From Colorado to California, a snowy late spring finally broke through what was left of the drought’s fierce grip. Soil is saturated again, reservoirs are full and water worries have temporarily receded as farms return to their full productive capability.
Even so, wrestling over water during the recent shortages was a wake-up call for agricultural leaders who are now putting heightened importance on developing better outreach to the public while still pushing long-term resource planning.
“Consumers enjoy what we produce but they don’t really understand what it takes to do it,” summarized Alicia Rockwell, the director of corporate communications for Blue Diamond, a large almond growing cooperative with more than 3,000 members who each farm on average 50 to 70 acres of trees. Agricultural groups in the two states are undertaking new forms of what Rockwell calls “ag reputation management” while looking ahead at how to address future water needs…
In Colorado, the Ag Water Alliance, a decade-long collaboration among representatives of the state’s agricultural groups, has put much of their emphasis in recent years on educating farmers and water-users on water rights issues and exploring new alternatives for sharing water between high priority uses.
In recent weeks the group hosted two bus tours, geared specifically to the general public, which traveled through some of the most highly productive irrigated farmland in the state. By demonstrating how irrigation systems work, explaining terminology and discussing evolving conservation practices, growers of high value crops like fruit and vegetables, wine grapes, dairy products and feed hope to begin a long-term dialogue that will pay off down the road.
During the tours, participants had a chance to learn more about alternative transfer methods, which make it possible for farmers to lease water rights to municipalities for use in times of scarcity. It is one of the most innovative and promising solutions to come out of the water shortages of the last two decades.
“We’re just trying to keep the water tied to the land,” explained Phil Brink, director of the Ag Water NetWORK, a collaborative project funded by a grant from the Partners for Western Conservation and the Walton Family Foundation. “We want to avoid what happened in Crowley County, where the county was dried up and it never recovered from that.”
Not only do these flexible leasing arrangements give farmers the option to lease water without selling it outright, they also help enhance revenue for ditch companies and irrigation districts. Municipalities use it like an insurance policy, knowing they can make a call on the water during critical shortages, while farmers rotate into low-water crops or fallow marginal land.
“We know it’s better than buy-and-dry, because as a farmer you maintain ownership of the water,” said Gene Manuello, a farmer-feeder from Sterling, past president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and a long-time member of the ag water alliance. “But whenever water is transferred, you’re still drying up agricultural acres. As a farmer, I don’t like to think of myself as being in the business of leasing water.”
In short, Manuello doesn’t want to see these new leasing arrangements take the emphasis away from something better: building more storage to capture ample spring runoff before it leaves the state, which would expand the total amount of available water and help alleviate recurring shortfalls.
Building new reservoirs is a lengthy, expensive process and an increasingly hard sell with the public. That’s what makes interaction and education so important.
California is in a similar quandary, as Jim Morris, communications manager for the California Rice Commission, explained recently.
“We’re both an agricultural state and an urban state, and there are challenges that go with that,” he said.
Ag groups there are backing the Sites project, a large reservoir planned for the foothills west of the Sacramento Valley that would increase water storage in northern California by 23 percent, in part by expanding flexibility to leverage additional storage from existing reservoirs as well.
Billed as meeting “co-equal” goals of water supply enhancement and ecosystem improvements, it has been carefully designed not to dam an existing river or block fish migration.
Colorado, too, appears to be making slow progress toward its own goal of increasing water storage.
In 2016, a bill instructed the state legislature to examine 72 sites for future reservoirs, a list that has since been winnowed down to 12 of the most promising locations. Meanwhile, the Windy Gap project near Granby received its final permit in May.
In addition, the state’s water conservation board is investing $25 million of new grant money over five years in exploring “multi-partner, multi-benefit” pilot projects, according to John Stulp, the state’s water czar.
When a collaborative approach is taken, surprising synergies can emerge. In California, Morris describes an interesting case concerning rice-growing practices. After Northern California rice growers were forced to stop burning their straw, due to air quality concerns, and began flooding their fields in the winter with about four inches of water to aid the straw’s decomposition, birds and wildlife suddenly flourished. While the new production method is more costly, it has paid unexpected dividends in support from conservation and wildlife groups, Morris said.
“Having the Audubon Society lobbying on behalf of rice is much more effective than if we do it ourselves,” he said. “The story that moves the needle with the public is the environment.”
Morris said the benefits discovered so far are likely to lead to other breakthroughs. For example, University of California-Davis researchers are now looking into whether flooded rice fields can be used to raise threatened species of Pacific salmon and other types of fish.
“There’s a lot of research going on and it’s really exciting,” Morris said. “People are receptive, which is encouraging. It just shows you that communication is everything.”