#COWaterPlan: Colorado farmers grow more food on less water amid rising competition — The Denver Post

Subsurface irrigation via NETAFIM
Subsurface irrigation via NETAFIM

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Producers brace as water crunch turns eyes to agriculture’s 85 percent share

Agriculture across Colorado and the West continues to use 85 percent of total water supplies. But growing numbers of farmers are shifting toward greater efficiency, replacing ditch-and-flood irrigation with center-pivot sprinklers and tubes that emit tiny drops…

State water planners anticipate farmers will be able to transfer more of their huge share of water to meet intensifying demands of Front Range industry and housing developers.

“Basically, we’re going to ask the agricultural community to do what the municipal community has already done: Let technology work for you,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Greater efficiency irrigating crops means farmers could grow more and make more water available to companies and cities, Eklund said.

“You can do right by your business and attract new people,” he said, “and at the same time you can be freeing up water that otherwise would have been lost.”[…]

In the South Platte River Basin, state data show loss of water reduced 1.1 million acres of agricultural land during the past three decades to 813,000 acres. That decrease of nearly 300,000 acres adds to large losses in southeastern Colorado after sales by farmers to cities in the 1970s shifted 14.6 billion to 19.5 billion gallons of water…

In southeastern Weld County, traditionally one of the nation’s biggest agricultural producers due to heavy irrigation, farmers said one-third of water rights have been sold since 2009.

Some went to companies involved in the oil and gas boom. Others went to expanding cities.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has declared “buy and dry” must end. Hickenlooper’s senior water adviser, John Stulp, said in a recent interview that, given food and environmental benefits of agriculture, the notion that agriculture’s 85 percent share of water should shrink is unrealistic.

Yet Colorado will encourage Alternative Transfer Mechanisms for shifting water to cities — with farmers leasing water temporarily while retaining ownership — aiming to move 16.2 billion gallons a year. Stulp said any ATM deals will be voluntary.

“There is no mandate to agriculture,” he said. “No one is asking growers to give up ownership of that water.”

“Should we be planting cities in desert areas? Who should go — the farmers or the city dwellers?” said Paul Kehmeier, who grows alfalfa, oats and other crops 50 miles southeast of Grand Junction in western Colorado.

To do that, he diverts water from a river into ditches, managing a homestead his great-grandfather started 120 years ago on land where Ute Indians once thrived.

“Certainly, our farm needs to be irrigated. Otherwise, it would be sagebrush and desert,” Kehmeier said…

Arnusch said he’s wary of even leasing any water back to cities.

Every year for more than a decade, Arnusch has had to leave about 250 of his 2,500 acres fallow for lack of water to irrigate. Farmers here since his grandfather began irrigating in 1952 have accepted limits of nature and, in dry years, planted less, Arnusch said.

The problem with cities is they build based only on market economics, disregarding water, he said.

“Buy-and-dry is happening, and it will continue to happen. But as our nonagriculture water needs increase, what is that going to mean?” Arnusch said. “The urban areas should be like farmers, only using exactly as much as they need. If I don’t have a sufficient water source, how am I supposed to produce?”

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

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