Agriculture plays key role in #COWaterPlan — Montrose Daily Press

Governor Hickenlooper, John Salazar and John Stulp at the 2012 Drought Conference
Governor Hickenlooper, John Salazar and John Stulp at the 2012 Drought Conference

From The Montrose Daily Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

The state’s population is growing. Its water supply is not.

This reality is the driving force behind the Colorado Water Plan, which aims to conserve what we have against a 560,000 acre-feet gap between supply and demand projected by 2030.

“That’s water that has to come from somewhere else,” John Stulp, director of the Inter Basin Compact Commission, said Thursday. “ … most likely, from agriculture and the Western Slope. We’re trying to avoid that.”

Stulp, who is also a special advisor to Gov. John Hickenlooper and a rancher, was in Montrose for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Forum, hosted by the Shavano Conservation District.

Stulp addressed how agriculture fits into the Colorado Water Plan. Agriculture “has the preponderance” of first use of water in the state — about 80 percent of Colorado water use begins in agriculture, he said.

The plan’s measurable outcomes address the projected supply-demand gap by 2030, plus the conservation goal of 400,00 acre-feet per year by 2050. Colorado is expected to add 5 million people in the coming decades, a number that includes native-born residents.

Conservation must be done on all levels, not just in agriculture, Stulp said, but also industrial and municipal.

“That, in itself, can provide a lot of water,” he said. Denver Water, for example, is using the same amount of water as it did 30 years ago, despite serving 350,000 more people now.

Storage is another factor. “That’s what made the West,” Stulp said. “We need more storage as we have more people coming.”

Agricultural objectives include the need to keep pace with national and global demand for food in the face of declining agricultural land worldwide, as well as finding alternatives to “buy and dry.”

Buy and dry refers to the selling or transfer of agricultural land and the water rights that may come with it, which can take both the land and the water out of ag. production.

The state has already lost between 500,000 and 700,000 irrigated acres to buy and dry, which the Colorado Water Plan does not prevent.

The state must guard against dry years by developing alternatives, Stulp said, citing both the 2012 drought in Colorado and the recent, crippling drought in California.

The former resulted in a $700 million loss; the latter loss is estimated at $9 billion.

“Drought can be devastating,” Stulp said.

Rotational fallowing, interruptive supply, deficit irrigation, water cooperatives and water conservation easements have all been presented as alternatives to buy and dry, as have alternate transfer methods.

Pilot projects are taking place in the state and elsewhere, along with discussions about irrigation technology needs.

“Alternate transfer methods are designed to be able to transfer water from agriculture to municipal (use) on a temporary basis,” Stulp said.

That can be mutually beneficial, and also contributes to resiliency. In times of drought, farmers “need to be able to squeeze every drop,” Stulp said.

The concept of water banking also ties into conserving water, but the challenge lies in making it happen basin-wide, said Montrose County Water Rights Development Coordinator Marc Catlin.

Catlin also sits on the Colorado River Water Conservation Board and the Gunnison Basin Roundtable.

Water banking would also encourage some fallowing of ground on a rotational basis.

“Right now, we’re studying water banking,” Catlin said. Water banking would depend in part on the ability to move unused irrigation water to places where it is needed, past diversion structures.

This could require adjustments to the Colorado River Compact.

The 1922 compact is a multi-state agreement for the use of Colorado River water. It requires 7.5 million acre-feet of water each year to be transferred to upper basin states.

With Mexico’s interests factored in, 8.2 million acre-feet of water flows across Lee’s Ferry each year to meet the compact requirements, a feat made possible by Lake Powell — “our insurance policy,” Catlin said.

If the compact provisions are not met, the upper basin states can place a call for curtailment; Lake Powell makes it possible to make sure the required amount of water is always going to be available. Drought is currently affecting the lake and hydropower generation from it.

Catlin said he has concerns with water banking, among these, “urban cousins” selling permanent water taps based on a temporary water supply.

“It’s going to take everybody” to decide what conservation looks like, Catlin said. “It’s a limited supply.”

Said Stulp: “The water plan is going to be as good as we implement it.”

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