It’s been a bone-dry search this year for the many northern Colorado farmers and ranchers who depend heavily on leasing water from their municipal neighbors.
Greeley, Fort Collins, Loveland and Longmont — each typically leasing thousands of acre-feet of excess water per year to local producers — have all said it’s unlikely they’ll have any extra water available in 2013.
Dismal snowpack in the mountains and not having city water as a back-up option is putting farmers in a tough spot, local crop growers say.
With spring planting beginning in the upcoming weeks, many predict they’ll cut back on production even more than they did in a drought-stricken 2012.
“There’s just nothing out there to lease,” said Randy Knutson, who farms south, east and north of Greeley, explaining that, on one of his 160-acre farms where he fallowed about 30 percent of his ground last year, he’ll likely fallow about 50 percent of that ground this year.
Knutson — who sits on the board of directors for the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley and the Greeley No. 3 Ditch and Western Mutual Ditch companies — said, based on his conversations with farmers, there will be fallowing aplenty this year.
Water officials from Greeley and Fort Collins said this is the first time in about 10 years they haven’t been able to lease extra water to local agricultural users, and for Loveland and Longmont it’s been even longer, officials from those two cities said.
Agriculture uses about 85 percent of the state’s water, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, but the ag industry doesn’t own nearly that much of the state’s supply — at least not anymore.
In 1957, when the Colorado-Big Thompson Project first went into operation, 85 percent of the water in the project was owned by agricultural users, according to numbers from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud, that oversees operations of the C-BT Project.
But today, only 34 percent of the water in the C-BT — the largest water-supply project in northern Colorado — is owned by agricultural users.
For years, when there was limited money to be made in ag, growing cities along the northern Front Range bought water rights from farming and ranching families that were getting out of the business.
Also, some producers who stayed in business thought it could be more profitable to sell some of their water rights at a certain price to growing cities, and then rent extra water as needed.
“I can’t condemn anyone at all for selling their water rights,” said Lynn Fagerberg, a Weld County farmer. “Times were tough for a long, long time.
“It’s just led to a complicated situation now.”
A lot of producers today — while owning some of their water rights — play the rental market heavily, according to Brian Werner, the public information officer and historian at the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
While only one-third of the water in the C-BT Project is now owned by agricultural users, about two-thirds of C-BT water in most years still goes to ag users, who lease much of that C-BT water from cities who own it, Werner said.
Despite the shift of ownership, the C-BT remains the largest, supplemental water supply for ag in the state, he added.
But playing the rental market, Werner noted, can make life difficult for farmers in dry years when cities are reluctant to lease water — like this year.
In 2012, the drought forced cities and farmers to use up water in reservoirs, but they did so in hopes that this year’s winter and spring would produce at least average snowfall, or better.
But this past week, statewide snowpack was only 79 percent of average, and only 71 percent of average in the South Platte River basin — not enough to replenish reservoirs back up to levels where cities are comfortable with their supplies.
According to the most recent report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, statewide reservoirs were filled to levels about 30 percent below-average at the beginning of March.
Additionally, last year’s wildfires, which took place around many high-mountain reservoirs, caused additional complications.
Fagerberg and other farmers and ranchers have expressed frustration in that cities which aren’t leasing water to agriculture this year aren’t putting additional lawn-watering measures in place that could save water — water that could then be leased to ag.
Jon Monson, water and sewer director for the city of Greeley, said the city’s water board will continue looking at potential watering restrictions as the year goes along.
Monson, Fagerberg and others were quick to point out the economic impact agriculture has on Weld County — amounting to about $1.5 billion agricultural goods, which ranks Weld eighth in the nation, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture.
In 2011, the city of Greeley leased 25,427 acre-feet of water to agricultural users, but this year, only has enough available to honor its long-term ag-lease agreements of about 5,000 acre-feet, Monson said.
Many ag water users are tying to decrease their dependency on leased water form cities.
The board of directors for the North Weld County Water District nearly a year ago increased water surcharges in order to buy more water down the road.
The board cited concerns that dairymen who are customers of North Weld Water don’t own very much of the water they use; collectively, the 20 largest dairies in the district owned only about 7 percent of the water they use, according to their numbers.
The Central Colorado Water Conservancy District passed a $60 million bond issue last fall to purchase water needed by many of its ag users.
None of those efforts, though, will help this year.
In recent years, commodity prices have made farming more profitable, and since 2009, the percentage of CB-T water owned by agriculture has stayed steady at 34 percent — after gradually dropping nearly every year for decades.
But the percentage of ag ownership isn’t increasing, and that’s because the water rights agricultural users sold years ago are too expensive for farmers and ranchers to buy now, Werner said.
And water rights are certainly pricey in times of drought, Werner added.
He said the price of a C-BT share has increased from about $9,000 last year to about $13,500 to $14,000 now.
“We’re basically seeing the price increase by about $1,000 per month so far this year,” Werner said, noting that most of that water today is being bought for municipal and industrial uses. “It’s certainly not the farmers who can afford it.” ❖