Draft #COWaterPlan emphasizes the importance of ag

Flood irrigation -- photo via the CSU Water Center
Flood irrigation — photo via the CSU Water Center

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

More irrigated farmland will no doubt go out of production, but the economic impact of agriculture in Colorado must maintain its current levels in the future. That was put in writing by the Interbasin Compact Committee on Tuesday, as the group continued piecing together the language that could make up the official Colorado Water Plan.

T. Wright Dickinson of Maybell was among the most adamant about protecting ag.

“There’s the assumption … that to meet the water needs of everyone else, ag will crumble,” said Dickinson, an IBCC member and former president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “I won’t be any part of it. There has to be language (in the Water Plan) that says Colorado will do everything it can.”

The long-term Colorado Water Plan is expected to consist largely of input from the 27-member IBCC — made up of water experts, lawmakers, engineers, farmers and others from throughout the state.

The group on Tuesday agreed on language that stressed ag’s economic importance, along with other language saying that new water projects in the future must consider any negative impacts on the state’s ag industry.

Tuesday’s discussions focused solely on new-supply issues.

Months ago, members of the IBCC agreed on “low risk” and “no risk” water solutions regarding conservation, water reuse and other issues. They didn’t agree on their “low risk” and “no risk” solutions for new supply until Tuesday.

Now with “conceptual agreements” on the new-supply language in the Colorado Water Plan draft, IBCC members will take that draft to their respective basin roundtables for further discussion. Gov. John Hickenlooper wants a draft report of the Colorado Water Plan by the end of next year, but there’s still a long way to go, with the “high risk” solutions still needing to be discussed and agreed upon down the road.

Compromising on some aspects is difficult, because each of the basin’s issues vary from one another and require different solutions. Even the discussions on “low risk” and “no risk” solutions have been contentious at times.

Agriculture has been at the heart of the discussions.

As Colorado cities have grown quickly in recent decades, those expanding municipalities have bought water supplies from farming and ranching families leaving the land, because comparatively it’s an inexpensive way to acquire needed supplies. But, according to the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative study, the state was on pace to see about 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated farmland dry up by 2050, an outcome that would hurt the local food supply, diminish ag’s estimated $40 billion impact on the state’s economy, and place hardships on Colorado’s rural communities.

Because water supplies are already tight in Colorado, and because agriculture uses the bulk of the state’s water supplies — about 85 percent, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources — water experts say it’s inevitable that cities down the road will buy out more water from agriculture to meet their needs.

Members of the IBCC said Tuesday that with improved efficiencies in ag production — technology and methods that have farmers now growing 200-bushel-per-acre corn, as opposed to 20-bushel-per-acre corn decades ago — farmers should be able to produce more food on less acres down the road. Perhaps farmers could also grow more high-value crops on fewer acres, some suggested.

But advancements in the industry and different farming practices alone won’t cut it.

Whatever the specifics may be, IBCC members said that farmers and ranchers must work more closely with cities and recreational and environmental interests — creating water banks, or using alternative transfer methods, rather than selling off their water — to slow down the current rate of “buy and dry” of irrigated ground in the state.

Members of the IBCC said Tuesday they felt strongly enough about the issue that they wanted it down in writing in the Colorado Water Plan.

“We have to do anything we can not to exacerbate ‘buy and dry,’” said Eric Wilkinson, the general manager of Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which oversees the largest water-supply project in the region — the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing.”

From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Leia Larsen):

At a Grand County town hall meeting in Granby on Feb. 12, most of those stakeholders included ranchers, water engineers and representatives from the county’s municipalities. They came to learn more about the Colorado state water plan, find out what is means for the Colorado River basin and express their concerns…

Louis Meyer, a civil engineer with the company SGM, was contracted to help prepare the Colorado water plan. He said that while the governor’s timeline is aggressive, preparing a water plan is both timely and necessary. Most states in the Western U.S. have water plans. Only Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado lack one…

According to Meyer’s town-hall presentation, municipal and industrial consumption account for 9 percent of the state’s water use. Recreation, fisheries, augmentation and recharge take 5 percent. The majority of the state’s water use, 86 percent, goes to agriculture. To close the future water gap, at least some of the state’s conservation efforts might have to come from agriculture.

But local ranchers took issue with that figure. While most of the state’s agriculture is concentrated on the Front Range, east and southwest regions of the state, it’s still a significant part of Grand County’s economy. As meeting attendees pointed out, many ranchers in the Kremmling area use flood irrigation in the spring for their hay, making their fields look like lakes by the summer.

“You’d assume the water was used and gone forever if you didn’t know any better,” said Chris Sammons, whose family has ranched in the area for over 100 years. “But the ground is a sponge, soaking up water, recharging it back into the basin and downstream.”

Sammons figures her hay only consumes a tiny portion of the actual irrigation water she uses. Sending the rest of that irrigation water back downstream helps Colorado meet its water rights obligations to other Western states and the nation of Mexico. That’s not the case with water piped to the East Slope.

Other suggestions coming from Grand County locals included stronger leadership among government officials managing water and lands, with lower turnover in these roles. They also suggested changes to the state’s land uses and development, and stronger educational campaigns on the true cost of water in the state.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

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