PARCHED: Farms could help solve Colorado’s water shortage. So why aren’t they?
Colorado’s looming water shortage would be easier to quench if farmers and ranchers were willing to part, if only temporarily, with some of their supplies.
But most are not.
“I’m in agriculture to produce, not to sell or lease water,” said Logan County farmer Gene Manuello.
The state’s water situation can be boiled down to three simple factors.
One is numeric: Agriculture slurps up as much as 89 percent of available water in Colorado, compared to municipalities and industry, which use 7 and 4 percent, respectively.
The second is power: Farmers and ranchers typically hold senior water rights that trump the junior water rights held by cities, suburbs and manufacturers. In Colorado, and in most western states, the first person to claim the water right gets to use it. Everyone else and their water needs come next on the priority list. The arrangement is known as the doctrine of prior appropriation, and it’s been the defining principle of Colorado water going back to the 1850s, before we were even a state. Our byzantine system of water laws favor farmers and ranchers and essentially encourages them to use all the water to which they’re entitled, or risk losing it.
The third factor is shortage: Colorado’s current population of 5.6 million people is expected to soar to as much as 10 million by 2050. Estimates show that, if water supplies aren’t reconfigured and redistributed by that time, demands caused by climate change and urban and suburban growth will leave the state looking more like desert Nevada than semi-arid Colorado.
Colorado’s looming water shortage is projected to be about one million acre-feet of water per year. A family of four, on average, uses about a half-acre foot of water per year, or about 163,000 gallons of water per year. So a million acre-foot shortage would impact virtually every Coloradan and in every way of life: farmers, city dwellers, businesses, oil and gas drillers, environmentalists, birders, anglers, rafters, kayakers and everyone else who values the health and vibrancy of Colorado’s rivers.
Almost all of the new residents expected in the next three decades, possibly another four million or more, are likely to settle on the state’s Front Range and its urban population centers. That underscores a longtime conflict in Colorado’s water landscape: While 80 percent of the water in Colorado is west of the Continental Divide, 80 percent of the population is on the Eastern Slope, mostly in the Front Range cities between Fort Collins and Pueblo. That fact is at the heart of decades of angst for Western Slope residents who believe the Eastern Slope wants all their water, especially from the Colorado River, versus those on the Eastern Slope who point out that most of the state’s agriculture is based on their side of the Divide.
Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled Colorado’s first statewide water plan in November 2015 as a blueprint for finding a massive amount of water to keep up with growth and climate change’s effects on water supplies. Although the plan lacks specifics, it will rely largely on a host of possible solutions from municipal water users and from industrial users, which generally have the most junior water rights in the state.
The water plan puts a strong emphasis on keeping farm- and ranchland intact in an era of unprecedented growth. By 2050, the state estimates that irrigated farmland could shrink from 3.5 million acres currently to about 2.7 million acres. The largest hit is expected in the South Platte River Basin, which covers most of the northern Front Range and northeastern plains, and includes seven of Colorado’s ten most productive agricultural counties. The South Platte Basin holds 80 percent of the state’s population, but only 20 percent of its water supply. Growth along that corridor is expected to take out of production up to 35 percent of irrigated acreage in what Hickenlooper says would be a big blow to Colorado’s farm economy and culture.
For all its emphasis on the need to preserve farms and ranches, Hickenlooper’s water plan also recognizes that agricultural water needs to be at least part of solving Colorado’s massive water shortage in the next three decades. It is banking on a host of ideas for temporarily transferring water from farms and ranches to quench other, pressing needs. The state says those methods could glean 5 percent of the state’s projected shortfall. That is, if agriculture is inclined to participate.
But, at least so far, interest has been tepid. Farmers and ranchers are reluctant to embrace new practices, fearing that Colorado’s use-it-or-lose-it system of water law will strip their long-term water rights.
Colorado’s future water demands pit agriculture’s massive water consumption against virtually every other need for water out there.
Share and store alike
To find the water for cities, suburbs, towns and industry, yet still keep agriculture viable, the water plan borrows on an idea that southwestern states have been using for a decade: alternative transfer methods, or ATMs.
In one method, known as rotational fallowing, farmers forgo planting and irrigating their land for a growing season and lease the water saved, over the short term, to utilities or districts that serve cities and towns. Say, for example, a farmer has rights to 100 acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to supply two families of four for a year. That farmer decides to lease 10 acre-feet to a city for one growing season, maybe cutting back on the acreage of winter wheat planted. The farmer is paid for that water, which in a time of low wheat prices may be more valuable than the crop itself and the city receives, at least temporarily, enough water to satisfy 80 people for a year.
The state invested close to $6 million between 2009 and 2017 into encouraging farmers and other water users to participate in agricultural transfer method programs, dating back to the authorization of these grant and pilot programs in 2007.
Agricultural water transfers have been a way of life for Chris and Mary Kraft, who operate two dairy farms and grow 900 acres of corn and hay near the city of Fort Morgan. The Krafts have for the past 20 years leased 2,500 acre-feet of their water every year to Xcel Energy for a nearby power plant. Neighboring farms also participate in that lease program. In dry years, Chris Kraft said in a recent webinar, he can tap into nearby Jackson Lake for water to sustain his crops, if needed. Other farmers may have to dry up a portion of their land in order to meet their obligations to Xcel. But in wet years, such as the last three, the lease payments go to make improvements – including conservation measures – to the ditch system that transports the water to farms and the power plant.
“The whole community benefits from the arrangement,” Chris Kraft said.
Transfer methods are an alternative to “buy and dry” – a practice in which farmers and ranchers sell their water rights to cities and stop raising their crops. The choice comes down to whether to sell out and use the profit for retirement, or to, as the Krafts do, temporarily lease water and receive an annual payment from the cityfolk who are thirsty for it. One option irreversibly dries up the land, and the other keeps it in production and preserves families’ roots on their farms.
Those roots are embodied in the words of novelist, environmental activist and farmer Wendell Berry, who in his book Bringing it to the Table, asked, “Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming?
“As always the answer is: ‘Love. They must do it for love.’ Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and to work where they live… They love the measure of independence that farm life can still provide.”
As Chris Kraft sees it, water transfers could in the long run be a lot more costly to cities than they anticipate. He pointed out that transferring water rights in Morgan County, for example, means that cities like Aurora that are leasing the water have to set up pipelines and pumping stations because they’re at a higher elevation from the farmland. That means the true cost of water transfers comes not just in paying the farmer for the lease, but also paying for the infrastructure and electricity to operate the pumping stations. As the old adage goes, “water runs uphill to money.”
The better solution, he said, is to store water in underground aquifers (which is done by pumping water into those aquifers) so that in wet years, excess water can be stored and then available in times of drought. That kind of storage is available: Colorado has four major underground aquifers, all located along the state’s Eastern Slope. A series of bedrock aquifers that stretches from Greeley to Colorado Springs and from the foothills to Limon has been identified as a strong possibility for storage in future years.
“The state needs some kind of alternate storage to make up for the new people moving here,” Kraft said. “It won’t be cheap. And when there’s a high demand situation, the last drop of water will be the most expensive.”
Storage first, ATMs second is also the view of Joe Frank, who manages the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, based in Sterling. Frank said the state needs to capture and store its available water first, noting that water coming out agricultural transfers still needs a place for that water to be stored.
In good years, Frank said, the South Platte has water available that isn’t already committed through interstate agreements or through local water rights. An agricultural water transfer should act as a way to bolster water supplies in years when the water isn’t as plentiful. “Storage should be the focal point,” Frank told The Colorado Independent. He believes ATMs should be part of a combined coordinated project with new or refurbished storage, such as underground aquifers. “Otherwise you put a lot of pressure on drying up agricultural land. Even though it’s an ATM, it’s still taking ag land out of production. The less we can do that, the better.”
For Manuello, who has been growing corn and hay and raising cattle since the 1970s near Sterling, water leasing undermines the very reason he works in farming and ranching. “I believe in agriculture and ag production, so any process to take irrigated acres out of production doesn’t work for me.”
Although he understands that leasing water temporarily helps keep some farms going, Manuello said the state’s inclusion of ATMs in its water plan sends a strong message to farmers that population growth should come at the expense of agriculture. Until the state exhausts other options for gleaning and storing more water, he said, “I have a problem taking water off the land or even promoting the idea” of ATMs.
Those who watch the growing use of water transfers don’t see them as a magic bullet, but more of a compromise and one that won’t fix the problem of 100,000 new Colorado residents every year.
Carlyle Currier, a Western Slope cattle rancher, told The Independent that some in the agriculture community worry that ATMs are just a slower way of putting farm and ranchland out of production. But as an alternative to “buy and dry,” ATMs can provide farmers and ranchers with, at least in the short term, “the chance to retain ownership of their water rights” and at the same time keep their farm and ranches sustainable, he said.
A hard sell
Aside from heartland ideology, there are market and meteorological forces at play that help explain why agricultural water transfers aren’t catching on.
On the face of it, you’d think waning commodity prices would drive up farmers’ interest. Some of the state’s biggest crops like corn and wheat are at their lowest prices in 20 years. Beef prices also are lean. The value of farmers’ and ranchers’ water rights often exceeds the value of what they’re growing. You’d think growers driven financially to consider temporarily leasing their water under ATMs should be able to find willing buyers.
But that’s not the case, at least some parts of the state.
ATM pilot projects have been under way for the past six years in the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, which encompasses most of southeastern Colorado. The district’s executive director Jay Winner said he has 5,000 leases for water available from local farmers eager to temporarily lease their water rights to cities to offset the hit from low commodity prices. But no one wants them right now, Winner said, largely because the state is not facing drought conditions or water restrictions for the first time since 2012. The only interest he has had is from the Security Water District south of Colorado Springs, which is battling contamination in its water from toxic chemicals believed to come from a nearby military base.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board – the state agency that oversees water and administers agricultural transfer programs – has identified other significant barriers ATMs must overcome in order to succeed. In addition to the costs of building pipelines and storage, there are the potential high costs associated with transferring water rights, which are tied to the process of gaining approval through the state’s water courts. Changing a water right can take up to five years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Greg Baker of Aurora Water. Another barrier is that constantly switching farm and ranchland in and out of production can create soil and weed problems that could lower farmers’ lower crop yields and hurt their bottom line.
Perhaps the most significant barrier is a desire by water providers, such as municipal water utilities, to find permanent water supplies rather than the temporary water provided by an ATM. Cities – and the developers building in them – are looking for reliable, sustainable sources of water rather than quick fixes that come at the whims of farmers and ranchers, and with the unpredictability of how much it rains or snows year to year.
But these temporary transfers do serve a purpose, according to Baker. Sometimes temporary is better, he indicated, because it’s cheaper to lease water than to obtain permanent water supplies, and all costs are passed along to customers. Even then, however, temporary transfers can take a lot of time; Baker pointed to an example from 2003 when Aurora wanted water leases from the Arkansas Valley to solve that year’s drought. By the time the water finally reached Aurora, it was 2005 and the drought was over. The water was used to refill reservoirs depleted by the drought, so it didn’t go to waste and did work to their benefit, he said. “Leases are good for hedging our bets” for future water shortages, Baker said. But he added that there haven’t been enough of those leases for Aurora Water to determine just how practical they can be.
Learning to ‘play nice’
In April, the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University released a report that looked at the future of agricultural transfer methods.
Brad Udall, one of the report’s authors, said that while these methods won’t quench all Colorado’s water needs, the water plan likely won’t meet its goals without them. There should be a way, he mused, to carry out ATMs that persuades long-feuding agriculture and municipalities they “can play nice together.”
The “water world is remarkably conservative, as it should be,” Udall said, and ATMs are relatively new. “And whenever you have that conflict, you will have a hard time getting a foothold [in making changes]. What we really need are good cases where it works.”
As a case in point, Udall – a member of The Colorado Independent’s board of directors – pointed to a project known as the Super Ditch in the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. The ditch is a water-leasing collaboration among nine water districts that took about seven years of stop-and-start, often painful negotiations. Udall noted that the state engineer put 60 conditions on one of the proposed deals tied to the Super Ditch. Water from the Super Ditch agreement flows to Fountain and Security, south of Colorado Springs, and in Fowler, in Otero County in southeastern Colorado.
The other part of the problem, and it’s one inherent to water, Udall said, is that every deal is different. The Water Institute advocates for some continuity among these deals, which would help reduce the costs of reaching legal agreements between teams of engineers and lawyers. Those costs can become “barnacles on the ship of commerce,” Udall said.
“They can overburden and eventually kill deals that would otherwise work.”
Recognizing that ATMs will be necessary in helping to solve Colorado’s water woes, the state has been more than willing to invest in them and fund efforts to educate farmers in hopes that they’ll overcome some of their reluctance. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has put $1 million annually into ATM grants since 2009. One grant, to the Parker Water and Sanitation District, allowed Colorado State University to set up farm demonstration on irrigation patterns for corn crops, which reduced water use by 30 to 40 percent. The Super Ditch made 500 acre-feet of water available through rotational fallowing. Another concept, known as water banks, lets farmers and cities “bank” water in an existing reservoir, without risk of losing water rights, and allows other water users to tap that water for a negotiated price.
Another transfer method that focuses on growing water-efficient crops, which frees up water for leasing, hasn’t been well received because farmers raise concerns that they lack the expertise or even the equipment to grow these different crops. With the average age of a Colorado farmer at 59, that’s not a small ask. Colorado’s two largest commodities – corn and wheat – are considered water-intensive crops; water-efficient crops that can be watered more efficiently include vegetables or the grain sorghum, which can be used for cattle feed in place of corn or wheat.
Then there’s deficit irrigation, a method that requires a crop be watered just enough to produce minimal yields, but which farmers say translates into minimal prices.
Water transfers may not yet be the boon in agriculture that state officials would like, but the environmental community is definitely taking an interest, as a way to shore up stream flows in some of Colorado’s jeopardized waterways.
One good example is taking place on the Little Cimarron River, a tributary of the Gunnison River that flows between Gunnison and Montrose most of the year. But the Little Cimarron goes dry in the summer, leaving its plants to wither and threatening its renowned trout habitat.
In an effort to improve the stream flows, the Colorado Water Trust is working on its first-ever permanent sharing of water that would boost stream flows in waterways that typically go dry, and in turn endanger the river’s ecosystem. The alternative transfer method planned for the Little Cimarron relies on temporarily using the water from nearby foreclosed land, formerly a farm near Cimarron (east of Montrose), that was purchased by Western Rivers Conservancy, which gave the water rights to the Trust. A smaller portion of those water rights were sublet to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state agency that awards grants for ATM pilots.
Under the plan, the farm’s water will be diverted during the driest times of the year into the Little Cimarron, allowing for enough water – and at a cool enough temperature – to provide a sustainable habitat for trout. The Trust’s Amy Beatie says her organization has a “projection tool” that indicates the best time to divert water into the river and how much is needed to maintain its flows.
Beatie acknowledges that water transfers off of agricultural land has its detractors. She pointed out that some of the pushback comes from long-standing beliefs about state water law.
“We got good at moving water out of rivers but there’s no provision [in state law] to protect rivers,” especially once those river flows drop to critically low levels. “The Constitution says the right to divert [water] shall never be denied,” she said, and that tells water users “take all you want and flat-line rivers across the state.”
While Colorado is a bit late to the game of protecting its rivers, Beatie said, climate change and population growth are moving the state forward on discussing ways to help restore or maintain rivers.
Says Beatie: “If everyone in [the water] community is willing to give up a little, we can look at restoring flows in other rivers.”
Feature photo of the Little Cimarron River by the Colorado Water Trust
Photo of Crowley County by Jennifer Goodland
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