A bill aimed at helping address one of Colorado’s most pressing agriculture and water issues was signed into law this past week by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
But, as it was signed, the language in it calls for only continuing to examine the problem.
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 was 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.
The bill, as it was introduced months ago, looked 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.
As a number of water experts have noted, it was the first bill to so aggressively address “buy and dry.”
However, the final version of the bill didn’t include such specific language, stating that “during the 2014 interim, the committee shall investigate the issues raised” by the older version of the bill, and identify best practices for municipalities and potential bills for the future.
Like others throughout the state, northeast Colorado farmers and water officials are in search of ways to preserve the state’s agriculture industry, which has an estimated $40 billion economic impact annually.
The bulk of the state’s ag production — and much of the state’s ongoing buy and dry — takes place in northeast Colorado.
However, the original version of the bill ran into opposition, even from folks in that area.
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 — expressed concerns earlier this year about putting in place the mandates listed in the original version of the bill.
They described it as a “flawed 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,” Doug Rademacher, Weld County farmer, Weld County Commission chairman and South Platte Roundtable member, said back in January at that meeting.
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.
However, the bill later found support from other groups, including the Colorado Water Congress.
The bill was 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, had noted 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.