South Platte Forum recap: Incentives for drip irrigation?

Typical Drip Irrigation System via Toro
Typical Drip Irrigation System via Toro

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

Incentives for drip irrigation, addressing water-consuming vegetation along rivers and more water storage are all needed to protect the future of agriculture in Colorado. Those were among the main points stressed by Brighton-area vegetable grower Dave Petrocco, who was asked to present during the South Platte Forum last week. The two-day forum featured discussions on all aspects of water — agriculture, oil and gas production, municipal use, climate and the ski industry.

While the event included presentations from ag experts with Colorado State University Extension and other CSU ag faculty, Petrocco was the only full-time ag producer who presented at the event. He took the opportunity to hammer home a few messages widely shared with others in the ag industry — which uses 85 percent of the state’s water. Drip irrigation, he stressed, uses 40 percent less water than traditional irrigating methods, but the upfront cost of implementing a drip system is $2,000 to $3,000 per acre. Petrocco — who has 225 of his 2,600 acres of farm ground under drip irrigation, and plans to have another 100-plus acres under drip next year — said farmers in California and Arizona have been pioneers in making the switch to drip.

“But in their climate, they have two growing seasons,” Petrocco said, explaining that with such large production each year, California and Arizona farmers can more easily recoup the costs of making the move to drip.

That’s not the case in Colorado, Petrocco said, and in a state where water on farms is routinely being sold to growing cities, those still farming in the future are going to need to make the most of their limited resources. While farmers need to gravitate to drip, he said he’d like to see the state of Colorado provide incentives for farmers to do so because of the high costs. If farmers aren’t more resourceful with their water, farm ground will continue disappearing in Colorado, he said.

With limited water and Colorado’s semi-arid climate, rapidly growing cities here have routinely bought their needed water from farmers and ranchers, leaving behind the land ­— an ongoing trend known as “buy and dry.” At the current rate of buy and dry, 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated farm ground could be out of production by 2050, according to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative study, released in 2010.

That’s why Petrocco said he’s pushing for the state to help farmers move toward drip irrigation systems — and why he also is pushing for more water-storage projects, which would capture excess snowmelt in abundant years instead of sending more water than legally necessary across the state line to Nebraska, which has occurred in recent years.

Petrocco also stressed the need for the state to address the wild vegetation along the rivers — known as phreatophytes. A cottonwood tree, for example, can consume 1,000 gallons of water each day, maybe more, he explained. And as the trees and other vegetation have grown thicker along the rivers and continue to do so, those plants are soaking up water and depleting surface flows and groundwater levels, which could be used by agricultural, industrial or municipal users. That vegetation needs to be better controlled, he said.

Petrocco said he also believes the state’s augmentation requirements are too stringent, and they need to be re-examined. Augmentation water is needed to make up for depletions to the aquifer caused by pumping water out of the ground. Under the state’s current requirements, some farmers have struggled to afford needed augmentation water and have had their groundwater wells curtailed or shut off. But, in recent years, groundwater levels in the South Platte have risen, causing basements to flood in some areas, among other problems. Some, including Petrocco, believe groundwater wells pumping less than they once did is responsible for the aquifer being too full. The issue is now being studied by scientists at CSU.

“I firmly believe we’re over-augmenting,” said Petrocco, who, in referring to the many water challenges Colorado faces, stressed that addressing the issues won’t be easy. “We grow crops in a great place … close to the people and the markets, so there’s less transportation needed … a lot of sunshine during the day and cool nights — perfect for certain crops.

“We just need water, and we’ve got some things to figure out to make sure we have enough.”

More South Platte Basin coverage here and here.

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