Incentives for drip irrigation, addressing water-consuming vegetation along rivers and more water storage are all needed to protect the future of agriculture in Colorado.
Those were among the main points stressed by Brighton, Colo.,-area vegetable grower Dave Petrocco, asked to present during the two-day South Platte Forum in Longmont, Colo.
The two-day forum featured discussions on all angles of water — agriculture, oil and gas production, municipal use, climate, the ski industry.
While the event included presentations from ag experts with Colorado State University Extension and other CSU ag faculty, Petrocco was the only full-time ag producer who spoke at the event.
He took the opportunity to hammer home a few messages widely shared with others in the ag industry, which uses 85 percent of the state’s water.
Drip irrigation, he stressed, uses 40 percent less water than traditional irrigating methods, but the up-front costs of implementing a drip system is $2,000 to $3,000 per acre.
Petrocco — who currently has 225 of his 2,600 acres of farmground under drip irrigation, and plans to have another 100-plus acres under drip next year — said farmers in California and Arizona have been pioneers in making the switch to drip.
“But in their climate, they have two growing seasons,” Petrocco said, explaining that, with such large production each year, California and Arizona farmers can more easily recoup the costs of making the move to drip.
That’s not the case in Colorado, Petrocco said, and, in a state where water on farms is routinely being sold to growing cities, those still farming in the future are going to need to make the most of their limited resources.
While farmers need to gravitate drip, he said he’d like to see the state of Colorado provide incentives for farmers to do so, because of such high costs to do so.
If farmers aren’t more resourceful with their water, farmground will continue disappearing in Colorado, he said.
With limited water and the semi-arid climate of Colorado, rapidly growing cities here have routinely bought their needed water from farmers and ranchers leaving the land — an ongoing trend known as “buy and dry.”
At the current rate of buy and dry, 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated farmground could be out of production by 2050, according to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative study, released in 2010.
That’s why Petrocco said he’s pushing for the state to help farmers move toward drip irrigation systems, and is also pushing for more water-storage projects, which would capture excess snowmelt in abundant years, instead of sending more water than legally necessary across the stateline to Nebraska, which has occurred in recent years.
Petrocco also stressed the need for the state to address the wild vegetation along the rivers — known as phreatophytes.
A cottonwood tree, for example, can consume 1,000 gallons of water each day, maybe more, he explained. And as the trees and other vegetation have grown thicker along the rivers and continue to do so, those plants are soaking up water that’s depleting surface flows and groundwater levels, which could be used by agricultural, industrial or municipal users.
That vegetation needs to be better controlled, he said.
Petrocco also believes that the state’s augmentation requirements are too stringent, and need to be reexamined. Augmentation water is needed to make up for depletions to the aquifer caused by pumping water out of the ground.
Under the state’s current requirements, some farmers have struggled to afford needed augmentation water, and have had their groundwater wells curtailed or shut off.
But, in recent years, groundwater levels in the South Platte have risen, causing basements to flood in some areas, among other problems. Some, including Petrocco, believe groundwater wells pumping less than they once did is responsible for the aquifier being too full.
The issue is now being studied by scientists at CSU.
“I firmly believe we’re over-augmenting,” said Petrocco, who, in referring to the many water challenges Colorado faces, stressed that addressing the issues won’t be easy. “We grow crops in a great place ... close to the people and the markets, so there’s less transportation needed ... a lot of sunshine during the day and cool nights — perfect for certain crops.
“We just need water, and we’ve got some things to figure out to make sure we have enough.” ❖