Bill aimed at addressing major ag issue not supported by water experts — or farmers

By Eric Brown The Fence Post

A bill aimed at addressing one of Colorado’s most pressing agriculture/water issues didn’t receive support this past week from water experts or farmers and ranchers in the region.

Senate Bill 17 looks to reduce the amount of “buying and drying up” of irrigated agriculture land that occurs when municipalities purchase water rights from farmers and ranchers to meet the needs of their rapidly growing cities. The purchasing of water rights from ag producers leaving the land is a comparatively inexpensive way for cities to acquire needed water, but according to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative study, released in 2010, Colorado is on pace to see as many as 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated farmland dry up by 2050.

The issue is at the top of many statewide and local long-term water plans, but during Tuesday’s South Platte Roundtable meeting, proposed legislation aimed at helping solve the problem was described as a “flawed bill.”

The bill looks to prohibit local governments from approving applications for development permits if any part of the water supply for the development is changed from agricultural irrigation purposes to municipal or domestic uses. And, if former ag water is used for the development, the local government would have to adopt ordinances that limit the amount of irrigated grass on residential lots in the development, to no more than 15 percent of the total aggregate area of all residential lots in the development.

Like others throughout the state, members of the South Platte Roundtable — consisting of water experts from all over northeast Colorado, who meet bimonthly, sometimes monthly, to address the region’s long-term water issues — are in search of ways to preserve the state’s agriculture industry, which has an estimated $40 billion economic impact annually.

But roundtable members expressed concern Tuesday about putting in place the mandates listed in the bill, and would rather see cities and farmers work out water arrangements that meet their own unique needs in the future without injuring one another.

“It’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t unintended consequences with this,” said Doug Rademacher, Weld County farmer, Weld County Commission chairman and South Platte Roundtable member.

Rademacher and others in attendance asked where the mandates would end, and if the next step might be mandating farmers to convert a certain percentage of their ground from flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation.

The bill is being pushed in the Senate by Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, with House support coming from Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins.

Fischer, who’s made a name for himself in pushing water legislation in recent years, said this week that, in addition to preventing the continued “buy and dry” up of ag land, the bill — with its support from West Slope lawmakers — also looks to make sure the rapidly growing East Slope is using their water supplies as wisely as possible.

In Colorado, about 80 percent of the population lives on the East Slope — particularly in the Front Range — but about 80 percent of the water resources in the state are on the West Slope. To meet their water demands, East Slope officials have developed ways of bringing West Slope water across the Continental Divide, and say they need to continue doing so to meet their increasing needs.

That has been a major source of concern with West Slope water officials, especially in the Colorado River Basin, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most stressed basins in the U.S., if not the most. It not only supplies many of Colorado’s needs, but also that of water users in states to the West.

Fischer said he supports what the bill is attempting to do, but added that he’s heard concerns from the Colorado Municipal League similar to those of the South Platte Roundtable.

Members of the South Platte Roundtable said Tuesday they hope — and believe — the Colorado Municipal League will squash the bill. ❖