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Future Colorado water demands could harm farms and ranches

Amy Hadden Marsh
Citizen Telegram Contributor
Glenwood Springs attorney Sara Dunn speaks to a crowd at the New Castle Community Center about water rights in Colorado. Dunn was one of several speakers at the annual Ag Day, hosted by the Bookcliff, Mount Sopris and South Side conservation districts, late last month.
Amy Hadden Marsh/Citizen Telegram |

NEW CASTLE – With snowpack in the Colorado River and Roaring Fork River basins over 120 percent of normal, it’s hard to imagine water is in short supply.

But that was what civil engineer and Colorado Basin Roundtable representative Louis Meyer and former state legislator and Gunnison rancher Kathleen Curry told a roomful of local ranchers and farmers on Ag Day at the New Castle Community Center late last month.

The Bookcliff, Mount Sopris and South Side conservation districts host the annual event. This year’s theme was water in the Colorado River basin, with a message that increasing demand, limited supply and less water throughout the state could be devastating to agriculture. Issues included water rights protection, water shortages and the smart-, or mega-ditch, a water conservation method used on an irrigation ditch near Carbondale.



Curry and Meyer led a discussion about the state water plan, which has to be finalized in six months. Afterwards, Curry said she is worried.

“Between the shortage on the Front Range due to the growth that they’re facing, and then watching the levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop over the last couple of years, it hit me that we’re looking at not enough water to go around,” she told The Citizen Telegram.



Something will have to give, Curry added.

“The issue becomes who’s got the most water and what priority, and that always takes you back down the trail to the ag users,” she said.

Meyer’s graphs showed how Colorado’s population is projected to double from 5 million to 10 million people by 2050. Most of that, he said, will be on the Front Range, but West Slope cities are also growing fast.

“And, there’s no new water,” he added.

According to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s executive order last May to begin work on the state water plan, the gap between water supply and demand could be more than 500,000 acre-feet by 2050. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land with a foot of water.

“The gap will hit the state around 2020,” said Meyer. “But if drought continues, that could push the shortage [timetable] up.”

Other issues at play include recreational and in-stream water needs, as well as the amount of Colorado River water the four upper basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – are required to provide the lower basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona.

Farms and ranches use around 85 percent of the water in the Colorado River basin, and that could be where Front Range cities turn first to slake their thirst.

“We have a big red target on us,” Curry told the crowd.

Carbondale rancher Tom Turnbull attended the event and said it is to the advantage of the agricultural community to get involved in the governor’s plan.

“If we have 85 percent [of the water] and that’s not deemed the highest and best use, we’re going to have to figure out how to do what we do without water,” Turnbull said.

He added that if water ends up being used more efficiently for food production in California, agriculture and other uses in Colorado could be at risk.

“It’s a complex and serious issue, compounded by the beauty of Colorado and the fact that people want to come here,” he said.

Curry believes the long-term viability of Colorado agriculture is already at risk for a variety of reasons, and that the looming water gap could add to the pressure.

“It’s not a very profitable business because it’s very work-intensive and labor-intensive,” she said. “And if the commodity markets aren’t strong and [farmers and ranchers] don’t make much money that year, then you add this to it? It just becomes too much weight for them to carry.”

Another part of the problem is that there are fewer and fewer young ranchers to help carry that weight.

Carl Day, 30, has been with the Colorado Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers program for about a month. The program involves Farm Bureau members between the ages of 18-35 that wish to become effective leaders in the ag industry, and learn more about being successful on their own farms and ranches.

Day is the third generation to raise sheep at the Open Heart Ranch, near Harvey Gap Reservoir. He said that young people are leaving agriculture because the hours are long and the pay isn’t very good.

“[Agriculture work] pays way below the minimum wage,” he said. “You work from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the summer and, in winter, you work an 8-hour day repairing stuff.”

Day married into a sheep ranching outfit, but said he fell in love with the work. He hopes his three-year old son will do the same. Day said it’s best if younger people have a tie to ranching, such as land or family, and a love of the work.

“If you’re not into the work, [ranching] is not for you,” he cautioned.

Curry was happy to see representatives from the Farm Bureau and U.S. Farm Service Agency at the event.

“If [young people] don’t want to step up and continue to raise livestock or raise food through farming, then our food security becomes an issue,” she said.


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