A year ago, a historic drought spurred many farmers to whip out the checkbooks more than ever and invest in new irrigation equipment to stretch their limited water farther.
For northeast Colorado today, the water outlook is exponentially better, but business between area crop growers and irrigation-supply companies hasn’t slowed at all, locals say.
This year might even set the new standard in spending for farmers who are looking to be more water-efficient, some stressed.
Matt Pletcher, sales manager at Quality Well and Pump in LaSalle, Colo., said that between growing seasons — from late fall to early spring — his company in recent years was converting about 30 to 40 fields from flood irrigation to center-pivot sprinkler irrigation, the latter of which uses water much more efficiently.
That workload doubled to about 80 fields last year, and Pletcher said Quality Well and Pump is on pace this year to reach those numbers again, maybe even surpass them.
Vic Fiscus, general manager at Valley Irrigation Supply near Greeley, Colo., agreed in that last year was his business’s best on the books, but this year could match it — maybe even top it.
“We certainly aren’t having any trouble staying busy right now,” Viscus said. “Need things to dry out, so we can get back in the fields and get caught up before planting time. A lot left to do.”
The giant spike in business a year ago came at time when the area had just endured 2012 — the driest year in decades for places like Greeley and others — and snowpack at the start of 2013 in the South Platte Basin was only about 70 percent of historic average, while reservoirs in the basin were only filled to 77 percent of normal levels.
The water outlook was bleak then.
But that’s not the case now.
Greeley — at the heart of Weld County, which is the eighth-most ag-productive county in the U.S. — is coming off what was its fifth-wettest year on record in 2013, South Platte Basin snowpack at the start of 2014 was back up to average and has climbed to about 150 percent of average since then, and the basin’s reservoirs are now filled to above-average levels.
However, while this year is looking good, there’s still no telling what the future holds, local farmers say.
And, in addition to anticipated roller-coaster weather down the road, farmers are still spending big on irrigation upgrades because of tightened supplies of water in the region and the increasing price of the resource.
Agriculture, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, uses about 85 percent of the state’s water, with the heaviest ag use taking place in northeast Colorado — a region which includes nine of the state’s 10 most ag-productive counties, Weld County being one of them.
While ag is the biggest water user, it’s certainly not the only one.
For example, the population of Weld County has doubled in less than 25 years and is expected to continue growing sharply, like the entire Front Range, meaning surrounding cities will need more water in the future, and also might have less excess water to rent out to farmers.
And, while oil and gas development uses less than 1 percent of the state’s water, about 80 percent of the drilling in Colorado is taking place in Weld, more so increasing local water demands.
The demand for water has pushed the price of the resource out of reach for farmers, local water experts say.
While the water-efficiency rate of center-pivot irrigation exceeds that of flood irrigating, making the change isn’t cheap. Pletcher estimates that overhauling a field to center-pivot irrigation ranges from $500-$1,300 per acre — so, on the typical 160-acre plot, that can add up to over $100,000. Pletcher added that he’s seeing a lot of used center-pivots selling, helping lower the cost of the transition.
Pletcher also noted that activity with drip irrigation — even more expensive than center-pivot, ranging from about $1,500 to $2,500 per acre, but even more efficient — has also increased. After doing only a couple drip-irrigation projects each year, Quality Well and Pump is doing seven this year.
Along with saving water, farmers say center-pivot irrigation and drip systems require less manual labor than flood irrigating, which, over time, are savings that can help cover the costs for irrigation upgrades.
Plus, many in the ag industry have reported difficulty in finding labor.
“It’s for a number of reasons, but regardless, we’ve had a lot of farmers coming to us,” Pletcher said. ❖