Denis Reich: Moving water from farms to cities
The Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables meet monthly to discuss basin and statewide water issues. These are eclectic groups, comingling engineers, county commissioners, hydrologists, recreationists, environmentalists, policy wonks, farmers and ranchers. While water may be for fighting, these sometime adversaries, sometime allies, brought together by the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act in 2005, have learned to get along. While they often disagree, they unanimously agree on one thing: The state can’t continue growing as it has without suffering water shortages that will irreparably damage local economies, the environment and agriculture. One tough discussion has been the role of agricultural water management in generating new water for future urban growth and in-stream flows (water that stays in the river for environmental and recreational purposes). Irrigated agriculture is the largest consumer of water in the state. It’s not even a close race for second – towns, cities, and their affiliated businesses are responsible for about one fifth the consumptive use of agriculture. How could 10 percent of the state’s population – farmers and ranchers – be responsible for more than 80 percent of its water consumption? For one thing, water diverted is not necessarily water consumed. The public works departments of most municipalities return the majority of water (about 90 percent) that was diverted for drinking and sanitation back to the native hydrology via their waste water treatment plants. That glass of cool clear H2O you just sucked down at the kitchen sink was probably wastewater in a previous life. Don’t worry, you’ll undoubtedly die of something else. Agricultural water also diverts far more than it consumes, but consume it most certainly does. There are only a few pockets within the populated areas of the Front Range comparable in water consumption to a field of alfalfa or corn. As a result, agriculture remains the go-to water source for many of the newer municipalities that dot the Front Range. Cities and towns that saw their coffers swell with property tax revenue during recent boom years found making rude-to-refuse offers on agricultural water rights in the South Platte and Arkansas basins a straightforward exercise in supply and demand. As a result, some rural counties were devastated. Irrigators state-wide still get thin-lipped when examples of “buy-n-dry” such as Crowley County in the Lower Arkansas are discussed. Hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigated ground was left to the weeds after the water rights were sold and transferred to cities like Colorado Springs and Aurora.Since the nine basin roundtables first convened across the state in 2006, the consensus has been that this form of water transfer does not serve the long-term health of the state. Agriculture has a critical role to play in the future of the state’s economy, open-space needs and cultural identity. More sustainable and agriculture-friendly strategies are needed. Researchers, ditch companies, irrigators and division engineers have been active in partnership with the roundtables and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to investigate and quantify water savings achievable from partial deficit irrigation (giving plants as much as they need, but less than they’d like), rotational fallowing and temporary leases. The simple objective of these investigations is to develop non-permanent transfers of water from agricultural users to urban areas during periods of high demand, such as this year’s drought: giving up some agricultural water without permanently drying up farms and the communities that go with them. It’s a strategy that has many obstacles (legal and otherwise), but successful models exist in California and other states. Acknowledging that states with perennial water scarcity probably show us what we can eventually expect here, it’s likely Colorado agriculture will be a player in the municipal water business come mid-century. Some roundtable representatives still aren’t happy with such a compromise. It’s not just farmers and ranchers who are chagrined: environmental and recreational spokespersons prefer other opportunities for agriculture, recreation, and the environment to share water in a mutually beneficial and profitable fashion without selling water to communities that grow irresponsibly. As these issues are debated, it is important to broaden the conversation beyond the “usual suspects” of water stakeholders represented on the roundtables. Public input is needed to help ensure the solutions found respond to community values, and to ensure that discussions are converted into implementable solutions. 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 & let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.
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