Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District: What is the future of agriculture?

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Here’s a recap of a discussion last week at the Lower Ark monthly meeting, from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

“Things look pretty bleak for agriculture then?” asked Pueblo County Director Reeves Brown during a presentation by Eric Hecox, administrator of the Interbasin Compact Commission.

“It looks bleak for agriculture if what’s happened in the past continues,” Hecox responded. “There is opportunity for agriculture to lease water to the cities through programs like the Super Ditch. That has the potential of reducing the impact.” Hecox explained the evaluation tool the Colorado Water Conservation Board is developing with the IBCC to look at different mixes of strategies to meet Front Range needs that include new supplies from the Colorado River, conservation, reuse, identified projects, agriculture transfers and reuse.

“Is it impossible to challenge growth?” Brown asked.

“It’s not a strategy we’ve looked at in the past,” Hecox said. “In practice, we can’t stop growth, but we can talk about how we grow.”

Peter Nichols, the Lower Ark’s water attorney, said solutions lie in reasonable compromises, such as the Super Ditch sponsored by the Lower Ark district, that allow resources to be shared. “I was part of a 2001 study, where we looked at water all over the world. No community stopped growing for lack of water,” Nichols said. “In the 1990s, the five fastest growing states were also the driest. People no longer settle where the water is, because it’s convenient to move it.”

Colorado would need between 830,000 and 1.7 million acre-feet of new supplies annually to meet the demand, which probably is not available on the Colorado River alone. Under compacts negotiated in 1922 and 1948, as well an an international treaty with Mexico and federal rules, Colorado is entitled to 445,000-1.4 million acre-feet available annually on average, Hecox said. The high end would most likely be available if the Colorado River supply is somehow increased, either through pipelines from other basins – which appear unlikely – or other measures like cloud seeding, desalinization in California or tamarisk reduction. “If the last 20 years are a guide, a pipeline isn’t likely,” Hecox said.

Still developing projects within Colorado would be worthwhile. The South Platte basin already imports 345,000 acre-feet an the Arkansas basin 132,000 acre-feet annually. “Every acre-foot of West Slope water saves an acre-foot in the Arkansas and South Platte,” Nichols said. “The Arkansas Valley has a tremendous interest in developing West Slope projects.” That’s expensive, however.

A 250,000 acre-foot project would cost between $7.5 billion-$10 billion, according to state projections. The water rights already held by oil companies seeking to one day extract oil from shale are in the 500,000 acre-foot range, which further muddies the supply picture, Hecox said. A call from downstream states – California, Arizona and Nevada – has never happened and may be unlikely, but it could curtail rights within Colorado, Hecox said. Finally, climate change could reduce the amount of water physically available. When the 1922 Colorado River Compact was negotiated, the observed climate was wetter than it is now. Since 2000, flows have fallen far below the historical levels of the previous 80 years…

Drying up agriculture has been the easiest target for cities in the past, and state studies show more is on the way. The amount will depend on planning that begins today. “If we lose 500,000 acres of agriculture, how do you feed all these people?” Lower Ark General Manager Jay Winner asked. “It’s very important to create a relationship between agriculture and the cities.”

More Colorado water coverage here.

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