Ag chief: raiding farm water no answer to shortages
DENVER ” Agriculture officials say Colorado would be making a mistake if it dealt with looming water shortages due to drought, climate change and growth by diverting more water from farms and ranches.
Agriculture uses 86 percent of the water in the state, making it a likely place to look when shortfalls crop up.
But Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Stulp said it makes little sense to raid farms and ranches when population is increasing, the need for food is rising and U.S. farm land is shrinking.
“We have a very diverse agricultural economy in Colorado and it’s highly dependent on water,” Stulp said last week at a statewide conference on drought and climate change.
Agriculture contributes roughly $16 billion to the state’s economy, Stulp said.
Farm receipts total $5.6 billion, with another $1.6 billion spent to equip them. The processing of products from beef and beer to tea and milk account for another $9 billion.
Drought and growth have intensified the fight over water. Some farmers and ranchers in northeastern Colorado have had their wells restricted or shut down after cities and others with surface water rights successfully argued the wells were illegally drawing down the South Platte River.
Water for energy development and growth likely would be taken from agriculture.
Stulp said agriculture is trying to find more drought-resistant crops and become more efficient, but it’s an uphill battle, Stulp said.
About 80 percent of Colorado’s water supply is on the Western Slope, where only 20 percent of the people live. Western Coloradans generally don’t want the Front Range to divert more water from their part of the state.
Patrick O’Toole of Savery, Wyo., president of the Family Farm Alliance, said many of the Western dams built to irrigate farmland are a century old. More storage for cities could ease the pressure on ag water, he said.
“I don’t necessarily think we need storage just for agriculture, but for municipalities so they can live on somebody else’s water and not ours,” O’Toole said.
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