Producers brace as water crunch turns eyes to agriculture’s 85 percent share
Agriculture across Colorado and the West continues to use 85 percent of total water supplies. But growing numbers of farmers are shifting toward greater efficiency, replacing ditch-and-flood irrigation with center-pivot sprinklers and tubes that emit tiny drops…
State water planners anticipate farmers will be able to transfer more of their huge share of water to meet intensifying demands of Front Range industry and housing developers.
“Basically, we’re going to ask the agricultural community to do what the municipal community has already done: Let technology work for you,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Greater efficiency irrigating crops means farmers could grow more and make more water available to companies and cities, Eklund said.
“You can do right by your business and attract new people,” he said, “and at the same time you can be freeing up water that otherwise would have been lost.”[…]
In the South Platte River Basin, state data show loss of water reduced 1.1 million acres of agricultural land during the past three decades to 813,000 acres. That decrease of nearly 300,000 acres adds to large losses in southeastern Colorado after sales by farmers to cities in the 1970s shifted 14.6 billion to 19.5 billion gallons of water…
In southeastern Weld County, traditionally one of the nation’s biggest agricultural producers due to heavy irrigation, farmers said one-third of water rights have been sold since 2009.
Some went to companies involved in the oil and gas boom. Others went to expanding cities.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has declared “buy and dry” must end. Hickenlooper’s senior water adviser, John Stulp, said in a recent interview that, given food and environmental benefits of agriculture, the notion that agriculture’s 85 percent share of water should shrink is unrealistic.
Yet Colorado will encourage Alternative Transfer Mechanisms for shifting water to cities — with farmers leasing water temporarily while retaining ownership — aiming to move 16.2 billion gallons a year. Stulp said any ATM deals will be voluntary.
“There is no mandate to agriculture,” he said. “No one is asking growers to give up ownership of that water.”
“Should we be planting cities in desert areas? Who should go — the farmers or the city dwellers?” said Paul Kehmeier, who grows alfalfa, oats and other crops 50 miles southeast of Grand Junction in western Colorado.
To do that, he diverts water from a river into ditches, managing a homestead his great-grandfather started 120 years ago on land where Ute Indians once thrived.
“Certainly, our farm needs to be irrigated. Otherwise, it would be sagebrush and desert,” Kehmeier said…
Arnusch said he’s wary of even leasing any water back to cities.
Every year for more than a decade, Arnusch has had to leave about 250 of his 2,500 acres fallow for lack of water to irrigate. Farmers here since his grandfather began irrigating in 1952 have accepted limits of nature and, in dry years, planted less, Arnusch said.
The problem with cities is they build based only on market economics, disregarding water, he said.
“Buy-and-dry is happening, and it will continue to happen. But as our nonagriculture water needs increase, what is that going to mean?” Arnusch said. “The urban areas should be like farmers, only using exactly as much as they need. If I don’t have a sufficient water source, how am I supposed to produce?”
A consortium of 14 academic institutions and key partners across the country is addressing the challenges that threaten urban water systems in the United States and around the world. With support from a $12 million cooperative agreement from the National Science Foundation, Colorado State University leads the effort to establish the Urban Water Innovation Network (UWIN).
The mission of UWIN is to create technological, institutional, and management solutions to help communities increase the resilience of their water systems and enhance preparedness for responding to water crises.
UWIN builds on long-standing programs at CSU for research and training, and trusted leadership in all facets of water resources. These programs include urban water conservation, sustainable urban drainage systems and flood control, drought management, pollution control, water resources planning and management, ecological engineering, climate sciences, and urban biodiversity.
Mazdak Arabi, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at CSU, serves as the director of UWIN. Other CSU faculty involved with UWIN include professors Sybil Sharvelle, Brian Bledsoe, Neil Grigg, Jorge Ramirez, Dan Baker, and Scott Denning from the CSU College of Engineering, and LeRoy Poff with the Department of Biology.
According to the 2014 Global Risks Perception Survey by the World Economic Forum, water crises are the top global risk to the viability of communities throughout the world. From the crippling droughts and water shortages in the West to the devastating floods in the East and South, water systems in the U.S. have been impacted by changes in climate, demographics, and other pressures. Our absolute reliance on water is why Americans express greater concern about threats to water than about any other environmental issue and why more than half of all Americans worry a great deal about it, according to latest Gallup poll of environmental concerns.
Extreme events and global climate change can have profound impacts on water security, shattering the most vulnerable communities and instilling enormous costs on governments and economies. Effective response to these challenges requires transitioning to both technological and management solutions that protect water systems from pressures and enhance their resilience.
The vision of UWIN is to create an enduring research network for integrated water systems and to cultivate champions of innovation for water-sensitive urban design and resilient cities. The integrated research, outreach, education and participatory approach of UWIN will produce a toolbox of sustainable solutions by simultaneously minimizing pressures, enhancing resilience to extreme events, and maximizing co-benefits. These benefits will reverberate across other systems, such as urban ecosystems, economies and arrangements for environmental justice and social equity.
The network will establish six highly connected regional urban water sustainability hubs in densely populated regions across the nation to serve as innovation centers, helping communities transition to sustainable management of water resources. Strategic partnerships and engagement with other prominent U.S. and international networks will extend UWIN’s reach to more than 100 cities around the world.
Key UWIN partners and collaborators include the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF), the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), and the Network for Water in European Regions and Cities (NETWERC H2O).
This innovative and adaptive research approach will ultimately produce an Urban Water Sustainability Blueprint, outlining effects and tradeoffs associated with sustainable solutions for cities of all sizes. It will also provide steps and guidance for action based on the collective knowledge gained by the research and the collaborative approach of the SRN. The Blueprint will be rigorously vetted by regional stakeholders across the U.S. and the global urban water community.
The UWIN consortium includes:
Colorado State University
Arizona State University
Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Florida International University
Oregon State University
University of Arizona
University of California-Berkeley
University of California-Riverside
University of Maryland Baltimore County
University of Miami
University of Oregon
University of Pennsylvania
For more information please contact UWIN coordinator Meagan Smith at email@example.com
Water officials insist a pilot program designed to save Colorado River water and boost Lake Mead and Lake Powell is off to such a promising start that they are already looking to pour more money into it.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority is poised to chip in as much as $1.5 million on top of the $2 million it already committed to the Colorado River System Conservation Program, which was established last year among the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the water suppliers from the four largest communities served by the Colorado.
“I think it’s working very well. We were very pleased with the level of interest in the lower basin and the upper basin … and the diversity of the proposals,” said Colby Pellegrino, the authority’s Colorado River programs manager.
Pellegrino said the program has received about 20 proposals for conservation projects so far, more than a dozen of which came from the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California. Negotiations are now underway on five of those projects — three in Arizona and two in California — to determine how much money they should receive and how much water they might save.
To date, the only project to receive final approval is one actually proposed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Pellegrino said the authority has agreed to leave 15,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead over the next two years instead of storing it for future use.
The water in question is being leased by the authority from water-right holders on the Virgin and Muddy rivers. In return for leaving that water in Mead and relinquishing any claim to it, the authority will be paid $2.25 million — or about $150 per acre-foot — out of the conservation program’s coffers to recoup its costs…
The Colorado River System Conservation Program’s interstate conservation program was originally seeded with $11 million — $3 million from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the river and many of its dams, and $2 million each from the water authority, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Denver Water. The Bureau of Reclamation recently agreed to contribute another $3 million.
The money is being used to help cities, farms, factories and power plants pay for efficiency improvements and conservation measures that reduce their use of river water.
But unlike previous conservation collaborations on the Colorado, the water saved under this program is being left in the river to help bolster lakes Mead and Powell, its two largest reservoirs.
The future appears positive for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal government program that in New Mexico has helped to create Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge and the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
A bipartisan deal recently reached in the Senate would extend funding for the 50-year-old program, which is set to expire at the end of September. Carrie Hamblen, executive director of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, said preserving public lands can help create tourism opportunities.
“The Land and Water Conservation Fund really helps us ensure that public lands will be protected,” she said, “and then from there, the local communities can go ahead and explore all of the different options on how to really reap the economic benefits.”
Outdoor recreation contributes an estimated $6 billion to New Mexico’s economy each year and supports about 70,000 jobs. Created by Congress, money for the Land and Water Conservation Fund comes from fees paid by oil and gas companies for drilling offshore.
U.S. Interior Department Deputy Secretary Michael Connor said climate change is another factor in the mix, adding pressure to better protect dwindling water supplies.
“The dramatic droughts going on in the West, and just the fact that water resources are most affected by increasing temperatures – there is a renewed focus within the LWCF to specifically look at investments that protect watersheds,” he said.
U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both D-N.M., are longtime supporters of permanently reauthorizing and fully funding the LWCF at $900 million per year. Even when full funding has been recommended, Congress typically raids the fund for other purposes.
From the Colorado Springs Utilities Re:Sources blog:
I thought I knew enough about xeriscape to feel I could successfully convert a portion of my lawn to low-water plants and shrubs. That is, until I was reminded that my irrigation system will need to change too.
Whether you’re replacing grass or establishing new planting areas, xeriscape plants only need water those plants at their root zone. Drip irrigation is an efficient way to deliver water directly to the soil at the root zone of each plant, eliminating most evaporation. When used properly, drip irrigation systems can increase your water efficiency by up to 50 percent.
If you’re the handy type, you might try retrofitting your current system to drip irrigation. Take a few minutes to watch our drip irrigation video to learn more.
When you make the switch, remember that we offer a drip irrigation conversion rebate. Residential customers can save up to $200 and business customers up to $1,000, when you convert a portion of your lawn irrigation system to a drip irrigation system.
Get started today to start soaking in the savings.
…But irrigation soon could end on [Brant] Peterson’s southwest Kansas farm. The wells under his land in Stanton County are fast running dry as farmers and ranchers across the Great Plains pump the Ogallala faster than it can be replenished naturally.
Three of his wells are already dry.
Within five years, Peterson estimates, he likely won’t be able to irrigate at all.
Wet and dry: A country divided
While the east half of the country generally receives at least 25 inches of rain a year, much of the west is dryer.
This means much of our country’s corn and hogs are farmed west of the 100th meridian. Meanwhile, in the Great Plains, milo, or grain sorghum, has become a popular crop due to its reduced need for water, and cattle farming has long been popular out west…
Western Kansas’ only significant water source is the Ogallala…
The vast freshwater reservoir beneath the prairie formed 5 million to 10 million years ago as streams draining from the Rocky Mountains deposited water in the clay, sand and gravel beneath the Great Plains.
The water lay there undisturbed for epochs until enterprising homesteaders who settled the West discovered the liquid bonanza that would make their arid land bloom.
Now, in a geological blink of an eye, the Ogallala, which made the Great Plains the nation’s breadbasket, is in peril…
The disappearing water supply poses a twofold danger. It could end a way of life in a region where the land and its bounty have been purchased by the toil and sweat of generations of farmers.
It also threatens a harvest worth $21 billion a year to Kansas alone and portends a fast-approaching, and largely unstoppable, water crisis across the parched American West.
With water levels already too low to pump in some places, western Kansas farmers have been forced to acknowledge that the end is near. That harsh reality is testing the patience and imagination of those who rely on the land for their livelihoods.
As they look for survival, farmers are using cutting-edge technologies to make the most efficient use of the water they have left. They’re contemplating something almost unimaginable just a generation ago: voluntary pacts with their neighbors to reduce irrigation.
And many are investing their long-term hopes in an astronomically expensive water transportation project that isn’t likely ever to be built.
The Arkansas River, which once flowed out of Colorado into western Kansas, is nothing but a dry ditch now, its riverbed reduced to a rugged obstacle course for all-terrain vehicles.
And average rainfall here is just 14 to 16 inches a year, nowhere near enough to replace the water that farmers draw from the Ogallala.
Kansas enjoyed a rainier-than-normal spring this year, easing several years of drought conditions throughout the state. But the relief is temporary.
The storms that soaked the state in recent months won’t alter the Ogallala’s fate, experts say…
Once emptied, it would take 6,000 years to refill the Ogallala naturally…
The Ogallala Aquifer supplies water for 20 percent of the corn, wheat, sorghum and cattle produced in the U.S.
It sprawls 174,000 square miles across eight states, from South Dakota to Texas, and can hold more than enough water to fill Lake Huron and part of Lake Ontario.
But for every square mile of aquifer, there’s a well. About 170,000 of them. Ninety percent of the water pumped out is used to irrigate crops…
Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to address the rapid decline of the aquifer. Water rights holders in much of western Kansas had to install flow meters in all their wells starting in the mid-1990s. Soon all wells in Kansas will have to be metered. And the state government has stopped issuing new permits to pump water from the Ogallala in areas of western Kansas where water levels have dropped the most.
Now, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has pledged to make water policy a central pillar of his administration. The final draft of his 50-year “water vision” for the state, released in January, outlines an incentive and education-based approach focused on encouraging voluntary, coordinated conservation efforts by the farmers who have the most to lose by the aquifer’s decline.
So far, however, farmers have agreed to limit water use in just part of two northwestern counties. A group of farmers in Sheridan and Thomas counties established a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, in 2012 to cut water use by 20 percent over five years.
It seems to be working: In the first year, participants in the LEMA used about 2.5 inches less water for irrigation than their neighbors and produced just two bushels less per acre, on average.
A proposal to create another LEMA in west-central Kansas was voted down last year by water rights holders.
“The problem is everybody wants to be democratic, and you have people for and you have some people against,” said Bill Golden, an agricultural economist at Kansas State.
It isn’t easy to convince individuals to put their profits at risk to preserve a common resource, especially when some farmers have more water left than others, Golden said.
“But I think that we will probably see more LEMAs in the coming years,” he said. “That is the most acceptable answer. I mean, we’re going to run out of water. Nobody’s talking about saving the aquifer and not using the water. The question is, can we extend the life of the aquifer and make it a soft landing?”
For now, that leaves individual farmers making their own decisions about how best to manage water on their land.
Ten miles east of Peterson’s farm, in Grant County, Kan., Clay Scott parked his Dodge pickup on a country road and reached for his iPad.
A few hundred feet away, a solar panel planted in a field of wheat powered a probe that measures soil moisture at different depths.
Right now the probe told Scott’s iPad that he could hold off on watering the field. His sprinklers lay idle.
“People think that we waste our water out here,” Scott said, “and we just kind of grin because we work so hard to use that water.”
In addition to the soil moisture probes linked to his iPad, Scott consults satellites and radar data to track every shift in the weather and drop of rain that falls in his fields so he can minimize irrigation. He uses low-till techniques to preserve the soil and experiments with genetically engineered drought-resistant corn. He installed more efficient nozzles on his center-pivot sprinklers.
And he’s trying out a new device called a “dragon line,” which drags perforated hoses behind a center pivot to deposit water directly on the ground, reducing pooling and evaporation.
Scott’s version of high-tech farming would be unrecognizable to his great-grandfather, who homesteaded in nearby Stanton County around the turn of the century.
Still, despite all his efforts, Scott knows there will come a day – sooner rather than later if nothing is done – when irrigation is no longer viable in this part of Kansas.
The effects of the depleted aquifer already can be felt on Scott’s farm, where he’s had to reduce irrigation by 25 percent.
Some of his two dozen wells are pumping just 150 gallons per minute now, down from thousands of gallons per minute when they were first drilled. And as the water table drops, the energy costs of pumping from deeper underground have become higher than the cash rents Scott pays on the fields he leases.
“We’ve gone through periods where we re-drilled and tapped all but the very lowest water,” Scott said. “There are places we don’t pump the wells anymore.”
As an elected board member for the local Groundwater Management District, Scott hopes that he’ll be able to shape conservation policies that will enable his children to continue farming after him. He sees the situation in California, where the state has forced farmers to cut water use, as a cautionary tale. If farmers in Kansas don’t find ways to conserve enough water on their own, the state could enforce water rationing.
“I’ve got three boys, and a couple of them have already talked very seriously about coming back to the farm, and I’d like them to have the opportunity and ability that I’ve had to grow crops and livestock, even in a drought,” he said.
Scott’s long-term hopes rest in the construction of an $18 billion aqueduct that would import high flows off the Missouri River to water crops grown in western Kansas.
As conceived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the concrete ditch would stretch 360 miles from east to west across Kansas with 16 lift stations and massive reservoirs on either end. The proposal was met with opposition – and not a little ridicule – by the legislature in Topeka, as state lawmakers struggled to close a $400 million budget hole.
“We’re not working on it at this point,” Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, said in an interview.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon dismissed the aqueduct as a “harebrained” scheme that would divert river water needed for barge traffic and municipal use.
But in western Kansas, it doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea.
“When they’re flooding in the Missouri River and cities are sandbagging, it sure seems to us like we have an answer to their problems,” Scott said. “Nobody wants to build a house and see it flooded; nobody wants to plant a field and watch it wither.”
Fervent support for the project speaks to the urgency felt by Scott, Peterson and other farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods and communities depend on irrigation. They’re hoping to convince the federal government to kick in funds for the aqueduct. And they’re looking into the possibility of building it through a public-private partnership, like a toll road. Farming cooperatives in California and Colorado have expressed interest in the project, they say, and want to explore extending it farther west.
A federal engineering bailout for western Kansas isn’t very likely, however.
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in an interview that such a costly project would be a nonstarter under Congress’ current budget caps.
“In all honestly, it’s a front-burner issue for folks in southwest Kansas, but to build that kind of aqueduct would be billions of dollars, and I just don’t think that’s feasible at this point,” Roberts said.
Barring the construction of an aqueduct, rural communities that depend on the Ogallala face a bleak future.
The state would have to cut its irrigated acres in half today to get anywhere close to sustainability, said Golden, the agricultural economist from Kansas State.
But it isn’t as simple as turning off the sprinklers.
“People survived out here on dryland farming. I can do it,” Peterson said, using the term “dryland” to refer to growing crops without irrigation. “Here’s the cost: My community is going to wither away.”
An irrigated field in southwest Kansas produces more than eight times more corn per acre on average than a field that isn’t irrigated, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Land values would drop. The loss of equity and tax base would mean fewer farmers and bigger farms, consolidated school districts, and impoverished towns with declining populations.
Like any economy dependent on mining a finite resource, this one is headed for a bust, and the farmers know it.
“We can’t wait another 30 years to get our policy right,” Scott said. “The drought in California is showing what living in denial can do.”
Keith Gido, professor in the Division of Biology; Josh Perkin, 2012 Kansas State University doctoral graduate; and several co-authors have published “Fragmentation and dewatering transform Great Plains stream fish communities” in the journal Ecological Monographs.
The article documents a reduction in water flow in Great Plains streams and rivers because of drought, damming and groundwater withdrawals. This is causing a decrease in aquatic diversity in Kansas from stream fragmentation — or stretches of disconnected streams.
“Fish are an indication of the health of the environment,” Gido said. “A while back there was a sewage leak in the Arkansas River and it was the dead fish that helped identify the problem. Children play and swim in that water, so it’s important that we have a good understanding of water quality.”
Several species of fish — including the peppered chub and the plains minnow — were found to be severely declining in the Great Plains during the ecologists’ field research, which compared historic records to 110 sampling sites in Kansas between 2011-2013. Both fish species swim downstream during droughts and return during normal water flow, but the construction of dams, or stream fragmentation, prevents fish from returning upstream.
“The Great Plains region is a harsh environment and drought has always been a problem. Historically, fish were able to recover from drought by moving,” Gido said. “They could swim downstream and when the drought was over, they could swim back. Now, there are dams on the rivers and the fish are not able to recover.”
Streams in the Great Plains region have more than 19,000 human-made barriers. Gido estimates that on average, stretches of streams in the Great Plains are about six miles long. In surveying Kansas’ streams and rivers, the researchers discovered numerous small dams that do not allow enough habitat for the fish to complete their reproductive cycles. Moreover, the fish are unable to migrate in search of suitable habitat.
“Groundwater extraction exasperates the drought, and the damming of the rivers inhibits the fish from being able to recover from those conditions,” Gido said. “This is unfortunate, but there are some things we can do to help.”
Gido suggested a renewed focus to conserve water, reduce dams and make fish passageways like the one on the Arkansas River under Lincoln Street in Wichita. During the planning for the reconstruction of the Lincoln Street Bridge and the dam over the river, the city worked with wildlife agencies to build a passage that would allow fish as well as canoes and kayaks to navigate through the structure.
Similar structures could be constructed on the Kansas River to help fish migrate.
“The plains minnow is still found in the Missouri River and could recolonize the Kansas River — where they used to be the most abundance species — if there was a fish passage through some of the dams.”
Urban gardeners have no shortage of motivation to grow food: access to fresh vegetables, a chance to interact with nature in a concrete jungle, an excuse to spend time outdoors and take in some of the depression-alleviating microbes that live in soil. Now there’s another reason to replace your green lawn with leafy greens: water conservation.
Vegetable gardens often use less water than many picturesque green lawns—in some cases, half as much, according to gardening and water experts. In Denver, for instance, residents, schools, and water agencies have started installing vegetable gardens to save water. The push to factor water consumption into the decision to replace lawns with urban gardens seems to be strongest in metropolitan Denver, but the potential exists in just about any drought-prone area…
Denver Water, Colorado’s largest water utility, used to promote xeriscaping—replacing lawns with drought-resistant plants—as the optimal water-saving way to landscape a piece of property. Today, though, the agency encourages people to look not just at the amount of water used but at the overall value that that water will provide.
“I think vegetable gardens are a perfect example: You can save water. You can grow food. You can have organic vegetables for your family at the same time,” said Mark Cassalia, water conservation specialist for Denver Water.
“Our years of data from water bills and our partnership with Denver Water has helped us to understand that community gardens use about 40 percent less water than lawns,” said Jessica Romer, director of horticulture at Denver Urban Gardens, a nonprofit that operates a network of community gardens around the city…
Aurora Water, the water agency that serves the city of Aurora, just east of Denver, is also pushing urban farms. After converting large grass plots that the agency owned to vegetable gardens at two sites, the city noted a 74 percent drop in irrigation. The agency also offers a gardening class for residents interested in learning how to grow vegetables.