Valuing ag water workshop: ‘Rural communities are at stake here. We’re making progress’ — Dan Keppen

Crop circles -- irrigated agriculture
Crop circles — irrigated agriculture

From the Ag Journal Online (Candace Krebs):

At the event, economic experts from across the West met with water users and planners to discuss ways to compute the full benefit derived from agricultural use of water and to avoid the “buy and dry” scenario under which water rights are permanently transferred from struggling farms to deeper-pocketed cities, industries and environmental groups. Many of the ideas that flowed during the interactive conference were obvious and already much discussed. Others were more futuristic and ambitious.

Frank Ward, an agricultural economist and water policy expert at New Mexico State University, said that on a trip to Israel he learned government officials there are avoiding taking water from agriculture by investing in desalination plants.

New Mexico is in the process of looking at similar ways to treat more of the state’s highly saline groundwater and make it available for use, he said.

In Ward’s opinion, water transferred out of agriculture is often “grossly under-priced.” If the cost of water more accurately reflected the true value, urban centers would have more incentive to adopt conservation measures, and potential sources like desalination that “look quite expensive” now might appear cheaper and become preferable to drying up farmland, he said.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance who lives in Oregon’s Klamath Valley, said reducing burdensome regulation so that water storage projects and other infrastructure improvements were less daunting and costly to pursue could expand the water supply.

Short of expanding the size of the pie, however, the challenge that remained was how to better divvy up what’s left.

Agricultural interests and municipalities both stand to benefit from a push already under way to create more tools to allow water rights holders to derive value from the water they own in times of scarcity without having to sell off those rights permanently.
Colorado leads the nation in exploring alternative transfer methods for sharing water between agriculture and other users. With funding allocated by the state legislature, the Colorado Water Conservation Board operates a grant program for projects that explore rotational fallowing, partial irrigation, water banking, alternative water supply agreements and more.

One grant is currently being used to study rotational fallowing of crop production along the Super Ditch in the lower Arkansas Valley. Another study on the lower South Platte is looking at ways to minimize the economic impact of reduced irrigation use…

One suggestion often made is that irrigated farmers switch from growing lower value crops like commodity grains to higher value ones like fruit and vegetables.

But during a breakout discussion, Brighton grower and session moderator Robert Sakata had a chance to explain the downsides, which include high risk due to high input costs, narrow harvesting windows, lack of labor and increased auditing requirements. Despite the reputation his family has built up over multiple generations, he said they were feeling pressured to switch from growing sweet corn to feed corn, because consumer-ready produce is difficult to raise consistently when water supplies are marginal…

Another big challenge that was addressed from various angles was how to convey to the general public the full range of benefits derived from keeping water in agricultural use.

Tom Binnings, founder and senior partner at Summit Economics, a private consulting firm in Colorado Springs, said he was uncertain that freeing up farm labor to move into other industries was strictly a negative, but added that agriculture’s most compelling story was the aging farm population and what it would mean to lose the next generation of farmers.

“What you lose is a very specialized knowledge base,” he said. “What happens when that is lost is one of only two alternatives: you import more or you move toward corporate farming.”

More water law coverage here.

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