New water plan seeks to preserve Colorado’s agricultural heritage

On May 14, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed Executive Order D2013-005, directing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to begin work on Colorado’s first water plan “written by Coloradans, for Coloradans.” Under the executive order, the board will submit a draft plan to the governor’s office no later than Dec. 10, 2014. A final plan is to be submitted no later than Dec. 10, 2015.

The document makes it clear that preservation of Colorado agriculture is a top priority. As a sector, agriculture represents the state’s largest consumptive use of water. WaterOverviewThe South Platte River flows into the South Platte Basin, which provides water to the state’s most populous urban area as well as the state’s largest agricultural-producing area. With a supply gap of 5,000 acre feet of water predicted by the year 2050, experts predict much of the shortage will occur in this basin. (Photo courtesy of Lora Abcarian)“Coloradans find that the current rate of purchase and transfer of water rights from irrigated agriculture (also known as ‘buy-and-dry’) is unacceptable,” the executive order stated. “We have witnessed the economic and environmental impacts on rural communities when water is sold and removed from an agricultural area.”

The order also acknowledges that a gap between water supply and water demand continues to grow. “The Statewide Water Supply Initiative forecasts that this cap could exceed 500,000 acre feet by 2050,” the directive stated.

Authorities have recognized that Colorado has been in a state of drought for the past two decades, noting that this period is the warmest on record dating back to the 1890s. “Colorado’s drought conditions threaten to hasten the impact of the water supply gap,” the executive order indicated.

“Usually, we fear the unknown,” James Eklund, incoming director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, told The Produce News on June 24. “With water, we fear the known.”

“I applaud the governor,” said Ron Carleton, deputy commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “There’s a serious recognition that harm could be done to Colorado agriculture.”

The effects to Colorado agriculture have sounded alarm bells. “Agriculture is being dewatered to the point where agriculture isn’t sustainable,” Eklund went on to say. “We want to see farmers given the tools to keep them in agricultural production.”

According to Eklund, the state’s Arkansas River and Rio Grande River valleys “are in a dire situation.” And the report adds the following insight. “Moreover, our largest regional gap is set to occur in the South Platte Basin, our most populous as well as our largest agriculture-producing basin.” The South Platte Basin supplies water to Colorado’s Front Range, which runs along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.

“The population is expected to double by 2050,” Carleton told The Produce News. “With a 5,000-acre-feet gap in water supply, a big chunk of that is projected in the South Platte Basin.”

The critical issue, he said, can be boiled down this way. “Ag is the likely place water will move from. How do you fill the gap — supplying needs of the population without using agriculture to fill the gap?”

National incidents of extreme weather are also playing out in Colorado. “We’re dealing with more frequent drought conditions,” Carleton said. “If climate change comes to fruition, what will this do to the water? Regardless of where you stack in on climate change, we have to be prepared.”

According to Carleton, agricultural production contributes $ 40 billion to the state’s economy annually and is responsible for 140,000 jobs. “It’s not an insignificant impact,” he noted. “There’s no easy solution by any means.”

The Colorado Department of Agriculture has a non-voting seat on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Both Eklund and Carleton agree that means must be found to conserve water resources while, at the same time, giving farmers options. “We are looking at ATMs [alternative transfer mechanisms],” Eklund stated. Such techniques include land fallowing and changing practices that free up water use temporarily.

Carleton said water conservation, with practices that use less water more efficiently, are key. “Irrigators have become more sophisticated about using minimums,” he stated. No-till techniques are also helping to reduce water evaporation from the soil.

Agricultural producers are increasingly looking to the use of drip irrigation to reduce water consumption as a way to keep farming operations viable.

Ongoing research being conducted at Colorado State University, Kansas State University and the University of Wyoming are leading the way into the investigation of drought-tolerant seed stock and farming techniques that minimize water use.

“Colorado has long been on the leading edge of water innovation and solutions,” the governor wrote in the executive order. “We are the home of the ‘Colorado Doctrine’ of prior appropriation and the birthplace of the interstate water compact, of which we have nine. We are a headwaters state.”

The board’s plan will include statewide and basin-specific water rights developed by the Interbasin Compact Committee and Basin rountables. “The board will develop an inventory of water rights held by state agencies and evaluate the opportunities for those rights,” the executive order stated. Under the order, the board is charged with the responsibility to align state values in the water project permitting process and streamline the state’s role in the approval and regulation of those projects.

Eklund said the work to draw up the water plan will be the result of a series of public meetings during which input will be taken. “It will be a grassroots-driven plan as it develops,” he commented.

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