How Colorado’s water conversation has shifted in the 21st century — The Mountain Town News

Xeriscape landscape

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Water providers have shifted their focus

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the primary water-policy agency for the state, met last week in Westminster, and afterward I had dinner with a friend. The friend, who has long worked in the environmental advocacy space, spoke of some matter before the board, and added this: “Twenty years ago this conversation never would have happened.”

Water politics in Colorado have undergone a Big Pivot. As the century turned, environmental issues had made inroads into the conversation, but water development remained a dominant theme. Then came the drought of 2002, which more or less changed everything. So has the growing realization of how the changing climate will impact the already over-extended resources of the Colorado River.

Instead of a deep, deep bucket, to be returned to again and again, the Colorado River has become more or less an empty bucket.

Jeff Tejral. Photo via The Mountain Town News

Those realizations were evident in a panel discussion at the Colorado Water Congress about water conservation and efficiency. Jeff Tejral, representing Denver Water, spoke to the “changes over the last 20 years” that have caused Denver Water and other water utilities to embrace new water-saving technology and altered choices about outdoor water use.

Denver Water literally invented the word xeriscaping. That was before the big, big drought or the understandings of climate change as a big, big deal. Twenty years ago, the Colorado Water Congress would never have hosted panels on climate change. This year it had several.

Tejral pointed to the growth in Denver, the skyscrapers now omnipresent in yet another boom cycle, one that has lifted the city’s population over 700,000 and which will likely soon move the metropolitan area’s population above 3 million. That growth argues for continued attention to water efficiency and conservation, as Denver—a key provider for many of its suburbs—has limited opportunities for development of new supplies. “The other part of it is climate change,” he said. “That means water change.”

Denver Water has partnered with a company called Greyter Water Systems on a pilot project involving 40 homes at Stapleton likely to begin in June or July. It involves new plumbing but also water reuse, not for potable purposes but for non-potable purposes. John Bell, a co-founder of the company, who was also on the panel, explained that his company’s technology allows water to be treated within the house and put to appropriate uses there at minimal cost.

“It makes no sense to flush a toilet with perfectly good drinking water, and now with Greyter, you don’t have to,” he said.

For decades Denver has had a reuse program. Sewage water treated to high standards is applied to golf courses and other landscaping purposes. Because of the requirements for separate pipes—always purple, to indicate the water is not good for drinking—its use is somewhat limited.

A proposal has been moving though the Colorado Department of Public Health rule-making process for several years now that would expand use of greywater and set requirements for direct potable reuse. The pilot project at Stapleton would appear to be part of that slow-moving process.

Greyter Water Systems, meanwhile, has been forging partnerships with homebuilders, the U.S. Department of Defense, and others in several small projects.

“It seems like 40 homes in Colorado is a small step,” said Tejral, “but a lot of learning will come out of that, which will open the door for the next 400, and then the next 4,000.”

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

There are limits to this, however, as water cannot be recycled unless it’s imported into a basin. Water users downstream depend upon releases of water from upstream. Water in the South Platte River Basin is estimated to have 6 or 7 uses before it gets to Nebraska.

In the Eagle River Valley, the streams gush with runoff from the Gore and Sawatch ranges, but there can be pinches during years of drought. That area, said Linn Brooks, who directs the Eagle River Water and Sanitation Districts, has a population of between 35,000 and 60,000 between Vail and Wolcott, “depending where we are during our tourist year.”

Water efficiency programs can make a big difference in what flows in the local creeks and rivers. Brooks pointed to 2018, a year of exceptionally low snowfall. New technologies and policies that put tools into the hands of customers reduced water use 30% during a one-month pinch, resulting in 8 cubic feet per second more water flowing in local creeks and rivers. During that time, Gore Creek was running 16 cfs through Vail. It flows into the Eagle River, which was running 25 cfs. “So saving 8 cfs was really significant,” she said.

Many of Eagle Valley’s efficiency programs focus on outdoor water use. That is because the water delivery for summer outdoor use drives the most capacity investment and delivery expenses. “Really, that is the most expensive water that we provide,” Brooks said.

Tap fees and monthly billings have been adjusted to reflect those costs. One concept embraced by Eagle River Water and Sanitation is called water budgeting. “Our hope is that water budgeting will continue to increase the downward trend of water use per customer that we’ve had for the last 20 years for at least another 10 years,” she said.

Linn Brooks. Photo via The Mountain Town News

Eagle River also has tried to incentivize good design. The district negotiates with real estate developers based on the water treatment capacity their projects will require. “That is a way to get them to build more water-efficient projects, especially on the outdoors side,” explained Brooks. “When we execute these agreements, we put water limits on them. If they go over that, we charge them more for their tap fee. That can be a pretty big cost. We don’t like to do that, but we have found that in those few cases where new developments go over their water limits, we have gone back to them and said, we might have to reassess the water tap fees, but what we really want you to do is stay within your water budget.” That tactic, she added, has usually worked.

In this concept of water budgeting, she said, “I don’t think we have even begun to scrape the surface of the potential.”

Outdoor water use has also been a focal point of efforts by Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the agency created to deliver water to customers from the trans-mountain diversion at Grand Lake. Municipalities from Broomfield and Boulder north to Fort Collins and Greeley, even Fort Morgan, get water from the diversion.

Frank Kinder was recently hired away from Colorado Springs Utilities to become the full-time water efficiency point person for Northern. Part of the agency’s effort is to introduce the idea that wall to wall turf need not be installed for a pleasing landscape. Instead, Northern pushes the idea of hybrid landscapes and also introduces alternatives for tricky areas that are hard to irrigate. The ultimate goal falls under the heading of “smiles per gallon.” Some of the district’s thinking can be seen in the xeriscaping displays at Northern’s office complex in Berthoud.

Kevin Reidy, who directs water conservation efforts for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the Colorado Water Plan posited a goal of reducing water use by 400,000 acre-feet. Don’t get caught up in that precise number, he advised. “It’s really about trying to figure out a more stable water future for our cities,” he said.

Readers might well be confused by an agency named “water conservation” having an employee with the title of “water conservation specialist.” The story here seems to be that the word conservation has changed over time. In 1937, when the agency was created, water conservation to most people meant creating dams and other infrastructure to prevent the water from flowing downhill. Now, conservation means doing as much or more with less.

On why Eagle River Water takes aim at outdoor use

The amount of water used outdoors is generally twice that used for indoor purposes, and only about 15% to 40% of water used outdoors makes its way back to local waterways.

None of this water is returned to local streams through a wastewater plant. Most of the water is consumed by plant needs or evaporation; what is leftover percolates through the ground and may eventually make its way to a local stream.

— From the Eagle River Water website

This was originally published in the Feb. 18, 2020, issue of Big Pivots.

Video opinion: Battle over San Luis Valley water draws in sandhill cranes — The #Colorado Sun

Here’s a guest column from Max Ciaglo that’s running in The Colorado Sun:

Sandhill cranes have been migrating through the San Luis Valley of Colorado for thousands of years. The Rio Grande River likely attracted the first cranes to the Valley, providing the ideal habitat and abundant food resources that they required to complete their migration.

Early settlers brought agriculture to the San Luis Valley with them. To irrigate fields to grow hay, farmers diverted water from rivers onto the land, mimicking natural wetlands and effectively expanding habitat for cranes to thrive. When wheat and barley farming began in the valley in the 1900s, it also provided a high-calorie food resource that buoyed crane populations that were dwindling throughout North America.

Max Ciaglo. Photo credit: Colorado Open Lands

More than 50% of land in the valley is now publicly owned, but over 90% of existing wetlands are on private farmlands. Although these lands and the water on them are managed as part of private business operations, they provide critical habitat for sandhill cranes.

However, we in Colorado relate all too well to the sentiment that “whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting.”

The battles are fought on many fronts: agricultural versus municipal users; rural towns versus urban centers. Water often flows towards money.

Water in Colorado’s rivers and streams is sometimes diverted from one river basin to meet the demands of another. These exports take water from once-productive agricultural lands and dry them up in the process, and the wildlife that depend on these lands are often left out of the discussion entirely.

In the San Luis Valley declining groundwater and extended drought have already left the land thirsty for water. But even now, as Colorado knocks on the door of a third decade of consistent drought conditions, other interests are eyeing water from the valley’s underground aquifer to export to growing cities on the Front Range of Colorado.

Farmers and ranchers across the valley have been working together with partners like Colorado Open Lands and other local coalitions for decades to protect and conserve their water. As they come together once again to fight the threat of water export, they are fighting to make sure that there is a future for agriculture in the Rio Grande Basin. And as long as there is a future for agriculture there will be a future for sandhill cranes.

Max Ciaglo is the Grain for Cranes Fellow at Colorado Open Lands, a statewide land and water conservation nonprofit. The Grain for Cranes program aims to support sandhill crane habitat by supporting agriculture in the San Luis Valley. Find out more at ColoradoOpenLands.org.

Sandhill cranes. Photo: Scott Helfrich/Audubon Photography Awards

#ColoradoRiver drought study advances as participants call for fairness between cities, ranches — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell would become home to a special 500,000 acre foot drought pool if Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico agree to save enough water to fill it. Credit: Creative Commons

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

If Colorado decides to join in an historic Colorado River drought protection effort, one that would require setting aside as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell, can it find a fair way to get the work done? A way that won’t cripple farm economies and one which ensures Front Range cities bear their share of the burden?

That was one of the key questions more than 100 people, citizen volunteers and water managers, addressed last week as part of a two-day meeting in Denver to continue exploring whether the state should participate in the effort. The Lake Powell drought pool, authorized by Congress last year as part of the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, would help protect Coloradans if the Colorado River, at some point in the future, hits a crisis point, triggering mandatory cutbacks.

But finding ways to set aside that much water, the equivalent of what roughly 1 million people use in a year at home, is a complex proposition. The voluntary program, if created, would pay water users who agree to participate. And it would mean farmers fallowing fields in order to send their water downstream and cities convincing their customers to do with less water in order to do the same. The concept has been dubbed “demand management.”

Among the key issues discussed at the joint Interbasin Compact Committee and demand management work group confab last week is whether there is a truly equitable way to fill the drought pool that doesn’t disproportionately impact one region or sector in the state.

In addition, a majority of participants reported that they wanted any drought plan to include environmental analyses to ensure whichever methods are selected don’t harm streams and river habitat.

Some pointed to the need to identify “tipping points” when reduced water use would create harmful economic effects in any given community, and suggested that demand management be viewed as a shared responsibility.

Flipping the narrative of shared responsibility, participants said sharing benefits equally was important as well. They want to ensure that people selected to participate would do so on a time-limited basis, so that a wide variety of entities have the opportunity to benefit from the payments coming from what is likely to be a multi-million-dollar program.

“People are starting to get it,” said Russell George. George is a former lawmaker who helped create the 15-year-old public collaborative program which facilitates and helps negotiate issues that arise among Colorado’s eight major river basins and metro area via basin roundtables. He chairs the Interbasin Compact Committee, composed of delegates from those roundtables.

“It’s understood that we have to be fair about this and we have to share [the burden] or it won’t work. I think we’re making great progress,” George said.

The Colorado River is a major source of the state’s water, with all Western Slope and roughly half of Front Range water supplies derived from its flows.

But growing populations, chronic drought and climate change pose sharp risks to the river’s ability to sustain all who depend on it. The concept behind the drought pool is to help reduce the threat of future mandatory cutbacks to Colorado water users under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

The public demand management study process, facilitated by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has caused concern among different user groups, including farmers. Because growers consume so much of the state’s water, they worry that they are the biggest target for water use reductions, which could directly harm their livelihoods if the program isn’t implemented carefully and on a temporary basis.

In early 2019 the seven states that comprise the Colorado River Basin—Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin, and Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the Upper Basin—agreed for the first time to a series of steps, known as the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, to help stave off a crisis on the river.

Colorado River Basin. Map credit: The Water Education Foundation

And while Lower Basin states have already begun cutting back water use in order to store more in Lake Mead, the four Upper Basin states are still studying how best to participate to shore up Lake Powell. For the drought pool program to move forward, all four states would need to agree and contribute to the pool. George pointed to Colorado as a leader among the four states, saying it would likely be responsible for contributing as much as 250,000 acre-feet to the pool.

“We appreciate the focus, dedication and collaboration of our work group members,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell in a statement. “This workshop was the next step in sharing ideas for Colorado’s water future, and positioning our state as a national leader for cooperative problem solving.”

The eight major volunteer work groups, addressing such topics as the law, the environment, agriculture and water administration, will continue meeting throughout the year, with a mid-point report based on their findings to date due out sometime this summer.

Travis Smith, a former CWCB board member from Del Norte who is now participating on the agriculture work group, said he is hopeful that the work groups will be able to come up with a plan the public will endorse. Any final plan will likely have to be approved by Colorado lawmakers.

“Coming together to address Colorado’s water future is something we’ve been practicing through the [nine river basin roundtables] for years. Will we get there? Absolutely,” Smith said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Bennet, Bipartisan Senators Introduce Legislation to Fully Fund LWCF, Invest in Public Land Infrastructure — @SenatorBenett

A wetland along Castle Creek. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Here’s the release from Senator Bennet’s office:

After Decade-Long Effort to Secure Full LWCF Funding, Support Builds around Bennet’s Proposal

Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Great American Outdoors Act, legislation to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and reduce the $19 billion dollar maintenance backlog on our public lands. Bennet announced the bipartisan legislation at a press conference last week.

“From Rocky Mountain National Park to the Animas River Trail, Colorado’s public lands are central to our identity and vital for our economy. After working on these proposals for years, I’m hopeful that we’ve reached a tipping point with the legislation we’ve introduced today to fully fund LWCF and address the staggering maintenance backlog, which is the result of years of chronic underfunding for our public lands,” said Bennet. “I hope that this is the start of something that our children and grandchildren can look back on and thank us for. I look forward to working with my colleagues to get this bill over the finish line.”

The Great American Outdoors Act would permanently fund LWCF at a level of $900 million and establish a separate restoration fund to address the maintenance backlog at the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Education, and the Bureau of Land Management using existing revenues from on and offshore energy development.

Bennet has made permanently reauthorizing and fully funding LWCF a top priority since joining the Senate in 2009.

Bennet led the effort to permanently reauthorize the program in Congress with U.S. Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.), introducing bipartisan legislation in 2015, and in every subsequent Congress. When LWCF expired in September 2015, Bennet spoke on the Senate floor and wrote to Congressional leadership to help secure a three-year authorization in the end-of-year spending bill. When the program was set to expire again in September 2018, Bennet worked with Burr to file an amendment to the Farm Bill. He also introduced a separate bill with U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Burr to permanently reauthorize and fully fund LWCF. In March 2019, he successfully advocated for the permanent reauthorization of LWCF as part of the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. He joined the full funding bill again in April 2019 when it was reintroduced.

Over the years, Bennet has visited several LWCF-funded projects in Colorado, including the Animas River Trail in 2016 and the Yampa River Project in 2018, to learn about and highlight the importance of LWCF in Colorado. LWCF has invested more than $281 million in Colorado projects since its inception.

Bennet has also advocated for robust funding for federal land management agencies for years, sending a letter to former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in 2017 with proposals to address the national park maintenance backlog in Colorado. Bennet cosponsored the Restore Our Parks Act in 2018, and was an original cosponsor of the legislation when it was reintroduced in 2019.

Most voters favor enviroment protections — The #ColoradoSprings Independent @RockiesProject

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project Conservation in the West poll, released Feb. 20, shows Colorado voters support protecting more public lands in the face of climate change and energy development threats. The 10th annual poll also surveyed voters in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming and found:

• 69 percent of those polled label themselves as “conservationists” and vote accordingly.
• 81 percent consider an elected official’s stance on issues involving water, air, wildlife and public lands “important” when deciding how to vote.
• 47 percent say those are “primary” issues in their voting decision, a sharp increase from 31 percent in 2016.

“… voters in Colorado and across the West increasingly believe their lands and lifestyles are coming under attack from the impacts of climate change and energy development,” CC associate professor and director of the State of the Rockies Project Corina McKendry said in a release. Read more at https://www.coloradocollege.edu/stateoftherockies/conservationinthewest/.

Colorado College poll: Western voters find common ground on environment as priority — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Mary Shinn):

Climate change has long been one of the most polarizing issues dividing conservative and progressive voters, but a recent Colorado College poll of residents in eight Western states found potential for common ground on environmental protections..

National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara said he expected the hyper-local effects of climate change, such as wildfire and drought, to succeed in uniting voters on the need for action, where national climate campaigns focused on puffins and polar bears had failed.

“When we’re talking about fires in your backyard … talking about the droughts, things that affect backyards, it all of a sudden becomes real and it all of a sudden becomes a shared value,” O’Mara said, during a panel about the poll results.

The 10th annual State of the Rockies survey conducted in January supports O’Mara’s expectation showing 80% of voters in Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico and Idaho consider a public official’s stance on air, water, wildlife and public lands protections a primary election issue on par with the economy, health care and education.

Decades of political inaction on climate change and carbon-cutting measures was driven, in part, by a “false choice” between protecting the environment and hurting the economy, said former Democratic Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.

Now that renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, have fallen below the cost of coal-fired power plants, he said he expects more conservatives to back a transition to clean energy because there is a strong business case for it.

Market forces have already pushed major electrical utilities in Western states to embrace ambitious targets for cutting coal power in the coming years because renewables are a more economical choice, he said. Since 2008, all of the coal-powered generation that has been retired in the West has been replaced by renewable generation, he said…

Many Republicans in Western states believe in conservation, in part, because they are hunters and anglers, said Greg Brophy, Colorado director for The Western Way, a right-leaning conservation group. His assertion is backed up by the recent poll, which found 69% of voters across all eight states identify as conservationists.

However, Republicans want to make sure environmental protection is done in a way that is affordable and makes economic sense, he said…

Nationally, concern about climate change is rising faster among Democrats than Republicans with some ranking it as the No. 1 issue over health care, housing and the economy nationally, said Dave Metz, with FM3 research, a left-leaning company that worked on the poll.

Among conservative voters, climate change has not risen to the top as dramatically, but awareness about it is growing as they observe severe weather patterns over time, said Lori Weigel, with New Bridge Strategy, a right-leaning company that worked on the poll.

The poll reflected that changing sentiment with 32% of voters across five Western states, including Colorado, naming climate change the most important environmental problem, up from 5% in 2011.

The poll examined the views of 3,200 voters on a range of environmental issues, including renewable energy, water, public land and wildlife protections. Of those polled, 39% identified as conservative, 35% as moderate, and 23% as an independent or another affiliation and 3% refused to identify their political party.

Here’s a guest column from Marne Hayes that’s running in Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

A decade of polling by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies project shows that people across the West care deeply and are increasingly concerned about issues related to our outdoor way of life and the quality of our air, water, wildlife and public lands. The Colorado College Conservation in the West poll surveys the views of eight Mountain West states including Montana and looks at how these priorities and concerns influence voters.

The poll results released this week show that nationally, 80% consider a decision maker’s stance on issues involving air, water, public lands and wildlife when gauging their support; up significantly from just 31% in 2016. In Montana, that number jumps to 84%, with 75% of us considering ourselves conservationists, concerned with issues that affect our outdoor way of life, and our natural assets. Half of those polled across the West – 44% – said that these issues are not just important, but a “primary factor” in their decision to support elected officials.

The poll touches on everything from the basic qualities of our air, water and wildlife issues woven through our public lands, as well as the opinions about policies that focus on protections, issues related to oil and gas development, mining on public lands, climate change concerns and support for programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund that invest in our outdoor infrastructure.

In Montana, 67% of us support full, dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and 73% think that portions of existing public lands where wildlife migrate each year should not be open to oil and gas drilling. Fifty-seven percent of those polled think that action should be taken to address climate change – a +12 percentage-point jump from 2011. Past research by the University of Montana offers related findings, with 82% of Montanans overwhelmingly saying that public lands help the economy.

Clearly, our public lands and the outdoor way of life that supports our communities, jobs and the economy of the state are of deep importance to us in Montana. The Colorado College poll shows that support for conservation on public lands remains consistent and strong over the last decade, with “urgency and demand for action” intensifying as voters in Montana and the West “increasingly believe their lands and lifestyles are coming under attack” from impacts of threats to our public lands. The urgency behind these concerns is not just about our way of life, but our livelihoods as well.

Montana’s outdoor industry supports 71,000 jobs and consumer spending at over $7 billion. With nearly 34 million acres of public lands serving over 20 million visitors annually, our outdoors are a critical pillar in a thriving and robust economy across the state.

Gov. Bullock, who this week presented on the findings of the Conservation in the West Poll summed it up, saying, “Folks out West have a special appreciation for our public lands, and we know our public lands are our heritage, our birthright, and our great equalizer.” In addition to providing the backdrop for our Montana way of life, study after study shows our public lands are crucial to our economic future and the small businesses leading the way.

Our public lands, our air, clean water and wildlife are all critical to our Montana way of life. In the roster of Business for Montana’s Outdoors, 225 business and roughly 4,600 jobs are directly impacted by our outdoors, and the competitive advantages that our public lands provide. It is clear that as Montanans, and citizens of the West, we are increasingly concerned, and want our elected leaders to fight for responsible conservation policies because jobs and our economic future depend on it. We hope those officials and those campaigning to hold public office are listening.

To see the full poll, visit http://www.coloradocollege.edu/stateoftherockies/conservationinthewest

Report: Colorado’s farm water use exceeds national average, despite efforts to conserve — @WateEdCO

An irrigation ditch flows on the Marshall Mesa in Boulder County. A new USDA report shows little progress has been made in reducing overall ag water use in the state, despite millions of dollars spent on water-saving projects. Credit: Jerd Smith via The Fresh Water News (Water Education Colorado)

From The Fresh Water News (Jerd Smith):

Colorado’s farm water use remains stubbornly high, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, despite millions of dollars spent on experimental water-saving programs and a statewide push to conserve water.

Farm water is critical to Colorado’s effort to balance a growing population with a water system stressed by drought and climate change. Farmers are the largest users of water in Colorado and other Western states. On the Front Range, for instance, growers use about 89 percent of available supplies, according to the Colorado Water Plan, while cites and industry consume less than 10 percent.

State water officials and environmentalists have long called for finding ways to use less water on farms as one way to make Colorado’s drought- and growth-pressured supplies go further.

Although some individual operations are finding success in improving water efficiency, the new report shows little progress has been made on a statewide level. While the national average has gone steadily down since 2003, Colorado’s ag water use has not changed, remaining almost exactly where it was 17 years ago, according to the USDA’s Irrigation and Water Management Survey, which is conducted every five years.

Colorado growers applied an average of 1.6 acre-feet of water per acre in 2018, according to the USDA, slightly above the 1.5 acre-foot-per-acre average nationwide.

Graphic via Water Education Colorado

Bill Meyer, Colorado director of the USDA program that produces the survey, said it wasn’t clear why the numbers aren’t showing a reduction. “You would assume that with better technologies and farming practices that it would have gone down.”

A complex beast

But Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg said the USDA report doesn’t capture the layered realities of Western water.

“These surveys and charts don’t tell the whole story,” Greenberg said. “It’s an incredibly complex beast, both from the legal and hydrologic perspective.”

The new report comes at the same time Colorado cities, such as Denver, have become remarkably savvy in cutting water use, saving more than 20 percent in the last decade. They’ve done this largely by shrinking lawns, offering incentives to use water-saving plants, and enacting price increases, strategies that are largely unavailable to farmers.

And Colorado isn’t the only state struggling.

Seven arid states comprise the Colorado River Basin—Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California—and all exceed the national average for farm water use, with the exception of Wyoming, which uses 1.5 acre-feet of water per acre, in line with the national average.

While it comes as no surprise that arid states would use more water than rain-rich states like Nebraska and Missouri, it doesn’t make the problem any less urgent, water officials said.

The pressure is on

Water managers are well aware of the public call for conservation.

“There is no doubt that with climate change and urbanization, the pressure is on [to reduce the use of] ag water,” said Aaron Derwingson, a farm water expert with The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Project. “A lot of people are saying, ‘If ag got more efficient we wouldn’t have [these looming shortages] this problem.”

Numerous programs are aimed at further improving farm water efficiency and conserving water that could eventually be freed up to share with cities or to benefit the environment while preserving farm economies.

Derek White Heckman farms 1,200 acres near Lamar in southeastern Colorado. In an effort to become more efficient with his water use, he is experimenting with cover crops, which when grown after a major crop such as corn is harvested help boost soil nutrients and, equally important, help keep moisture in the soil. Because rain is so scarce in this region, he’s willing to try almost anything to make sure he uses every drop of water that comes through his irrigation ditch.

And none of the work is easy, Greenberg said.

“Producers have been making progress in using new efficient technologies, but just because they are getting more efficient, doesn’t mean that they are going to divert less,” Greenberg said. “The legal liability for water right holders is that if they don’t use the full amount, they risk losing it.”

She is referring to Colorado’s prior appropriation system, in which the right to use water can be maintained only if it continues to be put to beneficial use. Water rights are subject to complex quantification analyses in the event of a transfer or sale. Although the only part of the water right that is transferable is the part that is technically “consumed” to grow the crop, much misconception remains around the notion of “use it or lose it.” Farmers who divert less, as they’re being encouraged to do, often don’t, because they fear losing their full water right, Greenberg said.

Ancient v. modern irrigation

Decades ago, the majority of Colorado farm fields were watered using flood irrigation, a simple, but labor-intensive method that fills field furrows with water to saturate adjacent rows. It is considered only 50 percent efficient. Today, less than half of those fields are watered using flood irrigation, with the majority now using a much more efficient technology that sprinkles fields, allowing water to be applied more precisely and reducing evaporation, according to the USDA report.

An irrigation system known as a center pivot sprinkler sits in a field near Longmont, Colo. The systems have helped Colorado use its farm water more efficiently, but state use still exceeds the national average. Credit: Jerd Smith via The Fresh Water News (Water Education Colorado)

Still, the most modern, efficient systems for irrigating crops, subsurface or drip irrigation, are used on fewer than 1 percent of Colorado fields, according to the USDA, in part because they are much more expensive than traditional methods and because they don’t fit well with Colorado’s crop mix.

Nationwide roughly 10 percent of farm fields use these modern systems, according to the USDA survey.

Drip systems work best with high-dollar crops, such as vegetables, which comprise a small portion of Colorado’s farm economy.

Pricey upgrades

The vast majority of Colorado farmers grow corn, wheat and hay, whose low commodity prices don’t justify pricey high-tech watering technologies, Greenberg said.

Installation of one sprinkler system, for instance, can cost $700 per acre, while a subsurface drip irrigation system can cost nearly twice that amount, at $1,331, according to research done at Kansas State University.

The lack of progress frustrates farm conservation experts. They say that changes to Colorado’s laws to remove conservation disincentives may be needed as well as more funding to modernize farm ditches and diversion structures.

“It’s a tough situation,” said Joel Schneekloth, regional water resource specialist with the Colorado State University Extension Service.

Finding just enough

Colorado’s scenic, historic irrigation ditches lose significant amounts of water to seepage and evaporation, some of which actually enhances wildlife habitat and streams and helps ensure farmers downstream have enough water (via return flows) to fulfill their own water rights.

“It takes a certain amount of water just to run a canal system,” Schneekloth said. “Often you can’t reduce that amount unless you line the canals, but then you run into reduced return flows farther downstream.”

“We would like to get to a point where we are putting on just enough water, but not excess water,” Schneekloth said.

Clint Evans is Colorado State Conservationist with the USDA. His agency spent $45 million in 2019 on some 600 farm water conservation projects, all with the hope of helping Colorado farmers use their water more efficiently. And the projects have shown some success.

One project in the Grand Valley has lined and piped miles of irrigation ditches, allowing some 30,000 acre-feet of previously diverted water to remain in the Colorado River.

Still, given the vast amounts of water used, these small programs have yet to move the needle significantly, according to the report.

Food or development?

Even as Colorado considers new ways to conserve farm water, some fear that across-the-board cuts in farm water use could cripple local farm economies, hurt streams and wetlands that have come to rely on the excess water that flows off of irrigated fields, and eventually limit Colorado’s ability to grow food.

“The most common way I’ve seen the narrative framed is, ‘If ag uses 80 percent of the water, and we could get that down to 70 percent, the Front Range could grow [urbanize] as much as it wants,” Greenberg said, “meaning that growth has a greater value than water used in farming.

“What we could choose to say, instead, is that we value our farmers and ranchers, and we value being able to produce our own food just as much as the rampant development that is gobbling up ag land and ag water,” Greenberg said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.