Should agriculture be involved in watershed planning? | TheFencePost.com

Should agriculture be involved in watershed planning?

Phil Brink
CCA Ag Water NetWORK consulting coordinator

Recent channel and bank improvements on the Colorado River near Kremmling – which included narrowing the river in places and restoring riffles, runs and pool sequences – have enabled better irrigation water diversion and greatly improved fish habitat.

Watershed management planning brings together all local water users to discuss individual water-related needs. Through the planning process, water users cooperatively evaluate local water resources, prioritize problem areas and secure funding to implement solutions that help protect and improve existing uses, including agricultural, and support healthy rivers and streams.

The collaboration that goes into developing a watershed plan better positions local water users to effectively deal with increased demand in the face of diminished water availability. Watershed planning and implementation can bring many benefits to agriculture. Some examples are included below.

Recent channel and bank improvements on the Colorado River near Kremmling — which included narrowing the river in places and restoring riffles, runs and pool sequences — have enabled better irrigation water diversion and greatly improved fish habitat. The improvements are part of a larger effort called the Colorado River Headwaters Project which will create a channel that re-connects the river above and below Windy Gap Reservoir dam near Granby, enabling fish and the aquatic organisms they feed on to move freely up and down the river.

A group of three conservation districts in the Glenwood Springs/Rifle area are conducting an inventory of ditch systems in the middle Colorado watershed from Glenwood Canyon down to Debeque above Grand Junction. The work is part of a study of consumptive uses — agriculture and municipal — which the conservation districts are leading the effort. A consulting company hired by the districts is assessing ditch system infrastructure, noting the condition of the ditch and individual diversions and head gates, and taking photos and GPS readings. Once complete, areas where improvements are needed most will be prioritized and scoped.

An evaluation of a river or stream's hydrology will help reveal the timing, volume and source of flows throughout the year and better enable planning around multi-benefit improvements. How much do irrigation return flows supplement stream flow volumes in late summer and fall? What would happen to return flows if flood or furrow irrigated fields were upgraded to high efficiency sprinkler or drip systems? And how would a lack of field runoff and deep percolation affect other downgradient water right holders? A comprehensive hydrological analysis will answer these and other questions. In some cases, changes in irrigation diversion timing can provide water for fish and recreation and income to the irrigation water right holder(s) without substantially reducing forage or crop yield.

A Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment released in November 2018 by the State Forest Service found the number of people living in areas at risk to wildland fire increased by almost 50 percent between 2012 and 2017. About 2.9 million people now live in Colorado's wildland-urban interface — the area where human improvements are built close to, or within, natural terrain and flammable vegetation. Just five years earlier the number was 2 million people.

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In addition to the potential loss of life and property, catastrophic wildfires typically result in severe soil erosion and corresponding sedimentation and blockage of irrigation and drinking water infrastructure. Water quality is also affected, impacting all water users including wildlife and aquatic life.

Most of Colorado's residents derive at least part of their drinking water from forested areas. Watershed management planning can include prioritizing areas where forest thinning, restoration and fire prevention activities are most needed to protect irrigation, drinking water, and other uses.

Through the watershed management planning process, funding for irrigation water diversion and delivery infrastructure and source water protection (fire, flooding) can be obtained from a wider range of sources as long as projects are multi-benefit in nature. For example, a diversion dam replacement can also incorporate a fish passage and stream channel and embankment improvement, which helps aquatic life, water quality, and irrigators alike. Because the project benefits multiple uses, it can garner more funding and reduce the cost to irrigators.

Previously installed practices benefiting agriculture have included new or modified river diversion structures with fish access, ditch lining or piping, stream channel and riparian area restoration, wildfire mitigation, watershed and recharge area assessment, phreatophyte removal, and others.

In 2019, Colorado Cattlemen's Ag Water NetWORK is initiating a statewide outreach effort to help raise understanding and awareness about the value and benefits of watershed planning for agricultural producers. Training workshops will also be held for ag-oriented individuals who are interested in representing agricultural interests as they engage with other water stakeholders on local watershed management planning efforts.

To inform and guide the outreach and training, we are currently conducting a survey of agricultural producers to determine their familiarity with watershed management plans. The web-based survey https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/agwatershedsurvey asks producers about their water-related needs and priorities, and solicits feedback on their interest in being involved in local watershed management planning efforts.

Ag producers who complete the survey are eligible to win up to $100 in Cabela's or Bass Pro gift cards. A total of eight drawings will be held during the survey period. Take the survey at and learn more about this year's watershed planning outreach and training at http://www.agwaternetwork.org. ❖