Governor’s Ag Forum recap

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs
Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From the Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):

The weather did not deter those interested in “Water: Colorado’s Treasure,” this year’s theme. The Denver-area forum is in its second year of sponsorship from the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Program.

The event also marked the first time new Ag Commissioner Don Brown of Yuma spoke before the well-attended forum. Brown is less than two weeks into his new job, but spoke about his history with water issues. While acknowledging he needs to learn more about surface water, Brown said his family was early irrigators on the Ogallala aquifer. Brown also made a pitch for the interest in agriculture held by Gov. John Hickenlooper. “He’s extremely passionate about agriculture, wants us to succeed in agriculture. And I intend to achieve those goals for him,” Brown said.

Craig Beyrouty, dean of the college of agricultural sciences at Colorado State University, discussed CSU’s academic work on water issues. He said 25 percent of the faculty in the ag college work on water policy, water conservation, recycling, water quality and agricultural perspectives on water. “We’ve just finished a drought of three to four years,” Beyrouty said, although some sectors of the state have yet to recover, most notably, southeastern Colorado. “What will we do if we have a drought of 10 to 15 years? Are we prepared for it? We are not, and that’s where innovation and science-based information” will play a big role on short-term and long-term drought.

The ag forum also heard from the Environmental Protection Agency, not always one of the most welcome of federal agencies. Speaking on behalf of the EPA, however, was Ron Carleton, who until recently was Colorado deputy commissioner of agriculture and for six years chief of staff in Washington for then-Rep. John Salazar, newly retired as Commissioner of Agriculture.

Carleton, a resident of Fort Collins, is now counselor to the EPA administrator for agriculture policy, and works as a liaison between the agency and farmers and ranchers.

Carleton got friendly applause from the audience. “It’s heartening to be identified with the EPA and you still applauded,” he joked.

Carleton said his role is to make sure agriculture has a seat at the table when views of the industry are discussed and to promote meaningful engagement between agriculture and the EPA.

Among the big issues: Waters of the US Rule, also known as the Clean Water rule, which has generated considerable controversy within agriculture. Carleton said the rule is likely to be finalized later this spring, but that it is expected to be changed significantly based largely on the feedback from the ag industry. He noted the EPA got more than a million comments to the agency, with about 800,000 coming from form letters and postcards and another 200,000 unique comments.

According to Carleton, the administrator said that after the comments and more than 400 outreach meetings around the country, that the agency probably did not get some things right in the original proposal. He did not elaborate on the possible changes.

The Clean Water rule, under the federal Clean Water Act, defines the scope of waters protected by the Clean Water Act. The EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture both maintain that the rule would not add any regulation of water to agriculture, but the ag industry has disagreed. Among the concerns are the rule’s broad definitions, which some claim could place even dryland contained in floodplains under the EPA’s jurisdiction.

“The administrator is genuinely concerned that we get this right,” Carleton told this reporter later in the morning. With the comments received and the modifications planned, it will provide more certainty about what’s jurisdictional and what isn’t.

Carleton said his challenge is how to better engage the agricultural community and ensure there’s a good meaningful two-way dialogue with the agency. There have been efforts to do that in the past, but EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is interested in better engagement, Carleton said. As a matter of public policy, the EPA wants to protect water and air, human health and the environment, but the trick is how to balance those requirements with concerns about impacts on agriculture.

Among the other challenges faced by the agency, Carleton told the audience that they’re looking at worker protection standards on pesticide handling, pollinator health, and further work on nutrient management. Carleton noted that the Des Moines, Iowa regional water utility recently announced its intention to sue upriver countries because of their inability to control nutrient runoff.

“No question we want clean water… clean air… and a clean environment. Also no question we want a prosperous and productive agricultural sector as well, one that produces the fuel, food and fiber” for the United States and around the world. “We can find ways to work together to achieves those goals,” Carleton said.

The forum also witnessed the first awarding of the governor’s agriculture export awards. The “New Exporter Award” went to Watkins Grain. The company was contacted in 2010 by buyers in the Philippines, seeking white millet. The company learned the rules and procedures for exporting, and now is shipping containers of millet on an almost daily basis, providing a new market for Colorado growers.

The “Experienced Exporter of the Year” was Keeton Industries of Wellington, which exports aquatics technology to 19 international markets, and has been doing so since the 1970s.

The afternoon breakout sessions looked at maximizing the value of water by enhancing environmental benefits of irrigation, a legislative update, the value of ag water, water quality issues in four Colorado rivers and a look at the documentary “Droughtland.” The 2014 film, produced by Steffan Tubbs of KOA radio, looks at drought conditions in southeastern Colorado.

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