Flexibility, creativity needed to ensure enough future water for Colo. cities, ag producers

Story Eric Brown
The Fence Post

In a state where more water transactions have taken place than possibly any other spot in the world, Colorado has a “well-functioning” water market — but extra efforts will be required to keep its farms, ranches and dairies operating.

More data will be needed to stress to cities the “silent” opportunities of keeping water in agriculture, and the exploration of alternative water transfers between cities and ag producers needs to continue as well.

Those were among the many points hammered home by agriculture economists and other industry experts during a workshop Monday in Colorado Springs.

“Valuing Colorado’s Agriculture: A Workshop for Water Policy Makers,” was hosted by the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and Arkansas Basin Roundtable, and attended by Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar, Colorado State University faculty and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s special adviser on water, John Stulp, among dozens of others.

The main focus of the meeting was slowing down the ongoing “buy and dry” of farmground in Colorado — growing cities purchasing water from farmers who have left the land.

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. Already, the region’s largest water project — the 12-reservoir Colorado-Big Thompson Project — has gone from about 85 percent ownership by agricultural users when it went into operation in 1957, to only about 34 percent ag ownership now, numbers from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District show.

Without more efforts and cooperation in the near future, Colorado’s $40 billion ag industry — the state’s second largest-economic contributor — is in jeopardy, and climate change could only add to those challenges, presenters said Monday.

In addition to being an economic driver, a healthy ag industry provides open spaces, wetland habitats for wildlife, and food, fuel and fiber for a growing population, according to speakers, who stressed that more studies and data are needed to detail to policy makers and urban populations those benefits.

During their presentations, Bonnie Colby, an agricultural and resource economics professor at the University of Arizona, and Frank Ward, professor of water policy at the New Mexico State University, spoke of some in-the-works alternatives to ag producers selling their water rights to cities, such as rotational fallowing, where ag water providers and users agree to take some land out of production — improving the health of that soil — and lease unused water to cities, rather than selling water rights permanently.

Colby, Ward and others who presented also talked of creating water banks, deficit-irrigation farming, incorporating dryland crops onto irrigated acres and improving the state’s “use it or lose it” water policies.

Colby shared numbers with the crowd, showing that from 1987 to 2010, more water transfers took place in Colorado than any other state, and possibly any other place in the world. She and other presenters stressed that Colorado’s water market provides a good foundation for meeting its future water challenges, but more flexibility, data, cooperation and communication will be needed.

Rebecca Love Kourlis — executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal Systems, and former Colorado Supreme Court justice — noted during her presentation that the challenge of keeping water on Colorado farms presents a “golden opportunity” for land-grant universities, like CSU, to step up their ag-water research and efforts to educate the public.

Kourlis added that the nation’s cheap food policy — which for decades made profiting in agriculture tough, leading many farmers to leave the land and sell their water to cities — should be evaluated as well.

Kourlis also encouraged ag producers to have more dialogue with the state’s 13 Water Court judges and seven Colorado Supreme Court justices about the challenges agriculture faces.

Kourlis noted, though, that she’s pleased with how the conversations have changed in Colorado from a decade ago, when farmers and ranchers were simply encouraged to conserve their water, she said.

“That doesn’t provide incentive for farmers to stay in agriculture,” she added, while complimenting Colorado officials for their current efforts to develop a comprehensive statewide water plan.

Across the board, farmers need more incentive to keep their water and stay on the farm, stressed Kourlis and Dan Keppen, a water engineer and executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, who noted during his presentation that only 6 percent of farmers today are under the age of 35. ❖