skepticism and creativity.
To see slides presented at the water course, visit http://www.coloradomesa.edu/watercenter/2015WaterCourse.html.
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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