Ag transfers likely to be a big part of closing the water gap
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — When it comes to water, cities have always been easy targets for environmental groups looking to make a point about conservation and growth. But in reality, agricultural stakeholders bring far more chips to the table.
By some estimates, agriculture uses about 75 percent of the Colorado River’s allocated water, while municipal uses account for about 15 percent. Just California’s Imperial Valley, where most of the country’s winter produce is grown, uses about 3 million acre feet of water annually.
Any solution to the projected 3.2 million acre-foot water gap in the Colorado River Basin will require buy-in from farmers and ranchers in the region.
Agricultural water use is on the agenda at this week’s meeting of the Colorado Interbasin Compact Committee (June 5, Keystone Conference Center, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.), As the state starts to ramp up a statewide planning effort to address future water management. Click here for the agenda.
In the larger Colorado River Basin picture, the agricultural community needs to be aiming for a systematic approach to planning future water use, said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute.
“The concern, of course, is that agriculture is on the menu … that people aren’t thinking about what that means for the industry, communities and the dinner table,” Waskom said, referring to regional discussions on the future of the Colorado River.
Waskom will have a chance to help shape the discussion as chair of a working group tasked with addressing agricultural water issues, in particular transfers, as part of the regional Colorado River discussions spurred by the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, which identified the potential 3.2 million acre-foot shortfall by 2060.
“We need some institutional mechanisms, like really robust water banks … it’s really the dry years that are the big worries,” Waskom said. “There are things that can be done, absolutely, but it is going to cost money. Who is going to pay for that?”
Who has the answers?
The big question that often remains unspoken is how much water will be transferred from agriculture to other uses, needed to sustain continued population growth in the West, environmental needs for ecosystems and endangered fish, as well as recreational flows (rafting and fishing) that help sustain a fast-growing sector of the regional economy.
The key may be tweaking the system to give agricultural producers some choice in the matter, said Mark Squillace, director of the Natural Resources Law Center University of Colorado School of Law.
“It’s a complicated issue legally and politically and any solution has to accommodate agricultural interests,” said Squillace, who written on the topic of water transfers here.
“We need to change the way we view water rights to allow partial transfers … Right now, the the incentives are for agriculture to use as much water as they can,” Squillace said, adding that there’s no incentive to switch to crops that require less water.
Adjusting the system so that a farmer who has been growing alfalfa for 10 years could grow barley or soy beans (requiring less water) and market the “extra” water could yield significant water savings, he explained. Another option could be to create incentives that would benefit farmers if they decide to fallow 20 percent of their fields each year, he said.
“But right now, there’s no incentive for any farmer to do this … One of the things that frustrates me about this is, the focus seems to be with what the scientists, what the engineers are trying to do to save water.
But water laws are a significant barrier — you’ve got to fix the law,” he said. “There’s not not enough recognition of the legal and policy changes that are needed,” he said. “Politically, you’re not going to solve this problem on the backs of the farmers. The best option might be to make it voluntary for farmers to redefine water rights.”