Valuing Colorado’s Agriculture workshop: ‘The highest and best use of water changes over time’ — Harry Seeley

Arkansas Valley organic farmer Dan Hobbs photo via the Pueblo Chieftain
Arkansas Valley organic farmer Dan Hobbs photo via the Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The state’s focus on meeting municipal needs at the expense of agriculture is short-sighted because feeding people is as important as building subdivisions, speakers told a crowd Monday.

Several top economists gathered for a workshop for policymakers on how to put a value on agricultural water. About 150 attended the event, cosponsored by the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and the Arkansas Basin Roundtable. “We’re in danger of losing a generation of farmers when the world needs them more than ever,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance. The alliance has mounted a national effort to stress the importance of irrigated agriculture, and Keppen argued that farm water should not be the default solution to filling the nation’s water needs. In fact, he suggested that water plans start with a description of how many acres need to be irrigated, then deciding how urban needs would be met.

The same fight is going on in Colorado. The roundtable is looking for ways to put agriculture on the state’s radar for several years. “After having lost water out of our valley, we began to realize that ag water is undervalued,” said Reeves Brown, a Beulah rancher who has spearheaded the roundtable’s efforts. “It’s not just a default position to support the state’s future growth.”

John Salazar, Colorado commissioner of agriculture, echoed those sentiments, saying water should be a vital piece in the upcoming state water plan. “It’s critical to the future of this state and to the water policy of the nation,” Salazar said.

Many political leaders from the county to state level attended Monday’s sessions, which featured presentations in the morning and discussions with speakers in the afternoon. Most said their eyes were opened to new ways of looking at a potential crisis in the state water supply.

To some, it was old hat. “They don’t go back far enough,” said Carl McClure, a Crowley County farmer who serves on the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board. Crowley County has been ground zero for water transfers for the five decades. “We were talking about the value of water in the 1960s with the first Twin Lakes sales,” McClure said. “This is helpful, because we never talked about all these long-term impacts when the water started selling.”

More coverage of the workshop from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

Cities have paid millions of dollars to buy water from farmers, taking it off the land forever. But there are bigger price tags hiding in the background — for recreation, the environment and small-town Main Streets — seldom considered during prior sales of water in Colorado. “The value of water is getting it to the right place in the right time with the right amount of water,” said Michael Hanemann, a University of California-Berkeley economics professor who worked on some of that state’s biggest water deals. For water, there is always a private benefit derived when money changes hands, but also public economic concerns such as environment, recreation and the health of local economies, Hanemann said.

It may take years for the harm to become apparent. “Trying to look out 50-100 years in time is a real challenge if you don’t get it right,” said Harry Seely, a partner in West Water Research. “One of the lessons (of past water deals) is how the highest and best use of water changes over time.”

Economist Tom Binnings, whose Summit Economics company worked on a study of Front Range urban water values several years ago, said economic studies of water value often depend on who commissions the study. Immediate needs often overshadow long-term goals. “We have a short-term bias,” he said. “We have to long for long-term relationships that balance food security with population growth.”

Colorado is ahead of the rest of the nation in thinking about its water future. “I was struck by the brilliance of rotational fallowing (such as the plan promoted by the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch),” said Frank Ward, an economics professor at New Mexico State University. He called it a good way to prevent permanently taking water out of agriculture.

Bonnie Colby, an economics professor at the University of Arizona, said other values provided by agriculture such as agritourism, open space, wildlife habitat, local food supply and even as a “risk buffer” for urban water supply should be factored into the cost of transactions.

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

In a state where more water transactions have taken place than possibly any other spot in the world, Colorado has a “well-functioning” water market — but extra efforts will be required to keep its farms, ranches and dairies operating. More data will be needed to stress to cities the “silent” opportunities of keeping water in agriculture, and the exploration of alternative water transfers between cities and ag producers needs to continue as well. Those were among the many points hammered home by agriculture economists and other industry experts during a workshop Monday.

“Valuing Colorado’s Agriculture: A Workshop for Water Policy Makers,” hosted by the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and Arkansas Basin Roundtable, was attended by Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar, Colorado State University faculty and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s special adviser on water, John Stulp, among dozens of others.

The main focus of the meeting was slowing down the ongoing “buy and dry” of farmground in Colorado — growing cities purchasing water from farmers who have left the land. At the current rate of buy and dry, 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated farmground could be out of production by 2050, according to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative study, released in 2010. Already, the region’s largest water project — the 12-reservoir Colorado-Big Thompson Project — has gone from about 85 percent ownership by agricultural users when it went into operation in 1957, to only about 34 percent ag ownership now, numbers from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District show.

Without more efforts and cooperation in the near future, Colorado’s $40 billion ag industry — the state’s second largest-economic contributor — is in jeopardy, and climate change could only add to those challenges, presenters said Monday.

In addition to being an economic driver, a healthy ag industry provides open spaces, wetland habitats for wildlife, and food, fuel and fiber for a growing population, according to speakers, who stressed that more studies and data are needed to detail to policy makers and urban populations those benefits.

During their presentations, Bonnie Colby, an agricultural and resource economics professor at the University of Arizona, and Frank Ward, professor of water policy at the New Mexico State University, spoke of some in-the-works alternatives to ag producers selling their water rights to cities, such as rotational fallowing, where ag water providers and users agree to take some land out of production — improving the health of that soil — and lease unused water to cities, rather than selling water rights permanently.

Colby, Ward and others who presented also talked of creating water banks, deficit-irrigation farming, incorporating dryland crops onto irrigated acres and improving the state’s “use it or lose it” water policies.

Colby shared numbers with the crowd, showing that from 1987 to 2010, more water transfers took place in Colorado than any other state, and possibly any other place in the world. She and other presenters stressed that Colorado’s water market provides a good foundation for meeting its future water challenges, but more flexibility, data, cooperation and communication will be needed.

Rebecca Love Kourlis — executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal Systems, and former Colorado Supreme Court justice — noted during her presentation that the challenge of keeping water on Colorado farms presents a “golden opportunity” for land-grant universities, like CSU, to step up their ag-water research and efforts to educate the public.

Kourlis added that the nation’s cheap food policy — which for decades made profiting in agriculture tough, leading many farmers to leave the land and sell their water to cities — should be evaluated as well.

Kourlis also encouraged ag producers to have more dialogue with the state’s 13 Water Court judges and seven Colorado Supreme Court justices about the challenges agriculture faces.

Kourlis noted, though, that she’s pleased with how the conversations have changed in Colorado from a decade ago, when farmers and ranchers were simply encouraged to conserve their water, she said.

“That doesn’t provide incentive for farmers to stay in agriculture,” she added, while complimenting Colorado officials for their current efforts to develop a comprehensive statewide water plan.

Across the board, farmers need more incentive to keep their water and stay on the farm, stressed Kourlis and Dan Keppen, a water engineer and executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, who noted during his presentation that only 6 percent of farmers today are under the age of 35.

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