Water and Agriculture in Colorado

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

“Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting” is a quote attributed to Mark Twain often used in discussions about water rights in the American West, a region where water is scarce and water rights have long been contentious. Another elucidating quote comes from Ralph Moody’s “Little Britches, Father and I Were Ranchers”, a book recounting Moody’s experiences after moving from New Hampshire to a Colorado Ranch in 1906. Moody’s quote is etched into the sidewalk at the Lakewood Heritage Center in Lakewood Colorado and reads, “All you got to have for this ground is water, and God help the man that ain’t got it.”

In our home state of Colorado, the average annual precipitation is less than 15 inches (1981 – 2010). To put this into perspective for other regions of the United States, the annual precipitation for North Carolina is approximately 42 inches and for Wisconsin, it’s about 35 inches. This is not a result of recent droughts. Water has always been a scarce and precious resource in the region and this history of water scarcity affects water management and regulations in Colorado. Settlers coming to Colorado in the late 1850s built ditches to divert water from creeks or streams to irrigate crops and for domestic use. Because of the scarcity of water, however, the water source was often not adjacent to the property and head gates were built to divert the water into ditches and reservoirs. This method of water acquisition evolved into the “first in time, first in right” basis of Western water law, with those who filed for water rights first gaining senior rights. Those with junior rights could not divert water until the senior rights were satisfied regardless of location or proximity to the source. These types of regulations are still in place today.

Water originating in Colorado travels to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with an average of 10,434,000 acre-feet of water flowing out of the state, supplying water to more than 21,000,000 households across the nation (one acre-foot = 325,851 gallons of water) (Denver Water, 2016). Within Colorado, most of the water originates on the Western slope but most of the state’s population lives on the Eastern slope. To address this, water is moved from the Western slope through trans-basin diversions to the Eastern Slope at a rate of about 475,000 acre-feet per year, with more than a third of the volume going to Denver Water (Denver Water, 2016).

With population growth exceeding the national average, the water supply needs for urban areas in Colorado are rapidly increasing. Currently, cities and municipalities purchase water rights from agricultural lands and transfer the rights to the cities. With water rights in Colorado selling for thousands per acre-foot, selling the rights can be too attractive for struggling farmers to pass up. And when the water rights are sold, agriculture on the impacted land also stops. This practice is known as “buy and dry.” Without the benefits of agriculture, community benefits are lost, tax revenue for the water rights may be lost, open space decreases, and the return of water into the water supply is not guaranteed. With water not returned to the watershed, drinking water is lost for the community and for local wildlife, and there is a significant negative impact to tourism and local activities that rely upon a healthy watershed, such as river rafting, fishing, hunting, skiing, snow-shoeing, snow-boarding, wild-life watching, and hiking. Moreover, the need for imported foods and livestock increases and food security decreases. As succinctly stated in the Project Completion Report for the Agriculture Economic and Water Resources: Methods, Metric, and Models – A Specialty Workshop, (Colorado Water Board, 2013): “No Farm, No Food.”

The impact of loss of agriculture can also be measured economically. There are seven river basins in Colorado: The Yampa/White River Basin, the South Platte River Basin, the Arkansas River Basin, the Rio Grande River Basin, the San Juan/Delores River Basin, and Gunnison River Basin, and the Colorado River Basin (see map). In the Colorado River Basin alone, there are more than a million acres of agricultural lands and most of the water from the Colorado River Basin – an estimated 90% – goes to agriculture. Water from the Basin serves approximately 30 million people and is used in irrigation for almost two million acres of land, producing 15 percent of the nation’s crops and 13 percent of its livestock, which amounts to about $1.5 billion in agricultural benefits.

Efforts to achieve conservation goals so that the needs of both agriculture and the increasing population can be met include water sharing between urban and agricultural communities and improved methods of water delivery and application. However, solutions to the challenge of meeting these water needs in a water-scarce state are not simple or easily achieved. For example, micro-irrigation systems, which are the most efficient method of irrigation are also costly. Micro-irrigation systems such as surface drip, subsurface drip irrigation (SDI), and micro-sprinklers offer flexible water application and decrease water loss; however, they can be costly and difficult to maintain. SDI can cost more than $1,000/ acre to implement, plus $120/acre in annual upkeep. In addition to high costs, the equipment may clog and subsurface clogs may go unnoticed until the entire system has been compromised.

Some alternatives include conservation easements to help protect water supplies and farmers leasing rather than selling their water rights to urban areas. However, water managers for the urban areas feel that owning the water rights is the only guarantee of water supply, creating a conflict with agricultural groups’ desires to retain senior rights to support farming. One thing about which water managers and farmers are in agreement is that that long-term solutions are needed to meet the water needs of the State’s increasing population while protecting the farming industry.

The 2013 Specialty Workshop convened by the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance (CAWA) and the Arkansas Basin Roundtable (ArkBRT) included experts and stakeholders (such as farmers) and focused on the economics of water resources used for agriculture. Public‐centered messaging needs identified in the workshop included many of the concerns noted above as well as the importance of understanding that “conversion of agricultural land to other uses is almost always irreversible”. Groups such as the Colorado Ag Water Alliance continue to hold workshops to identify solutions to such concerns.

The Statewide Water Plan was finalized in 2015 but is intended to be a dynamic document.  The plan provides detailed information about water supply and demand. The plan goes on to discuss water management and protection and identifies measurable goals for the future. Conservation, innovation, and education are key. Various experts and stakeholders are working together to ensure future water needs are met for urban and agricultural uses. These collaborative efforts can increase our optimism about the future of agriculture in Colorado; however, with such a scarce but crucial resource and an ever-increasing population, it’s important to remain vigilant and educate ourselves so that we may take personal and professional actions to ensure the future of agriculture is secure and examine how our ever-increasing water needs can be met.

References & Resources

2016, City of Lakewood, Lakewood Heritage Center, -.

2016, Colorado Ag Water Alliance, July.

2013, Colorado Conservation Board, Agricultural Economic and Water Resources: Methods, Metrics and Models – A Specialty Workshop, July.

2016, Colorado Foundation for Water and Education, Buy & Dry in Colorado Agriculture, -.

2016, Colorado River Users Association, Agriculture, -.

2016, Eagle River Watershed Council, The Current, January.

2014, Denver Post, Colorado Girds for Proliferating People and Increasingly Scarce Water, November.

2015, Denver Post, Colorado Shies from Big Fix as Proliferating people Seek More Water, July.

2015, Denver Post, Colorado Farmers Grow More Food on Less Water Amid Rising Competition, August.

2016, Denver Water, Denverwater.org, Water Rights Planning, -.

2016, Google, Unit Converter, –.

2013, Lee and Plant, Colorado College, Agricultural Water Use in the Colorado River Basin: Conservation and Efficiency Tools for a Water Friendly Future, -.

1991, Moody, Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers, -.

2016, The Nature Conservancy, A “collaborative conservationist” builds relationships with farmers and ranchers along the Colorado River, -.

2005, State of Colorado, Colorado.gov, Department of Natural Resources Map, March.

2015, State of Colorado, Colorado.gov, Colorado’s’ Water Plan – Final 2015, November.

2016, U.S. Climate Data, usclimatedata.com, -.

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