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.

@ColoradoStateU engineering hosts interactive #climatechange exhibit, March 3, 2020, panel

Take a journey through climate change with a visit to the exhibit, Real People, Real Climate, Real Changes. Bring your family and friends, and learn together how climate is changing and how it is affecting people’s lives around the country and around the world.

Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Anne Manning):

Real People, Real Climate, Real Changes” – a traveling exhibit launched by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) – is on display at the Colorado State University Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering this spring.

To celebrate the exhibit and partnership, NCAR and the college will host an NCAR Explorer Series panel discussion and reception from 5-7 p.m. March 3 in the atrium of the Scott Bioengineering Building, 700 Meridian Ave. (northeast corner of Laurel and Meridian avenues), in Fort Collins. The event is free and open to the public. The panel will begin at 6 p.m.

Registration, parking

Due to limited space, registration is required at https://advancing.colostate.edu/NCAREXHIBIT. Parking is free after 4 p.m. in Lot 310 on the north side of the Lory Student Center.

Some of the college’s leading experts in climate change will serve on the panel, including Jim Hurrell, former director of NCAR who is now Scott Presidential Chair in Environmental Science and Engineering at CSU. His research in atmospheric science centers on analyses and model simulations of climate, climate variability and climate change.

Other panelists

Bob Henson, a meteorologist and writer at Weather Underground, who helped develop the traveling NCAR climate exhibit as a consultant.

Tami Bond, CSU’s Scott Presidential Chair in Energy, Environment and Health and professor in mechanical engineering, who studies complex links between energy, climate and human choices.

Ellison Carter, CSU assistant professor, civil engineering, who studies health impacts of household energy use.

Emily Fischer, CSU associate professor, atmospheric science, who studies impacts of oil and gas development on air quality and connection between fires and air quality.

David Randall, CSU University Distinguished Professor, atmospheric science, who studies the effects of clouds on climate and how to represent cloud effects in climate models.

Russ Schumacher, CSU associate professor, atmospheric science, and Colorado State Climatologist, who studies weather forecasting and precipitation extremes such as flash floods.

Exhibit through March 12

The interactive exhibit will be open to the public in the Scott Bioengineering Building atrium through March 12.

“Our faculty are conducting innovative research on energy, air quality, protecting our environment, and water – all areas impacted by climate change – so we are excited to showcase this exhibit,” said CSU engineering dean Dave McLean. “NCAR and Jim [Hurrell] have given us a wonderful opportunity to better connect with our community, and also help tell the story of the science behind climate change.”

“Real People, Real Climate, Real Changes” was developed by NCAR and the UCAR Center for Science Education to help share the science of climate change and how it impacts people’s lives. The exhibit was made possible with funds provided by the National Science Foundation.

Using pictures, infographics, and personal stories, the traveling exhibit explains how scientists know the climate is changing, what that future may look like, and how the impacts are affecting people, from flooding and drought to sea level rise and severe weather. The exhibit also allows visitors to explore how their own choices make a difference.

#Colorado Ag #Water Alliance: Water Quality and Your Farm’s Bottom Line – Brush, Colorado, February 24, 2020

Click here for all the inside skinny and register.

2020 #OgallalaAquifer Summit in Amarillo, #TX, March 31 – April 1, 2020 — The #Kansas #Water Office

Here’s the release from the Kansas Water Office (Katie Patterson-Ingels, Amy Kremen):

8-State Conversation to Highlight Actions & Programs Benefitting the Aquifer, Ag, and Ogallala communities

The 2020 Ogallala Aquifer Summit will take place in Amarillo, Texas, from March 31 to April 1, bringing together water management leaders from all eight Ogallala region states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming. The dynamic, interactive event will focus on encouraging exchange among participants about innovative programs and effective approaches being implemented to address the region’s significant water-related challenges.

“Tackling Tough Questions,” is the theme of the event. Workshops and speakers share and compare responses to questions such as: “What is the value of groundwater to current and future generations” and “how do locally-led actions aimed at addressing water challenges have larger-scale impact?”

“The summit provides a unique opportunity to strengthen collaborations among a diverse range of water-focused stakeholders,” said summit co-chair Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU. “Exploring where we have common vision and identifying innovative concepts or practices already being implemented can catalyze additional actions with potential to benefit the aquifer and Ogallala region communities over the short- and long-term.”

Schipanski co-directs the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) with Colorado Water Center director and summit co-chair Reagan Waskom, who is also a faculty member in Soil and Crop Sciences. The Ogallala Water CAP, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has a multi-disciplinary team of 70 people based at 10 institutions in 6 Ogallala-region states, engaged in collaborative research and outreach aimed at sustaining agriculture and ecosystems in the region.

Some Ogallala Water CAP research and outreach results will be shared at the 2020 Ogallala Summit. The Ogallala Water CAP has led the coordination of this event, in partnership with colleagues at Texas A&M AgriLife, the Kansas Water Office, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service-funded Ogallala Aquifer Program, with additional support provided by many other individuals and organizations from the eight Ogallala states.

The 2020 Summit will highlight several activities and outcomes inspired by or expanded as a result of the 2018 Ogallala Summit. Participants will include producers, irrigation company and commodity group representatives, students and academics, local and state policy makers, groundwater management district leaders, crop consultants, agricultural lenders, state and federal agency staff, and others, including new and returning summit participants.

“Water conservation technologies are helpful, and we need more of them, but human decision-making is the real key to conserving the Ogallala,” said Brent Auvermann, Center Director at Texas A&M AgriLife Research – Amarillo. “The emergence of voluntary associations among agricultural water users to reduce ground water use is an encouraging step, and we need to learn from those associations’ experiences with regard to what works, and what doesn’t, and what possibilities exist that don’t require expanding the regulatory state.”

The summit will take place over two half-days, starting at 11:00 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday, March 31 and concluding the next day on Wednesday, April 1 at 2:30 p.m. The event includes a casual evening social on the evening of March 31 that will feature screening of a portion of the film “Rising Water,” by Nebraska filmmaker Becky McMillen, followed by a panel discussion on effective agricultural water-related communications.

Visit the 2020 Ogallala summit webpage to see a detailed agenda, lodging info, and to access online registration. Pre-registration is required, and space is limited. The registration deadline is Saturday, March 21 at midnight Central Time.

This event is open to credentialed members of the media. Please RSVP to Katie.ingels@kwo.ks.gov or amy.kremen@colostate.edu.

Ogallala Aquifer. This map shows changes in Ogallala water levels from the period before the aquifer was tapped to 2015. Declining levels appear in red and orange, and rising levels appear in shades of blue. The darker the color, the greater the change. Gray indicates no significant change. Although water levels have actually risen in some areas, especially Nebraska, water levels are mostly in decline, namely from Kansas southward. Image credit: National Climate Assessment 2018

Wildscaping 101: Erie (Plant a better world for birds and people, Monday, March 09, 2020) — @AudubonRockies

Photo credit: Evan-Barrientos via Audubon Rockies

Click here for all the inside skinny from Audubon Rockies:

Jamie Weiss, Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero coordinator, will demonstrate the importance of restoring our communities, one garden patch at a time. From a bird’s-eye view, learn how to create wildlife-friendly gardens that help combat the loss of open spaces and create green corridors that link your garden to larger natural areas by providing habitat for wildlife.

South Fork #RepublicanRiver Restoration Coalition (SFRRC) meeting recap

The Republican River’s South Fork near Hale, Colorado, with the region’s seemingly endless fields. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Jeffrey Beall

From the Republican River Water Conservation District (Deb Daniel) via The Burlington Record:

Over 60 people attended the meeting of the South Fork Republican Restoration Coalition (SFRRC) on Monday evening, Feb. 10 at the Old Town Museum meeting room, in Burlington.

Dave Hornung, Kit Carson County Commissioner, opened the meeting, welcoming everyone and thanking them for attending the meeting.

Hornung listed the members of the SFRRC: Three Rivers Alliance, Kit Carson County, Yuma County, The Nature Conservancy, the Republican River Water Conservation District (RRWCD) and the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife.

He introduced members of each organization including MaryLou Smith, facilitator, formerly from CSU.

Hornung made it very clear that the meeting was not to discuss refilling Bonny.

He read the list of objectives the SFRRC compiled in the stream management grant for this phase of the project.

He emphasized that the focus of the meeting is to describe the best option to restore streamflow to the South Fork Republican River.

Rod Lenz, president of the RRWCD, gave a brief history of the SFRRC and talked about how much cooperation there has been with all the entities involved in this project.

Robin Wiley, Yuma County Commissioner commented on how much cooperation the SFRRC has received from the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), Senator Cory Gardner’s office and The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

He especially thanked the TNC for all their work on the project and for supplying the $120,000 cash match for our grant CWCB application.

“We simply would not be as far along with this project if it were not for The Nature Conservancy being a big part of our project and we appreciate them partnering with us,” Wiley added.

Frank McGee, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), Area Wildlife Manager explained the CPW’s support of this project and how well the BOR has worked with the SFRRC.

He also mentioned the new area management agreement between BOR and CPW and how important it is to this project.

William Burnidge, from The Nature Conservancy, gave a presentation explaining the research and analysis that went into the options the SFRRC considered.

Burnidge stated that the option that the SFRRC has chosen is the most cost effective and leaves the ability for additional actions to be taken in the future, while restoring streamflow to the river and bringing back recreation to the area now.

Those in attendance had several questions including how to manage the silt and cat tails, concerns about EPA and restoring the facilities at Bonny, questions about funding, etc. were answered by SFRRC members.

Smith pointed out how cohesive this project has been. She explained that projects that have this much cooperation from all parties including state and federal legislators, federal agencies, CSU and all of our local entities that are in SFRRC — are usually very successful.

She commended everyone for their efforts and encouraged the public to continue to be involved and informed in this project. With everyone pulling in the same direction, she was certain we will be able to reach our goal.

The public was very receptive to the project and expressed how much they appreciated the efforts of the SFRRC. Anyone wishing to review the presentation can find it on the RRWCD website: http://republicanriver.com.

If you have questions or concerns about the project contact any SFRRC member or the RRWCD office at 970-332-3552.

#MancosRiver watershed plan update

Mancos and the Mesa Verde area from the La Plata Mountains.

From the Colorado Ag Water Alliance via the Fencepost:

Agricultural producers in southwest Colorado, mostly cow-calf ranchers, expended less labor to access the same amount of water to irrigate their pastures since implementing improvements to their irrigation ditches as part of a community-wide project. They also have seen improvement in riparian habitats. A new video, which can be viewed at https://www.coagwater.org/stream-management, portrays the impact to the community of these project improvements.

The improvements were implemented following development of the Mancos Watershed Plan in 2011. The community project was able to acquire $6 million along with Natural Resources Conservation Service cost share dollars to improve irrigation ditch diversion structures, install pipe irrigation systems and reduce ditch bank erosion in some of the 49 ditches that divert water off the Mancos River and its tributaries. The funding also allowed the watershed to improve the river’s fisheries.

“Ranchers involved in the project were skeptical at first of the help proposed by the watershed plan and the different values and perspectives of those involved in the project,” said Gretchen Rank, director of the Mancos Conservation District. “But as they saw the opportunities to improve their irrigation system, while also improving the environmental health of the river, they agreed to work together on the project.”

“We learned not to make assumptions based on personal views and knowledge,” Rank said. “Involvement in the stakeholder process enabled participants to recognize the diversity of opinions, needs and knowledge that are brought to the table. Throughout the process, participants gained respect for other perspectives, often changing the way they think about the watershed. Decisions made at the watershed level affect everyone within that watershed, so it is important that decisions are data driven and community informed for the best possible outcomes.”

Through the watershed planning process, several ditches were identified as being in dire need of better diversion structures that would require a lot less maintenance and upkeep, according to Ben Wolcott, Wolcott Ranch, Mancos, Colo., who also served on the Mancos Conservation District board of directors.

“Before any of this got upgraded, irrigation diversions were just push-up structures and anything cobbled together, sometimes tree trunks and whatever was in the river,” said Wolcott. “Most years we didn’t even get any water, but now with the new diversion structures and screens we have in place in front of piped ditches, we’ve seen leaps and bounds in (improved) efficiency. I go to each headgate once a week instead of daily, and that is mostly a five-minute maintenance check. The diversions can handle high water really well and then still divert water under low flows.”

Another rancher who has benefited from the project is Ryan Brown, Reddert Ranch, Mancos, Colo. “Over my 60 years, I’ve seen the river channel deepen, which makes it harder to dam up diversions. It was helpful when the Mancos Conservation District came to us and asked if it could help make those diversions more efficient.”

Tom Weaver, Ratliff Homestead, Mancos, Colo., said that before water piping was installed there was a lot of seepage and evaporation in his and his neighbor’s irrigation ditch. “There’s more (water) going down the river now due to increased efficiency.”

Rank added that the piping and diversion improvements have allowed fish to pass through upstream to reach their spawning grounds, while reducing soil erosion and the spread of noxious weeds.

“I think it is important for local landowners to stay involved with their communities and with the organizations that are helping facilitate the changes and improvements like this,” said Wolcott. “Their voice can be heard, and their values can be shared.”

The Mancos Watershed Plan is the second of three projects showcased in a video series. The series is produced by the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and River Network with the goal of demonstrating how farmers, ranchers, ditch companies, conservation districts, environmental groups and other entities have come together to improve river health, irrigation efficiency and environmental and recreational use of Colorado’s limited water supplies.

“As Colorado’s population grows, farmland is pressured by development, and agricultural water is being sold or rented to municipalities,” said Greg Peterson, CAWA executive director. “It is imperative that we work with others to preserve agricultural irrigation water and that farmers and ranchers get involved in watershed planning.”

To see a six-minute video of the Mancos Watershed Project, a fact sheet on this project and other resources, visit https://www.coagwater.org/stream-management. For more resources on funding for agricultural infrastructure improvements, contact Greg Peterson with the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance at coagwater@gmail.com.

Grants to help fund stream management planning, such as those used by the Mancos Watershed Project, are available through the Colorado Water Conservation Board. For more information on stream management planning in your area, visit http://coloradosmp.org or contact Alyssa Clarida with the Colorado Department of Agriculture State Conservation Board at alyssa.clarida@state.co.us