From The Deseret News ( Sofia Jeremias):
Can farmers stop cities from buying their water rights and drying out agricultural land?
Crowley County relied on water from the nearby Arkansas River, and had over 50,000 acres of irrigated farmland until a spate of water sales took place in the ’70s and ’80s. (An acre-foot of water is enough to meet the needs for two families in a year.)
By 2002, only about 6,000 irrigated acres remained, and by 2017, the number had dropped to roughly 4,600.
In the dry and arid West, where little rain falls, irrigation is the life blood of farming.
As droughts become more persistent and urban growth across the Mountain West continues to skyrocket, agricultural communities are increasingly worried about losing their water to far away cities — turning the towns into dust bowls with few job prospects.
Since 2010, the West’s large cities and small towns have seen an average population growth of 9.1% and 13.3%, respectively. From 2018-2019, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado were the top three fastest growing states in terms of new housing.
At the same time, the West is experiencing one of its worst droughts in years. More than a third of the West is experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, and 72.5 million people are living in areas “affected by drought,” The Washington Post recently reported.
According to Colorado’s 2015 Water Plan between 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated land in the state could disappear by 2050 due to urbanization.
While places like Colorado’s Front Range, home to a corridor of the state’s largest cities from Denver to Boulder, continues to grow and climate change exacerbates drought conditions, the discourse over water is only going to get more tense.
Water markets didn’t consider the ripple effects
Heimerich, who is originally from New York, met and married a girl from Crowley County and they decided to move there in 1987 after his wife was offered a job as a nurse practitioner.
His father-in-law was a farmer, and he decided to try his hand at the business.
Heimerich’s father-in-law was one of the few who refused to sell his water rights in the past decades…
In Crowley, water wasn’t just sold from one farmer to another, or even to nearby cities. Instead, the water flowed out of the county and to Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo (towns between 50 to 100 miles east of the county).
Because farmers in Crowley organized their farms around joint irrigation canals, once a certain percentage of the farmers that owned shares in a canal sold out, it made maintenance (from repairing breaks in lining to removing vegetation) more difficult and a heavier burden on those left behind.
Heimerich said the water sales were like a divorce, or the splitting of assets after a family member has died and didn’t leave a will: “It’s that kind of underlying tension, and there’s no real forethought to what the long-term consequences are going to be.”
Or, as one Crowley County farmer told a newspaper in 1992, “The ones who sold their water sold out their county.”
Permanent dry up, like the one time sales that happened in Crowley, happens for a few different reasons: One is if there’s a water shortage that affects both cities and farms, another is water shortages that affect only agriculture, and another is an increased demand for water in areas outside of agriculture.
What happened in Crowley County was so dire that it has since become the poster child for the negative consequences of “buy-and-dry,” when water goes from supplying farms to cities…
Plus, the large swaths of dried out farmland have also created ecological problems — from dust to weeds…
A new way to share water
People in Colorado, and other states in the West, have been looking into alternatives to “buy and dry” — a way to balance booming urban populations, water shortages and the needs of agriculture.
In the past, the roll of water courts in Colorado wasn’t to consider the ripple effects that water sales have on the communities when large amounts of land go dry, said Scott Campbell, a conservation planner and water consultant. “We just need to figure out better ways to help manage our water sources.”
One of the solutions that’s been gaining traction is water sharing agreements. Campbell has been a proponent for a new kind of water market: one where water is a “cash crop,” something farmers can lease to municipalities (rather than a one-off sale) and provides another form of stable income…
However, despite a handful of pilot programs, water sharing agreements have yet to become ubiquitous, although they originated in California nearly two decades ago.
Palo Verde, California, farmers started leasing water to the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California in the early 2000s. A similar agreement occurred with the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California…
In March, Utah’s governor signed a water banking bill, which would allow farmers to lease water to municipalities. And in Wyoming, ranchers were paid to forgo irrigation and instead let their water run down the rivers that feed Lake Powell and Lake Mead…
Eric Hanagan is a fifth generation farmer in Otero County. He farms about 1,500 acres, primarily vegetables, seedless watermelons, cantaloupes, peppers and tomatoes, along with a few alfalfa fields…
Hanagan began participating in a water leasing agreement a few years ago. A third of his farmland is fallowed (i.e. he does not plant crops) each year. The water is then leased to municipalities…
Hanagan’s land is irrigated by the Catlin Canal, one of many irrigation ditches that feeds water from the Arkansas River to the surrounding land.
His farm is one of six on the canal that participates in the lease-fallowing program. Farms that leased their water received about $700 dollars per fallowed acre according to the 2019 report from the Lower Arkansas Valley Super Ditch Company…
Will cities and farmers accept alternatives at greater scale?
It remains an open question whether or not cities in the Mountain West will be open to leasing rather than buying water rights and permanently drying up farms.
“It just gives us a level of certainty and control that you don’t get as part of a rotational leasing program,” said Alan Ward, the division manager for water resources for Pueblo, another city in the Arkansas Basin that has been experiencing moderate population growth in the past few years.
In 2009, Ward started to worry about the impacts of climate change, making the water they receive from the Colorado River less reliable. So the city of Pueblo started purchasing water in an irrigation ditch east of the city…
While Pueblo doesn’t need the water they’ve purchased just yet — they currently lease the water back to farmers, some are worried about what will happen when the city does need the water it purchased.
“They are poised to dry about 5,000 acres of some of our best production ground in the state,” said Campbell, who is working on an effort called the Bessemer Project, which aims to retain some of the irrigated land along the Bessemer where water rights were sold to Pueblo.
“Unfortunately what happened in this sale, and what happens in a lot of these buy and dry deals, is that some of the best farm ground could be dried.”Campbell hopes to try a variety of different methods to keep some the best irrigated land along the Bessemer ditch in production — from rotational fallowing to water sharing to using more efficient ways of irrigating.