#Colorado residents generally value agriculture

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association’s Ag Water NetWORK via The Fence Post:

Every five years since 1996, the Colorado Department of Agriculture has surveyed Coloradans about food and agriculture.

What have they found? Residents generally value agriculture. That might not apply to the driver who honks incessantly behind a tractor lumbering down the road, but 95 percent of 1,000 respondents surveyed in 2016 indicated that maintaining land and water in agricultural production was “somewhat or very important.” That is down about 2 percentage points from previous surveys; but still a strong, positive response. The survey also found broad support (83 percent) for preserving agricultural land by using public funds to buy development rights from farmers and ranchers who want to sell them. A majority (86 percent) of respondents also thought open space programs should help minimize farm and ranch loss.

This is all positive for agriculture, but it’s noteworthy that during the 20-year time span over which the survey has been conducted, Colorado has lost an estimated 600,000 acres of irrigated farmland. That number is based on a comparison of irrigated acreages reported in the 1996 and 2016 Colorado Agricultural Statistics reports. That’s about 938 square miles of land taken out of production — an area slightly larger than the land area of Rio Grande County in the San Luis Valley. During that time, our state’s population has increased by about 1.6 million people based on U.S. Census data.

According to the state water plan, Colorado could lose another 600,000 acres (+/-) of irrigated agricultural land by the year 2050 if the status quo of “buying and drying” irrigated farmland to supply water for growth continues. For perspective, 600,000 acres represents slightly less than one-fourth of the remaining 2.6 million acres of irrigated acreage we have left in Colorado.

If history serves as a guide, very few “dried-up” acres will ever return to irrigated production. Yet, future generations of farmers will need more land and water — not less — to grow food for a much larger population, both in Colorado and the western U.S.

What can be done? The water plan puts forth a strategy for closing the projected 560,000 acre-feet gap between current municipal and industrial water supplies and the amount they’ll need by 2050. The strategy includes conservation, storage and ag water leasing, which is also referred to as an alternative transfer mechanism (ATM).

Most people living in a front range town or city are already aware of conservation efforts being promoted and implemented by their municipal water suppliers. Rate payers are reminded monthly of the incentive to conserve water when they receive their water bills; which increasingly include tiered rates that ratchet up with increased water use, as well as rebates for purchasing water saving devices. Denver Water, for example, reports that water use has been cut by about 20 percent over the last decade through conservation.

Planned storage projects, which include the Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation Project, Gross Reservoir Expansion, Chimney Hollow Reservoir, and the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP), will collectively add about 400,000 acre-feet of mostly wet weather storage capacity along the northern Front Range. Denver Water and other municipalities are also exploring underground storage areas where treated water can be pumped into aquifers during wet years and pumped back out in dry years.

The third objective of the water plan’s three-pronged water provision strategy is ag water leasing. The water plan puts forth a goal of 50,000 acre-feet per year to be leased from agriculture to municipal and industrial interests. The conceptual benefit of ag water leasing is two-fold: 1) it can help supply water to communities during dry years and top off storage supplies after droughts, and 2) it provides ag water right holders with a non-commodity-based income that, for some, may serve as a desirable alternative to selling their water permanently. The survey conducted last year by Colorado Cattlemen’s Association’s Ag Water NetWORK found that ag water right holders preferred leasing over selling by more than a 20:1 margin when given the choice.

Producer interest in ag water leasing and the success of projects such as the Catlin Canal Fallow-Lease Pilot Project and North Sterling Irrigation District’s leases to Xcel Energy and BNN Energy suggest that well-managed, adequately-compensated leases can provide the benefits described above.

In order for ag water leasing to become widespread, it must work for all involved parties and not incentivize fallowing where water is not under threat of being sold. Ag water right holders must view leasing as a superior alternative to selling their water rights. Municipalities must view leasing as a desirable way to meet a portion of their water needs, through temporal lease agreements; and perhaps, a means of providing broader community benefit. If part of the recognized benefit to communities — beyond just receiving water — is helping to preserve irrigated ag land for future generations, then ag water leasing may garner greater community support based on the findings of the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s survey. To be successful over the long term, irrigation water for leasing cannot be pulled from agriculture production beyond actual demand for municipal water supplies … thus ensuring a strong lease market and limiting unnecessary ag land dry up.

One in fifteen trees in #Colorado forests are dead

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacy Marmaduke):

The influence of the lingering dead — the product of decades of misguided forest management — trickles down to nearly every Colorado resident. It puts the state in the crosshairs of devastating wildfire and compromises the delicate relationship between forests and the people who rely on them for clean and plentiful water.

The forests that coat Colorado’s western terrain tell a story of loss, both past and future: the High Park Fire and beetle kills, smoky skies and barren branches. But as the dead fall and the young grow stronger, these forests tell a story of hope, too.

You need only look a little closer.

But West doesn’t blame beetles alone for the state of Colorado’s forests. The roots of today’s problems trace back to the early 1900s, when the commercial timber industry was booming and forest fires were blackening millions of acres across the West.

A newborn federal agency called the U.S. Forest Service started funneling resources into fighting those fires.

In 1935, the forest service’s “10 a.m. rule” mandated that all fires be suppressed by 10 a.m. the day after the initial report. In 1944, the forest service introduced Smokey the Bear as the huggable face of fire prevention.

Those well-intended efforts would eventually set up Colorado for huge wildfires like the High Park Fire, which burned more than 87,000 acres and 259 homes west of Fort Collins in 2012.

Forests need fire. The flames thin out overgrown stands, making room for younger trees to grow and regenerate forests.

Removing wildfire from the equation left Colorado forests with a monoculture: Thick, overgrown stands of trees that are the same species, size and age. Some low-elevation ponderosa pine forests have 100 trees per acre where there should be 40, forcing the trees to compete with their neighbors for resources.

Enter bark beetles, which West calls “the sanitizers of the forest.” The bugs are a sort of Lysol spray that scrub away the weak, the diseased and the lightning-damaged. Add a dash of bark beetles to overpopulated forests, though, and you end up with an all-you-can-eat beetle buffet.

“You throw on top of that a drought, and it allows these bark beetle populations to build up to the point where the trees are basically defenseless,” West said.

Trees protect themselves with resin, a natural armor. Some tree resins wage chemical warfare on insects, while others trap and smother the attackers.

But trees stressed by drought or facing a swelling army of insects can’t hold out forever. Eventually their defenses fail.

When that happens, bark beetles gnaw a hole in the tree’s inner tissues and have celebratory sex right in the entryway. With plenty of grub and faltering tree defenses, beetles breed en masse and work their way through every large tree in the area before moving on. They leave the small trees behind for the grandkids.

This happened with the mountain pine beetle, which swept across about 3.4 million acres of Colorado forests — 14 percent — between 1996 and 2016. Now it’s happening with the spruce beetle, which infested 1.7 million acres in the same period and has been Colorado’s most-harmful tree pest for five straight years.

West doubts the spruce beetle will ease up anytime soon as Colorado forests continue to face overcrowding and the effects of climate change.

#ColoradoRiver: “Why do the downstreamers deserve a pat on the back?” — @EklundCO #COriver

Detailed Colorado River Basin map via the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Here’s a guest column written by James Eklund that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

So why do the downstreamers deserve a pat on the back? Two reasons.

First, the Lower Basin acknowledges that the river’s projections fluctuate wildly from month to month, sometimes week to week. Readers of this paper know that, in the Upper Basin, we are used to wide swings in water availability from year to year and we maintain flexibility in our water management as a result. If you hadn’t experienced this variability, if you sat below the nation’s two largest reservoirs, it would be easy to put off water shortage discussions until later, maximize your water withdrawals every year, and leave the issue for some future generation. But the Lower Basin isn’t taking the short-term gain/long-term pain approach and that’s commendable. Just as we in the Upper Basin are working on a drought contingency plan, so too is the Lower Basin driving hard at a drought contingency plan that will define how shortages are shared.

Second, these contingency plans benefit from some understanding with the Republic of Mexico about how water shortages would be shared internationally. Officials in the Basin States and Mexico realize we are all better off with greater certainty on this point and have agreed to Minute 323 to the 1944 U.S.-Mexico water treaty. The Minute — which addresses water shortages, water for the environment, investment in water projects and salinity — smooths the runway for the Basin States to land drought contingency plans.

Thankfully, our Lower Basin counterparts appreciate our differences as well as the symbiotic nature of the two basins and are working hard to help the varied interests in their states understand the long-term value in more measured reservoir releases from Lake Mead. They recognize that big water releases from Lake Mead present only short-lived highs (insert your worst Colorado marijuana joke) and longer-term hangovers (insert tired old “whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting” quote). Put another way, large releases of water from Lake Mead, while they may benefit some users in the short-run, are more painful for everyone in the long-run. Instead, more measured releases from Lake Mead, combined with shortage-sharing agreements, form the recipe for the seven basin states’ sage stewardship of this river.

Both basins agree that these negotiations are complex, collegial, at times contentious and always passionate. After all, it’s water we’re talking about! Each state maintains a sense of urgency to craft our contingency plans, not solely due to fear of additional dry years, but primarily because we sense an opportunity. We currently have the right personalities, focused on the right issues, at the right moment in time to achieve successful management of the Colorado River.

Moreover, the governors in each of the seven basin states may be of different political parties but they share a commitment to wise water management and leaving the Colorado River system better than they found it. Arriving at a mutually-agreeable path forward to protect critical water storage levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead that all of us should embrace and follow.