We’re not going to pull any punches. We’re building a water stewardship movement, and we hope you’ll join us. More than 130,000 people and 22 companies already have. Our goal is nothing less than to change the way society uses, manages and values freshwater.
By now most of us have heard the pronouncement “water is the new oil.” But in fact, it’s so much more. Water is the basis not only of our economies, but of life itself.
As demands bump up against the limits of a finite supply, rivers are running dry, lakes are shrinking and groundwater is being depleted. From California to China to Brazil, severe droughts have forced curtailments of water deliveries. This year, for the first time, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, ranked water crises as the No. 1 global threat.
Companies know that water risks pose bottom-line risks, and many have begun to boost their water productivity, getting more output and revenue per gallon used. Manufacturing facilities are recycling and reusing water. More food and beverage companies are working actively with their raw-ingredient suppliers to shrink the water footprints of their products.
Curbing water use is essential. But what do we do about the dammed and dried-up rivers and depleted wetlands?
In the Colorado River Basin alone, a $26 billion-a-year recreation economy depends not on water being diverted out of rivers, but on flows staying in rivers. During the drought of 2012, the western Colorado tourist town of Steamboat Springs saw cash registers go silent when the Yampa River dropped too low for rafting and fly-fishing.
Water security depends on meeting the needs of people and ecosystems. Achieving it requires two things: Figure out how to live happy and productive lives while consuming less water; and restore flows to depleted rivers and freshwater ecosystems.
EcoFlight’s Flight Across America program dynamically engages college students about environmental issues, using a broad range of perspectives, both aerial and on the ground, to bring attention to pressing conservation issues. Students learn how such issues impact their lives and the world around them, and how to personally participate in advocacy work. Through the aerial perspective and discussions with diverse stakeholders and experts on the ground, EcoFlight offers a tangible educational experience, engaging students in the complexities of environmental issues throughout the West. It is our hope that by offering students the opportunity to delve deeply into issues central to the West, they become better prepared to participate in meaningful discussions public lands and advocate for their beliefs, as the next generation of leaders.
Flight Across America 2015 will focus on water conservation concerns in the West, emphasizing the crucial role water plays in sustaining life, and the mega drought happening in many states across the West. The program provides an excellent learning environment for students, combining the aerial perspective of the role of water in the health of ecosystems and how watersheds connect landscapes, with on-the-ground discussions of the impact of energy development, urban planning, recreation and agriculture on our water resources. The Colorado River Basin is in its 14th year of drought, and water is a top concern for population centers and agriculture. We will discuss the coping mechanisms of multiple states in the West, as they plan for the future in an attempt to balance an already over-allocated water supply with growing domestic demand. Climate models are predicting an even drier future, with sustained periods of sparse precipitation and significant loss of soil moisture that span generations, about 10 times as long as a normal three-year drought. In the face of these “mega-droughts” it is imperative that we begin thinking in terms of the future and not just the present for water management in the West.
In a five-day tour of four states, FLAA 2015 will engage college students with diverse conservation concerns of water in the West. EcoFlight will provide aerial tours of water storage and diversion projects, over energy development (both fossil fuel and renewable), over agriculture, and wild landscapes, and watersheds that are vulnerable to drought and water-loss. On the ground students will meet with diverse stakeholders – planners, public officials, conservation groups, sportsmen, energy industry representatives, Native Americans, recreationists and journalists to discuss the different and often competing interests in water and water conservation.
According to a panel of water and land-use experts at last week’s Colorado Water Congress, Coloradans might have to learn to live with smaller lawns, smaller parks and other landscaping changes to help conserve water.
The state water plan outlines a “stretch goal” for municipalities to conserve 400,000 acre-feet of water annually over the next couple of decades. That goal was based on a host of suggestions from municipalities across the state and merged into one conservation goal. It’s a lofty goal — hence the term “stretch.”[…]
Matthew Mulica of the Keystone Policy Center said his organization is spearheading a “Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue.” The effort, now in its second year, looks at the potential benefits of integrating land and water planning and increasing housing density. The conversation brought to the table water providers, land-use planners and developers, public officials, and others with a stake in the matter. The group is first looking at Denver and Aurora water-service areas, and Mulica said they hope the findings will apply to the rest of the state.
They’re examining land and water planning that allows water to play a more prominent role in land-use choices; how to increase “densification” and decrease landscaping, while still maintaining the lifestyle that Coloradans enjoy; and which land-use patterns hold the greatest promise for cutting water use.
It’s not necessarily conservation, Mulica told the audience at the Aug. 20 session. When old homes are torn down and new ones built, there should be ways to change landscaping to reduce water use, he said, or to build houses that make water conservation a priority…
Marc Waage of Denver Water said the group wants to develop a “toolbox of options” for land-use planners that would include conservation-minded land-use patterns.
One model looks at the benefits of increasing residential density, including small single-family homes, changing single-family units to multi-family units, and increasing the density of multi-family housing. That’s where the comparison with Denver’s Stapleton and Highlands neighborhoods arises.
But landscaping is where the greatest opportunity for conservation lies, said Brenda O’Brien of Green Industries of Colorado, a company also known as GreenCO.
O’Brien pointed out that most of the action items in the state water plan relate to outdoor water use. The idea, she said, is to put together best-management practices in land and water-use planning. Making sure these practices are enacted will likely take state laws and local ordinances, she added.
The General Assembly will have to take another stab at changing the state’s construction defects law, according to Scott Smith of the Colorado Association of Home Builders.
Smith wasn’t as gung-ho about changing landscaping for individual homes. His industry has to anticipate what the market will look like in five to 10 years, he said, which means identifying development properties, coming up with financial partners, and making sure a project is profitable.
“Housing and community development comes from the private market, and economics drive the process,” Smith said. “Landscaping is the red-headed stepchild in the economics and financing of housing.”
But landscaping isn’t always up to the developer — it’s often left to the homeowner, Smith said. In addition, housing developments are required to provide open spaces and parks, and that tends to be even more important in high-density developments.
Smith also hinted that homeowners need to take a more active role in water conservation. The state and local building codes now require low-flow water fixtures, but he suspects residents game the system by flushing toilets multiple times or simply taking longer showers.
Then there are expectations about what parks should look like. Smith cited Colorado Springs as an example: the water utility directly bills the parks department for its water use, a rarity among municipalities. Because it has been stuck with the cost, the parks department has had to take a hard look at its water use and is going through an extensive process to redevelop parks, converting some heavily-irrigated areas to native plants.
Another area for conservation could be soccer fields, Smith said, converting grass to artificial turf. “You can’t water those fields enough,” he said. Commercial and industrial users should also play a part, he added.
Irrigation season on the Carpenter Ranch normally begins in early May and continues until September. The ranch is located along the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado, about 20 miles west of the ski town of Steamboat Springs. Water from the river is used to grow fields of waist-high timothy, clover, and other types of grasses that, after being cut, provide hay for cattle.
This year, the seasonal cycle was disrupted. Irrigation on four of the fields, totaling 197 acres, was suspended on July 1. Instead, the water has been allowed to flow down the Yampa River 100 miles to Dinosaur National Park. There, it joins the water of the Green River coming down from Wyoming, which in turn joins the Colorado River in Utah. The comingled waters then flow into Lake Powell.
Powell is one of two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River, the other being Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. Together, the two reservoirs can hold 16 times the annual flow of the Colorado River—on average. But the river and its many tributaries have been flowing below average most years since 1999. Even after torrential rains and heavy snows in the Colorado Rockies in May, the inflow into Lake Powell this year is just 88 percent of average. It’s part of a long-term trend of declining reservoir levels in a river basin that provides water for 25 to 34 million people. (Estimates vary).
These reservoir declines have instilled a sense of urgency in Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water. His agency provides water to 1.3 people in metropolitan Denver, with half the water arriving in the city from the Fraser, Blue, and other tributaries of the Colorado River.
“One of the things we have learned in this drought is that it just seems to keep going and going and going,” says Lochhead. “We are really in uncharted territory right now in terms of where the (reservoir) levels are. The levels are the lowest since these dams have been constructed.”
Lake Mead, formed in 1936 as a result of Hoover Dam, is now at 37 percent of capacity. Lake Powell began forming in 1963 as a result of construction of Glen Canyon Dam and is at 54 percent of capacity.
Lochhead and other architects of the Colorado River System Conservation Program want to be ready in case an even more severe drought revisits the Colorado River Basin. Fresh in mind is 2002, when the Colorado River carried only 25 percent of its normal flows, and 2003 wasn’t much better. Should drought of that severity return, Lake Powell could even shrink to something called a dead pool. That’s when there’s too little water to generate electricity. The electricity is distribu ted broadly across the West to towns, cities, and farms. Revenues from sales are used to fund programs designed to protect endangered fish on the Colorado River.
Lake Powell also has another vital function for Colorado and other headwaters states: It is used to me et commitments of water deliveries to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California as specified by the Colorado River Water Compact of 1922. Denver’s water rights from the Western Slope of Colorado are mostly junior to the compact. If drought persisted, it’s conceivable that Denver and other water users with more junior rights—including many in the mountain resort community—would have to curtail their diversions in order to comply with the 1922 compact.
To forestall this apple cart from being upset, Denver and several major water providers that tap the Colorado River Basin last year joined with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to begin exploring how water can temporarily be shifted from traditional uses and allowed to flow downstream. The Carpenter Ranch along the Yampa River is the first pilot project announced in this Colorado River System Conservation Program.
The ranch is owned by The Nature Conservancy, one of several partners from the environmental community working with Denver and other water providers. The non-profit in turn sublets the land to ranchers, says Geoff Blakeslee, the Yampa River project coordinator for the organization. Taking water off the hay meadows reduces harvest and it will also reduce the number of cattle that can graze the meadows in autumn. About 90 percent of agriculture on Colorado’s Western Slope is, like the Carpenter Ranch, used to produce hay.
Joe Brummer, an associate professor of forage science at Colorado State University, has studied effects of water curtailment in small plots at the Carpenter Ranch as well as other farms. Hay production continues if irrigation ceases, but only in small quantities. The second year, after irrigation has resumed, production lags 50 percent, he says. Even in the third year, again after full resumption of irrigation, production at the Carpenter Ranch test site was 8 to 9 percent below average.
This year, the experiment is different: a split season.
Nine other pilot sites have also been identified, five of them in Wyoming and four in Colorado. They are being funded at a total cost of $1 million. A larger program on the Colorado River involving lower-basins states has a cost of $11 million. Other water agencies providing money, in addition to Denver, include those serving metropolitan Las Vegas and Los Angeles, along with the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy, says the overarching goal of the pilot program is to learn as much as possible about how water can be shared in time of crisis.
“It’s complicated to move water around,” she says. “These are property rights. Many farmers are unsure how it will impact their water rights if they participate in a project like this. So the point of these pilots is to learn as much as we can right now, so that if a crisis does hit, we will have good information so that we can design a program that allows us to share water in a drought.”
How close is crisis? Too close for comfort, she says. “If this were your savings account and it was continuing to drop, you would be concerned,” she says.
Hawes also sees another, even more dramatic analogy. “I think we were on the edge of the cliff, and depending upon whether it’s a good year or bad year, we take a step forward and backward. The California (drought) situation has highlighted impacts that we will have if we don’t have a plan in place.”
Some say that the Colorado River actually is in worse shape over the long haul than California. New evidence finds that warming temperatures in the Southwest may be causing evaporation and [transpiration] that alone can explain declining reservoir levels.
“The fact that the Colorado River Basin drought is more a product of the heat than any drop in precipitation is a frightening prospect, because that heat is not going to go away,” says Doug Kenney, research associate at the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado. In fact, because of increased locked into the atmosphere because of accelerating greenhouse gas emissions, all climate models forecast brisk increases of heat in future decades in the basin.
Denver’s Lochhead says the 2002 drought forced the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to consider how to share impacts of drought. Upper Basin states can move water from smaller reservoirs near the headwaters, such as Flaming Gorge in Utah and Navajo in New Mexico, down into Powell. Water can also be allowed to flow downstream through projects such as are being tested at the Carpenter Ranch.
Water providers in the Colorado River program want to work out kinks so that, if crisis occurs, curtailments can be scaled. But many questions remain, such as how to protect water users through the process, to ensure their water rights remain valid. “It’s really the first step,” says Lochhead, and there will be many follow-up questions.
Lochhead is sensitive about how the program is perceived. It is not, he stressed, a grab by cities for agricultural water. The transfers are intended to be temporary and provide compensation to water-right holders. He also points out that it need not be just farms and ranches. One of the pilot programs involves a city on Colorado’s Front Range, he says, but declined to identify the city, because negotiations have not been completed.
“We’re trying to take the perception of winners and losers off the table,” he says. “In this program, everybody wins because the system wins.”
What’s also of note is the extent to which environmental groups have waded into this program. Hawes says The Nature Conservancy wants to work with farmers because, when the river system gets taxed, agriculture and the environment are usually the first to lose. “We need to work to find partnerships,” she says.
Trout Unlimited has also been a major partner. It has property in the Pinedale-Green River area of Wyoming participating, and the organization has also enlisted a small farm along the Gunnison River near Delta, Colo. Cary Denison, project coordinator for Trout Unlimited in the Gunnison Basin, says the farmer will fallow the land for one year then, in the second year, plant a lower consumption crop. Corn, the current crop, takes two feet per acre. Winter wheat only requires a foot.
“Our role is very limited. I am looking at this is a way of participating in an interesting pilot project that looks at consumptive use of different crops.”
While some farmers already knew about the pilot program, he says, others needed to understand the motivation.
Some ratepayers in Denver also wanted to know why Denver Water would be paying farmers to let water flow downstream toward California. That question gets to the heart of the great complexity of water and the Colorado River Basin, points out Doug Kenney, research associate at the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado.
Denver itself is outside the basin, of course. Cheyenne, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City, plus Phoenix and Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Diego are similarly outside the basin—but also depend upon Colorado River water.
For such a relatively small river, it pulls a heavy load.
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Water Trust Staff Attorney Zach Smith said Upper Yampa began releasing 12 cubic feet per second from Stagecoach Reservoir on Monday, with the goal of boosting flows in the river up to the decreed instream flow amount of 72.5 cfs. The U.S. Geological Survey reflected that flows had quickly reached that level on Monday before declining slightly on Tuesday.
Smith reported Tuesday that the Lake Catamount Metropolitan District had agreed to pass flows below the Catamount Dam downstream from Stagecoach.
This summer’s water release comes later in the summer than it did in 2012 and 2013, when below average winter snowpack and early spring runoff left the river flowing below historic averages in early July. The hay harvest has been early in 2015 — months earlier, in some cases — than it was in 2014.
This summer’s purchase of 1,185 acre-feet of water is in contrast to 2012, when 4,000 acres was purchased from Stagecoach, translating into about 26 cfs for much of the summer.
The winter of 2014-15 was another low snow year, but above average rainfall has kept the upper Yampa Valley lush and the river at healthy flows through the end of July.
As recently as Aug. 4, the Yampa was flowing above median for the date at 180 cfs, but fell to 110 cfs on Aug. 9. It bumped slightly upward in downtown Steamboat on Tuesday.
The city of Steamboat Springs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Tri-State Transmission and Generation and Catamount Development and the Catamount Metropolitan District also played a role in the latest conservation water release.
The Colorado Water Trust is a private, nonprofit organization that facilitates voluntary, market-based water rights transactions to restore and protect streamflows in Colorado to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems. It also works on physical solutions and provides technical assistance on other projects.
Before installing a drip irrigation system at Fagerberg Produce, Rod Weimer said he didn’t know anything about computers.
More than 15 years later, Weimer is a whiz with the smartphone app that controls the irrigation in 850 acres of Fagerberg Produce fields, which he manages.
“My first thought was, ‘I don’t even know how to turn on a computer. How am I going to be able to do this?’ ” he said. “With the help of my daughters, I learned how to work the computers. Today, it’s like I knew it all my life.”
The Netafim subsurface drip irrigation system was installed at Fagerberg Produce in 1998, and it was the first of its kind in the state.
It still draws many visitors who want to learn more about the irrigation method, including an annual visit by some of Colorado State University’s agriculture studies students.
For his efforts in introducing Fagerberg Produce and the rest of Colorado to the drip irrigation system, Weimer last month was awarded the 2015 Precision Agriculture Farmer of the Year Award at the InfoAg Conference held in St. Louis, Mo.
Weimer, who lives in Eaton, was chosen out of farmers nominated from all over the country to receive the award from the PrecisionAg Institute.
PrecisionAg is described on its website as a diversified, independent media enterprise serving the global community using precision agriculture techniques — adjusting production inputs and practices based on in-field variability, typically through use of geographic positioning systems and other technologies
The Farmer of the Year award was won in partnership with Fagerberg Produce, a fact Weimer is always sure to highlight.
“Without the company, I wouldn’t have the resources to do what we did,” he said.
Fagerberg Produce owner Lynn Fagerberg has been extremely supportive of the whole project, he said.
“It’s so important to have an owner who allows you the resources and then it’s up to us to work,” Weimer said. “They give us those resources and trust us to do our jobs.”
The drip irrigation job wasn’t a short or simple undertaking, Weimer said.
In Colorado and westward — where farms fight for every drop of water to grow good produce — that water saving is important.
The Netafim system saves about 40 percent of the water output for the fields in which it sits, and it’s easy to manage.
“We’re running five farms in the 850 acres off my phone,” he said. “I can travel anywhere in the world and still access it.”
The system allows for more fields planted in drought years. Fields with drip irrigation typically see high yields and better crop quality, Weimer said.
He first heard of the systems at a Colorado State University event more than 17 years ago.
“From that point on I started researching drip, and I flew across the United States trying to find a system that would fit our needs,” he said.
In the late ’90s, it wasn’t easy to find such a technologically advanced system. In a time before a smart phone could be found in every pocket, the irrigation system relied on GPS and remote signals.
In the beginning, the innovation was taking place in Fresno, Calif., and most of the companies driving the technology didn’t want to set them up in Colorado because there was no service team nearby.
“Finally, after being very persistent I had a company that supported me and flew out and did a training on GPS so we could support it ourselves,” Weimer said.
He said it was scary, of course, but worth the effort.
Technology has improved through the years, and Weimer was able to evolve from running the system only from his personal computer to his smart phone today.
“It keeps changing and we keep adding,” Weimer said. “Every time there is a change, something new, something better, we add it.”
Weimer grew up in Kersey, and he’s been on a farm since birth, so he knew the importance of water conservation from a young age.
“I’ve always loved it,” he said. “I love playing in the dirt. I love seeing Mother Nature let you grow something fantastic.”
He’s been with Fagerberg Produce for nearly 28 years, and he said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I really want to stress that, yeah, it’s my name on the award and I won Farmer of the Year, but it’s a company involvement,” he said.
Those first few years of adjusting to the drip irrigation were a bit scary, but ultimately, Weimer said they made the right choice.
He said the first time they turned it on, there were leaks everywhere thanks to some hungry field mice.
“I think my neighbors thought we were crazy,” he said. “There was a learning curve.”
But they quickly worked out the kinks, and the system has been smooth sailing since.
“Lynn Fagerberg and myself, we’ve always been excited for change,” he said. “If you don’t keep up with the time — with the technology that’s available — it’s going to be hard to survive.”
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?”