Producers gather to talk water conservation options
John Schweizer has farmed in the Rocky Ford area since horses were used to pull plows. As a child farming next to his father, he watched crops shrivel in the fields when summers were hot and water was scarce. Even then, years before the farms around him were bought and dried up by municipalities during drought years, water was precious.
Schweizer spoke July 13 in Brush at a workshop held by the Colorado Ag Water Alliance for farmers and ranchers in the South Platte Basin. He talked about the buy-and-dry in southern Colorado, using Crowley County, just north of his farm in Rocky Ford, as a cautionary tale. Where row crops used to line the ground, now there is just dirt and weeds. Houses and storefronts in town are empty.
He didn’t want that to happen to his farm or his neighbors’ farms, so with the help of the Arkansas Valley Conservancy District, he traveled to California to see a water conservation project in action. That’s what started southern Colorado’s Super Ditch project, which kicked off last year and is one of many efforts across the state to protect agricultural water while addressing the municipal need for water.
By 2050, Colorado’s population is expected to nearly double to 10 million, according to state demographers. With that population growth will come a water shortage of more than 500,000 acre feet per year, or more than three full Horsetooth Reservoirs.
The Colorado Water Plan, enacted in November 2015 by Gov. John Hickenlooper, calls for action on several fronts, from increased storage to alternative use plans from ag water users. At Wednesday’s meeting, some of these options were discussed.
Though the water plan calls for the biggest part of the water supply gap to be made up through storage plans, the majority of the South Platte ag producers meeting was used to discuss the direct actions farmers and ranchers can take to conserve water.
MaryLou Smith of the Water Institute at Colorado State University said one option for farmers is evaluating irrigation efficiency.
Through changing equipment, modifying practices or introducing new technology on the farm, such as soil moisture sensors, she said farmers can maximize their water use and learn to thrive on less.
Consumptive use leasing, in which part of their water is rented to another party, is another option. The base principal is that a farmer leases some or all of their water in a given year to a municipality, but retains the ownership of the water and is compensated for its use.
In some systems, this means the farmer won’t grow a crop that year, will only grow half what they usually would or will change irrigation patterns. The Super Ditch Project is one of these leasing ideas in which multiple ditch companies participate, then different farmers who have shares in those ditch companies take turns rotating their water to municipalities.
As a whole, the Colorado Water Plan calls for ag water leasing to make up about 50,000 acre feet of the expected water shortage — that’s more than 450,000 acre feet short of the expected statewide water shortage in 34 years. ❖