Report: How Young Farmers and ranchers are essential to tackling Water scarcity in the arid West

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Here’s the executive summary.

The western United states is in the midst of a growing water crisis. extended drought, climate change, and a booming population are increasing demand for food and fresh water. in the U.s. colorado river Basin, a seven state region that produces around 85% of U.s. winter produce, demand for water is expected to significantly outpace supply by 2060. as more entities vie for this increasingly tenuous resource, agriculture is looked to as the primary sector to reduce the gap in water supply and demand.

Yet another supply-demand gap looms that is equally urgent: the shrinking number of family farmers. currently, farmers over 65 outnumber those under 35 by a ratio of six to one. nationwide, over 573 million acres of farmland are expected to change management in the next 20 years. if we fail to recruit enough new farmers, we risk furthering the consolidation of our food system, increasing permanent losses of agricultural lands, and losing a generation of water stewards.

Young farmers are critical to addressing both our dwindling water resources and producer populations. in 2015, the national Young Farmers coalition surveyed young farmers and ranchers across the arid West. Most of these farmers are young enough to have never farmed outside of drought: over 15 years ago, when the current drought began, most had yet to begin a career in agriculture. and while western farmers have always wrestled with aridity, millennial farmers can expect the entirety of their careers to be influenced by the effects of a changing climate, forcing them to develop innovative solutions for hotter, drier times.

Following the charge of many farmers before them, more young farmers are managing their operations holistically, integrating economic, ecological, and social health into a working whole. conservation is embedded in the very way they do business. the problem is our policies, programs, and funding priorities lag behind these evolving values and practices.

Over the decades, massive water projects have been developed to bring water to population centers. these continue to be proposed today: take the recent $9 billion proposal to pipe water from Wyoming’s Flaming gorge reservoir to colorado’s Front range. But too often these projects come at the expense of working lands and the communities that connect them. imagine, instead, if we invested some of those dollars in conservation instead of concrete? can we tackle our water challenges with creativity while simultaneously upholding viable and resilient agriculture?

As a region and a nation we have a choice: to continue the status quo and risk losing the land, water, and knowledge with which a new generation of producers will grow food and conserve our shared water resources; or invest in the next generation of farmers as allies in finding solutions to water scarcity. this report illustrates the urgent need—and great opportunity—to pursue the latter.

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

The survey, conducted by Fort Lewis College professors, polled 379 young farmers and ranchers in the arid West and held eight focus groups in four Colorado River Basin states. Most respondents, whose average age is 36, are in Colorado and California, are in their first 10 years of farming and did not grow up on ranches or farms.

According to the report, 82 percent of survey respondents cited water access as the top concern. Access to affordable, irrigated farmland came in fourth, at 53 percent, after drought and climate change.

Census data shows the average age of the U.S. farmer is rising, and La Plata County presents a two-fold predicament: land prices are steep, and land is dry if you can get it. The two factor heavily into the county’s dwindling agriculturists.

“For most farmers, if they’re ready to buy land, they leave La Plata County. They go to Montezuma County or get out of farming,” said Kate Greenberg, Western water program director for Young Farmers.

As a 20-something farmer, James Plate of Fields to Plate Farm can’t afford land in La Plata County. Instead, he’s taking advantage of the Old Fort Market Garden Incubator program, which allows farmers to temporarily lease land – with water rights – on the Old Fort campus in Hesperus.

“I was born and raised in Colorado and want to supply my state with local vegetables, but we are finding it difficult to get access to the proper acreage of land with water to supplement that space,” Plate said.

He and business partner Max Fields have looked at properties that range from $1.5 million to $100,000 with seasonal water rights. Cheaper land is often on the “dry side” of the county, which means farmers are confined to growing dry native crops such as corn and pinto beans.

“You can’t afford land with water,” said Tyler Hoyt, who owns a 72-acre farm in Montezuma County. “There’s plenty you can afford without.”

Hoyt, who participated in the coalition survey, purchased the farm for $330,000 11 years ago, citing the lack of affordable land in La Plata County as a reason for purchasing land in Montezuma.

“Water is definitely a premium in the West,” said The Wells Group real estate broker Thad Trujillo, who recently sold a 40-acre farm with water rights from March through July for $220,000.

Trujillo said while tracts in the southwestern part of the county may sell for under $150,000, prime parcels in North Animas Valley can go for $10,000 an acre at minimum. Apart from the valley, the most expensive (read: wet) farmland is along the river corridor and the “triangle” where the county’s three municipalities converge.

Forty-year-old Gabe French, on his third career, was fortunate to buy his Bayfield farm on County Road 509 three years ago. He grows vegetables and hay with May to October water rights from Pine River and Vallecito.

As much as 80 percent of water used by humans in the Colorado River Basin is devoted to agriculture, and much of the region’s water comes from reservoirs and is supplemented by snow-melt runoff. It’s not that the county is devoid of water – the Animas is one of the most under-appropriated rivers in the state – but getting and saving it is a different, costly story.

The analysis shows 94 percent of young farmers in the arid West practice water conservation in some capacity, but for many farmers, methods are either unknown or inaccessible. Of the 94 percent who said they conserve, just 20 percent received Natural Resources Conservation Services funding, a federal cost-share program to improve efficiency.

“It’s hard to invest money into efficient irrigation for hay,” French said.

But local farmers appear to be trying to work around their barricades with methods such as crop rotation, cover-cropping, rotational grazing and mulching to preserve the soil; drip and flood irrigation to water crops; and getting innovative in scouting usable land – like leasing property at second homes that would otherwise go unused.

Greenberg said failing to invest in the next generation of farmers will lead to land lost to fallowing, development and consolidation, which jeopardizes both water supply and food security. But until something shifts, the issues may continue to deter potential agriculturists in La Plata County.

“The water is there. The land is there,” Hoyt said. “The change has to be monetary.”

#AnimasRiver: Subpoenas issued for reports on #GoldKingMine spill — The Durango Herald

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]
This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

A U.S. House committee has issued subpoenas to federal agencies in an effort to obtain additional information related to the Gold King Mine spill.

The subpoenas were issued late Wednesday to the Interior Department and Army Corps of Engineers, which investigated and reviewed events leading to the Aug. 5, 2015, spill.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, has repeatedly expressed a lack of faith in the Interior Department to conduct an independent investigation into the Environmental Protection Agency’s errors.

The EPA acknowledged fault in the incident, which led to the release of an estimated 3 million gallons of orange mining sludge into the Animas River and other waters. The river tested for initial spikes in toxic heavy metals, including lead, copper and arsenic…

The subpoenas are a first for the committee under Bishop’s leadership. He was named chairman in November 2014.

The subpoena to the Interior Department specifically calls upon Secretary Sally Jewell to produce documents by 5 p.m. Feb. 26. It includes a long list of requests, largely related to the Interior Department’s technical evaluation of the incident.

The subpoena to the Army Corps of Engineers names Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, requiring the commander to release the full review of the Interior Department’s investigation.

Pueblo Water leases mostly go to ag customers

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

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Pueblo Water will lease more than 21,700 acre-feet of water this year for $530,000 under spot market contracts approved Tuesday by the Pueblo Board of Water Works.

The number, totaling more than 7 billion gallons, is the largest amount of water leased under oneyear contracts by the water board since 1999, but did not generate the most money. That’s because the average amount of the leases, about $24.40 per acre-foot, is less this year.

Last year, spot-market leases generated $1.5 million. Pueblo Water budgeted $750,000 this year, but should make up the revenue in other areas, said Seth Clayton, administrative services director. “The prices are much lower than we’ve seen in recent years. It’s just supply and demand,“ said Alan Ward, water resources manager. “It will allow us to empty our storage accounts and make room for more water.”

More water might be available later this year, said Ward, who was surprised that bids were submitted for about 42,000 acre-feet — double the amount leased.

Water for the leases will come from storage in Lake Pueblo, Clear Creek, Twin Lakes and Turquoise reservoirs.

The leases were in two categories, for 15,773 acre-feet of water taken before June 1 and 5,959 acre-feet used by the end of the year. They were awarded by sealed bids.

The highest amount paid was $200 per acre-foot by PuebloPlex, which will use 300 acre-feet to augment wells at the Pueblo Chemical Depot. The water will be taken both before and after The largest amount of water was taken by the Fort Lyon Canal, 15,000 acre-feet, in three separate bids of $10-$20 per acre-foot, totaling $225,000, all before June 1.

Other large amounts went to Bessemer Ditch, 5,000 acre-feet, and Arkansas Groundwater Users Association, 1,000 acre-feet. Other leases of between 20-60 acre-feet went to smaller users, mostly farmers.

Storage is very full throughout the Arkansas River basin because of heavy precipitation last year. Forecasts are calling for more of the same for the first half of 2016.

Pueblo Water has nearly 48,000 acre-feet of water in storage and snowpack is about 110 percent of average. That means there will be less space to store water when the snow starts melting, if the trend continues.

Pueblo uses about 28,000 acre-feet annually in its treated water system. In an average year, its water rights generate more than twice that amount. In dry years, the water is stored, and leases are more likely in wet years, or following wet years.

Pond leakage study pans out — The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Farmers said all along that the state undershot the amount of water lost to leakage from irrigation ponds.

The final numbers confirm that suspicion, showing the rate is double the original assumption.

“We’re not going to celebrate until we get it in writing,” said Don McBee, who nevertheless was clearly pleased with the results.

McBee, a Lamar farmer, and his neighbor Dale Mauch challenged the Colorado Division of Water Resources assumption that ponds used to feed irrigation sprinklers leaked only about 2 inches per day. A stipulation to 2010 irrigation improvement rules allowed for the formula to determine depletions from sprinklers to be changed if scientific evidence showed the number was wrong.

McBee and Mauch were members of a panel formed in 2008 to advise State Engineer Dick Wolfe on how the rules would be drafted. From the first meeting, they said the state was underestimating pond leakage. Since then, they have urged more study and conducted tours of ponds for state officials.

A three-year study sponsored by the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District concluded that the actual median leakage is more than 4.2 inches per day, regardless of weather conditions.

In fact, the number means farmers on the Fort Lyon Canal could owe very little water to the Arkansas River when the leakage is plugged into the depletion formula, said Jack Goble, engineer for the Lower Ark. “It’s a drastic difference,” Goble told the Lower Ark board this week, showing how the rules would have affected irrigation over the past 20 years. “There are still months when the Fort Lyon owes water, but it’s pretty rare.”

A two-year study last year was only partially accepted by the state because not all meters were properly certified. Interim numbers were adopted for 2015.

The new study includes data from three years, 2013-15, during which weather conditions shifted from dry to wet. Data were collected from 23-29 farms with more than 750 measurements. Most were on the Fort Lyon Canal.

The Lower Ark’s proposal to the state would provide more flexibility for frequency of irrigation as well, reflecting the number of days the ponds were filled.

“We will incorporate the data for the Fort Lyon Rule 10 plan this year,” said Bill Tyner, assistant division engineer. “We’re working on a provision to use the factors with owners not in the Fort Lyon plan.”

The state is working on the memorandum of understanding with the farmers and the Lower Ark district to make the numbers permanent.

There also will be periodic testing to verify the formula, and the tests will not be burdensome to farmers, Tyner added.

The farmers still must pay a fee to develop the annual plans, but will save money because of the need to purchase less replacement water.

“All of these efforts have been a huge benefit,” said Lynden Gill, chairman of the Lower Ark board. “When we started, there was a big wall in front of us. Now, things have come together.”

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters
Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

#AnimasRiver: Aztec Commissioners to take a look at agreement with the NM Environment Department

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

From the Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

In Aztec, city commissioners are expected to approve an agreement with the New Mexico Environment Department that would allow the city to be reimbursed for money spent as a result of the Gold King Mine spill in August.

The city will request approximately $158,000. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is refunding the expenses and will send the funds to the New Mexico Environment Department to disburse to local governments impacted by the spill.

“…eventually land use planning and water planning will have to come together” — Alan Hamel

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Nearly 20 years ago, Alan Hamel was fretting about the need for more water storage in the Arkansas Valley.

He’s still on the case.

“This is a good year to talk about water storage, as we did in 1999,” Hamel told the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District board this week. “If we had built it, we would have an additional 75,000 acre-feet of storage.”

At the time, Hamel was president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which had come up with the Preferred Storage Options Plan. The plan proved unworkable because of disagreement among water users over the future purposes of storage.

Today, the need for storage in the Arkansas River basin is closer to 100,000 acre-feet, and most likely will be found in smaller projects, repairs that remove restrictions, better use of existing structures and aquifer storage, Hamel said.

The retired executive director of Pueblo Water is now a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which in November approved Colorado’s Water Plan. The plan was ordered up by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013 and developed after hundreds of meetings throughout the state.

It built on the 2004 Statewide Water Supply Initiative, which identified a municipal gap in future supply, and the 2005 creation of the Interbasin Compact Committee and Basin Roundtables. Those activities drew thousands of Coloradans into a conversation about water.

“Going on 56 years in water, I have never seen an effort like this,” Hamel said. “It includes protection of agriculture, and watershed health is a critical component that wasn’t envisioned when we began.”

Hamel credited the Lower Ark district, itself created by voters during the drought of 2002, and its General Manager Jay Winner as constant advocates for protection of Arkansas River water.

“I see Jay in every corner of the state,” Hamel said.

But the Lower Ark board is not entirely convinced the state water plan does enough to protect agriculture.

“As long as growth is the highest and best use for water, you can’t see any way ag can sustain itself, can you?” asked Beulah rancher Reeves Brown, a Lower Ark board member.
Without a plan, Colorado stands to lose 700,000 acres of farmland, Hamel replied. He commended the Lower Ark board for pioneering solutions like the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch to find ways water without permanent dry-ups.

“Agriculture was one of the many forces that drove the discussion,” Hamel said. “Some cities are growing on to ag land, but eventually landuse planning and water planning will have to come together.”

Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth
Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth

Gunnison County tells some residents to test their wells

Lake Irwin photo via Scenic USA.
Lake Irwin photo via Scenic USA.

From The Crested Butte News (Mark Reaman):

Gunnison County is alerting property owners of Irwin that several tests done on individual wells in the Irwin area have shown high levels of some heavy metals in the water. As a result, the county is recommending that all residents in the Irwin area have their wells tested. Arsenic appears to be the most prominent metal found in the tests but other heavy metals associated with mining were also detected.

According to Gunnison County Community Development Director Russ Forrest, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted testing on nine domestic wells belonging to residents that voluntarily let the agency test the water, surface water, ground water and soils in the Irwin area. The results of the test were sent to the county in a report and the county felt it was worthy of alerting the public.

Forrest said they heard Wednesday from the state that only those that participated in the testing were made aware of the results, so the county felt it important to make this available to those individuals that may be impacted.

According to the report the levels of arsenic exceeded government safety standards. There was some concern of lead contamination as well.

The EPA did not conduct the testing based on any single incident but was getting information in the vicinity of old mines that they are monitoring.

In a press release from the county, it was recommended that residents in the Lake Irwin Townsite and the properties around Lake Irwin test their wells at this time for heavy metals. Residents and property owners in the Lake Irwin area are receiving notices from Gunnison County that include guidance about how to test private wells.

Hay meadows near Gunnison
Hay meadows near Gunnison

#Snowpack news: All #Colorado basins now in the avg. range, storminess in the forecast

From the Fort Collins Coloradan (Jacy Marmaduke):

The recent burst of warm weather has — surprise — melted away snowpack in the South Platte River Basin.

As of Friday, the basin’s snowpack sat at 105 percent of average for this time of year. That’s down from about 112 percent of the average two weeks ago, after the big snow storm that greeted February.

High temperatures have been at least 10 degrees higher than normal all week, aside from Thursday, when the high temperature of 72 degrees was 7 degrees higher than a record set in 2004. This is all according to data from the National Weather Service and Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center.

2016 #coleg: HB16-1005 rain barrel bill

HB16-1005 (Residential Precipitation Collection) hearing on Monday the 22nd.

From KWGN:

The bill would permit Coloradans to use no more than 2 rain barrels collecting a maximum of 110 gallons of rainwater. Read the full proposal here.

“In my opinion the bill is really straightforward. It allows you collect the rain that falls on your roof then maybe put it on your garden a little later,” Rep. Jesse Danielson, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill said.

A similar measure was introduced last year but failed after some Republican senators expressed concern that collecting rainwater could deplete the water supply of rivers downstream and for the rural residents who rely on them.

Photo via the Colorado Independent
Photo via the Colorado Independent