Report: How Young Farmers and ranchers are essential to tackling Water scarcity in the arid West

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Here’s the executive summary.

The western United states is in the midst of a growing water crisis. extended drought, climate change, and a booming population are increasing demand for food and fresh water. in the U.s. colorado river Basin, a seven state region that produces around 85% of U.s. winter produce, demand for water is expected to significantly outpace supply by 2060. as more entities vie for this increasingly tenuous resource, agriculture is looked to as the primary sector to reduce the gap in water supply and demand.

Yet another supply-demand gap looms that is equally urgent: the shrinking number of family farmers. currently, farmers over 65 outnumber those under 35 by a ratio of six to one. nationwide, over 573 million acres of farmland are expected to change management in the next 20 years. if we fail to recruit enough new farmers, we risk furthering the consolidation of our food system, increasing permanent losses of agricultural lands, and losing a generation of water stewards.

Young farmers are critical to addressing both our dwindling water resources and producer populations. in 2015, the national Young Farmers coalition surveyed young farmers and ranchers across the arid West. Most of these farmers are young enough to have never farmed outside of drought: over 15 years ago, when the current drought began, most had yet to begin a career in agriculture. and while western farmers have always wrestled with aridity, millennial farmers can expect the entirety of their careers to be influenced by the effects of a changing climate, forcing them to develop innovative solutions for hotter, drier times.

Following the charge of many farmers before them, more young farmers are managing their operations holistically, integrating economic, ecological, and social health into a working whole. conservation is embedded in the very way they do business. the problem is our policies, programs, and funding priorities lag behind these evolving values and practices.

Over the decades, massive water projects have been developed to bring water to population centers. these continue to be proposed today: take the recent $9 billion proposal to pipe water from Wyoming’s Flaming gorge reservoir to colorado’s Front range. But too often these projects come at the expense of working lands and the communities that connect them. imagine, instead, if we invested some of those dollars in conservation instead of concrete? can we tackle our water challenges with creativity while simultaneously upholding viable and resilient agriculture?

As a region and a nation we have a choice: to continue the status quo and risk losing the land, water, and knowledge with which a new generation of producers will grow food and conserve our shared water resources; or invest in the next generation of farmers as allies in finding solutions to water scarcity. this report illustrates the urgent need—and great opportunity—to pursue the latter.

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

The survey, conducted by Fort Lewis College professors, polled 379 young farmers and ranchers in the arid West and held eight focus groups in four Colorado River Basin states. Most respondents, whose average age is 36, are in Colorado and California, are in their first 10 years of farming and did not grow up on ranches or farms.

According to the report, 82 percent of survey respondents cited water access as the top concern. Access to affordable, irrigated farmland came in fourth, at 53 percent, after drought and climate change.

Census data shows the average age of the U.S. farmer is rising, and La Plata County presents a two-fold predicament: land prices are steep, and land is dry if you can get it. The two factor heavily into the county’s dwindling agriculturists.

“For most farmers, if they’re ready to buy land, they leave La Plata County. They go to Montezuma County or get out of farming,” said Kate Greenberg, Western water program director for Young Farmers.

As a 20-something farmer, James Plate of Fields to Plate Farm can’t afford land in La Plata County. Instead, he’s taking advantage of the Old Fort Market Garden Incubator program, which allows farmers to temporarily lease land – with water rights – on the Old Fort campus in Hesperus.

“I was born and raised in Colorado and want to supply my state with local vegetables, but we are finding it difficult to get access to the proper acreage of land with water to supplement that space,” Plate said.

He and business partner Max Fields have looked at properties that range from $1.5 million to $100,000 with seasonal water rights. Cheaper land is often on the “dry side” of the county, which means farmers are confined to growing dry native crops such as corn and pinto beans.

“You can’t afford land with water,” said Tyler Hoyt, who owns a 72-acre farm in Montezuma County. “There’s plenty you can afford without.”

Hoyt, who participated in the coalition survey, purchased the farm for $330,000 11 years ago, citing the lack of affordable land in La Plata County as a reason for purchasing land in Montezuma.

“Water is definitely a premium in the West,” said The Wells Group real estate broker Thad Trujillo, who recently sold a 40-acre farm with water rights from March through July for $220,000.

Trujillo said while tracts in the southwestern part of the county may sell for under $150,000, prime parcels in North Animas Valley can go for $10,000 an acre at minimum. Apart from the valley, the most expensive (read: wet) farmland is along the river corridor and the “triangle” where the county’s three municipalities converge.

Forty-year-old Gabe French, on his third career, was fortunate to buy his Bayfield farm on County Road 509 three years ago. He grows vegetables and hay with May to October water rights from Pine River and Vallecito.

As much as 80 percent of water used by humans in the Colorado River Basin is devoted to agriculture, and much of the region’s water comes from reservoirs and is supplemented by snow-melt runoff. It’s not that the county is devoid of water – the Animas is one of the most under-appropriated rivers in the state – but getting and saving it is a different, costly story.

The analysis shows 94 percent of young farmers in the arid West practice water conservation in some capacity, but for many farmers, methods are either unknown or inaccessible. Of the 94 percent who said they conserve, just 20 percent received Natural Resources Conservation Services funding, a federal cost-share program to improve efficiency.

“It’s hard to invest money into efficient irrigation for hay,” French said.

But local farmers appear to be trying to work around their barricades with methods such as crop rotation, cover-cropping, rotational grazing and mulching to preserve the soil; drip and flood irrigation to water crops; and getting innovative in scouting usable land – like leasing property at second homes that would otherwise go unused.

Greenberg said failing to invest in the next generation of farmers will lead to land lost to fallowing, development and consolidation, which jeopardizes both water supply and food security. But until something shifts, the issues may continue to deter potential agriculturists in La Plata County.

“The water is there. The land is there,” Hoyt said. “The change has to be monetary.”

“We’re in a new territory for everyone where the BLM and public are gong to mix in [on oil and gas exploration]” — Nada Culver

Montezuma Valley
Montezuma Valley

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

A Master Leasing Plan doesn’t sound provocative, but bitter lines have been drawn as a result of the Bureau of Land Management planning the future use of its federal land in Southwest Colorado, 92 percent of which is open to gas and oil development.

Debate now lingers over whether the BLM should engage in such a plan to further analyze when and where new wells should be drilled.

Conservationists and recreationists in support of a master plan say the study will give natural resources and recreational uses the same level of priority as gas and oil development, which the BLM has historically favored.

Energy companies and those dependent on the industry argue the BLM already has protections in place, and the call for additional review is a cheap attempt by those who wish to see fuels remain in the ground.

The BLM falls somewhere vaguely in between.

Leveling the playing field

Around 2010, the Tres Rios BLM office estimated up to 3,000 new wells would be drilled over the next 20 years for federally controlled minerals in western La Plata County and eastern Montezuma County.

And within the 820,000-acre area of minerals, only 62,000 acres would be closed to drilling.

The plan caught the ire of some community members who felt the boundaries come too close and adversely impact naturally valued lands, including the corridors into Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, around the mountain biking destination Phil’s World and on the edge of two wilderness study areas.

In February 2015, the BLM released an updated Resource Management Plan, outlining guidelines for land use, including future exploration and development of new well pads in the region.

But environmentalists say the resource plan fell short of keeping oil and gas in check, leaving too many areas of discretion and loopholes for over-development.

Concerned with effects on wildlife migration, cultural resources, water quality and air quality, the groups pressured the BLM to consider a master plan, which could tighten restrictions in the two-county area.

“We’re not going to make the entire area on the map a park,” said Nada Culver, director and senior counsel for the Wilderness Society. “The idea is to get more balanced with oil and gas. (A master leasing plan) takes resources like wildlife, recreation, agriculture – and evens the playing field.”

Bringing together interests from across the board, the BLM set up and assigned an advisory committee to draft a recommendation on whether a master leasing plan is warranted. A sub-group of that committee is holding public hearings in Durango and Mancos on Thursday.

Delay tactics?

But not all are in favor of a second look at resources and interests on BLM lands.

“This is being done for political reasons,” said Eric Sanford, operations and land manager for SG Interests, which is representing the energy industry on the sub-committee…

BLM has final say

BLM officials pointed to the $247 million the state of Colorado received in 2015 from royalties for all federal minerals, including oil and gas, as well as the more than 22,900 jobs tied to the industry’s operations on public land.

The BLM Tres Rios Field Office will receive the advisory committee’s recommendation in August, but ultimately, the federal agency has the final say whether it will undertake a master leasing plan project.

“We haven’t taken a stance one way or the other,” said Justin Abernathy, assistant field manager for the BLM’s Tres Rios office. “We’re a multiple-use agency, and in my experience with BLM – the people, the employees really try to balance their approach on how we manage public lands we’re responsible for.”

The BLM ceased all gas and oil leasing on the area in question until the matter of a master leasing plan is resolved. Still, the federal agency has 35 previously authorized leases covering about 13,500 acres within the master plan’s boundaries.

Between the 3,740-square-mile area that covers La Plata and Montezuma counties, the most recent data show nearly 6,000 gas wells dot the countryside.

Throughout the mineral-rich San Juan Basin, the total number of drilling operations are hard to pin down, yet some reports reach into the tens of thousands.

And numbers like those make the battle for the landscape of the West worth fighting for, the Wilderness Society’s Nada said.

“This is a new culture,” Nada said. “The BLM has historically left it up to the oil and gas industry to decide when and where they drill.

“We’re in a new territory for everyone where the BLM and public are gong to mix in.”

Dolores River: Water Protection Work Group formed to protect ag and muni interests

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The newly formed Water Protection Work Group was created in response to a proposed National Conservation Area for the lower Dolores River.

The WPWG seeks to protect municipal and agricultural water supplies in Montezuma and Dolores counties from any consequence arising from NCA legislation.

Participants include Phyllis Snyder, Larry Don Suckla, Zane Odell, Doug Stowe, Greg Black, Don Schwindt, Drew Gordanier, Bernard Karwick, Bob Bragg, Keenan Ertel and Gerald Koppenhafer.

The recently released their minimum requirements and recommendations to David Robbins, a Colorado water attorney who has reviewed the NCA proposal.

“Prior public promises that the NCA ‘is not about taking water’ are appreciated and allow us to move forward with some assurance,” the group states in a memo. “Ambiguity and conflicting provisions must be left out of the NCA draft legislation.”

Some of the recommendations include:

The group wants the preamble of the NCA to be more specific about the Dolores River’s importance as the region’s sole water supply.

A proposed advisory committee in the draft NCA legislation requires more thorough definition.

The draft NCA bill must be written to explicitly prohibit any federal express or implied water rights on the Dolores River.

The draft NCA bill must release the Dolores River, upstream from the confluence with the San Miguel River, from consideration under the Wild and Scenic River’s Act. The recommendation also stipulates that no wild and scenic river portions below the San Miguel confluence can reach upstream water rights.

The NCA shall not affect the Dolores Project or the operation of McPhee Reservoir in any way.

The draft NCA bill has language prohibiting the building of large scale water projects. The WPWG recommends that large scale water projects be defined to exclude all existing projects, diversion, structures and water rights. Also, they recommend that the proposed NCA must not impact future projects under Colorado state water law that do not exceed 50,000 acre feet of annual use.

The group also wants written into any NCA legislation that management plans will not impact or influence releases or spills from McPhee dam, the water upstream from McPhee Dam, or the Dolores Project.

In April 2015, a legislative subcommittee of the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group released a draft bill that would designated a portion of the river an NCA and another portion a wilderness area.

In exchange, the river’s suitability status for a wild and scenic river below McPhee dam would be dropped.

The proposed Dolores River National Conservation Area would stretch from below the dam at Bradfield Bridge to Bedrock, Colo., and include the river and public land on both sides.

The draft bill also proposes to designate the Dolores Canyon Wilderness Area, a 30,119-acre swath of remote canyonlands that has been managed as a BLM wilderness study area for decades.

According to the draft, the Wilderness Area boundary would be located at the edge of the river, and no portion of the Dolores River will be included in it.

However, the draft bill shows the Dolores river would be part of the NCA, including where it runs through the wilderness area.

Dolores River Canyon near Paradox
Dolores River Canyon near Paradox

Dolores Community Center: Wild & Scenic Film Festival, January 22

Click here for all the inside skinny from Conservation Colorado. From the website:

Conservation Colorado is joining Montezuma Land Conservancy as they host the 5th Annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival! Doors will open at 5:45 PM and films will roll at 6:30 PM. FREE wine and Dolores River Brewery beer will be provided. Yummy food will be sold separately by the Dolores PTO. Eleven inspiring films will be shown, and there will be door prizes and an awesome drawing for new members. Come learn more about conservation while enjoying local beer and great films!

Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door, $5 for children.

To purchase tickets, click here.

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#Snowpack news: “This [San Juan SWE] is way better than where we were last year” — Brian Domonkos

From the Telluride Daily Planet (Stephen Elliott):

The first Colorado water supply outlook report of the year brought good news for the state and particularly the San Miguel Watershed. The report, released Jan. 1 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, found that the statewide snowpack is at 118 percent of normal, the most plentiful start to a winter water season since 2011.

After several dry years, heavy precipitation early this winter and fall replenished reservoirs around the state, allowing water managers to take a cautiously optimistic look at what the summer might bring.

“To be at this point at the beginning of the year is usually a good thing,” said Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Colorado program. “What we can really hope for is a prolonged spring where temperatures stay pretty cool. Hopefully it stays cool well into the summer and that runoff will run off nice and even and it’ll be a nice water supply headed into the summer.”

But weather is never a sure bet, and Domonkos said it was still early to predict a healthy water season.

“We’ve only reached about the halfway point when it comes to our snowpack accumulation season. There’s a lot that can change,” he said. “It’s not the easiest for the weather in the mountains to maintain (those high levels of precipitation), but it’s certainly possible, and it could be higher.”

All major river basins in the state have above-normal snowpacks, according to the report, but the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins are collectively the highest above normal, at 130 percent. In the combined southwestern Colorado basin, which includes Telluride, December storms dropped a whopping 174 percent of the average precipitation for the month.

The Telluride Ski Resort has already reported 161 inches of snow for the season.

Reservoir storage in the combined basin is at 103 percent of average, compared to 88 percent at this time last year.

The Colorado Snow Survey’s snowpack and streamflow forecasts put the San Miguel at 161 percent of normal snowpack, the highest in the combined basin. The other river basins range from the La Plata River, at 108 percent of normal snowpack, to the Dolores River, at 157 percent of normal snowpack.

Domonkos added that the San Miguel has about twice as much water in its snowpack as at this point last year; a positive improvement, but also nowhere near record levels.

“This is way better than where we were last year, but we are a good long ways from where the maximum is,” he said.
That snow is so important because it holds the water that will keep the West green in the summer.

DoloresRiverBoating.com: 3rd Annual Permit Party, Friday, January 15

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From the announcement:

Join us Friday, January 15 for our 3rd Annual Permit Party and the film premiere of “River of Sorrow” by Rig to Flip. Doors open at 6PM and the film starts at 7. Live music by Last Nickel begins at 8. A silent auction with incredible gear and adventures (like a trip for 2 down the Yampa River!) will be held from 6 to 8:30. Tasty vittles from Absolute Bakery and beer from Dolores River Brewery will be available for purchase. Childcare and children’s activities will be provided so bring the whole family! Tickets are $10 at the door, $5 for students, and kids 12 and under are free! Don’t miss this incredible annual celebration of the Dolores River!

Snowpack news

Statewide snowpack map December 28, 2015 via the NRCS.
Statewide snowpack map December 28, 2015 via the NRCS.

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

McPhee Reservoir, the Dolores Water Conservancy District, and its farmers are getting a double dose of holiday cheer.

Snowpack is piling up early in the San Juan Mountains, the best start to winter in a couple of years.

Preliminary snowfall totals from the Dec. 22-23 storm in the San Juan Mountains are 24 inches of fresh powder, according to the National Weather Service.

Snotels – devices placed throughout the Dolores Basin measuring snowpack in real time – are reporting above-average snowfall. They are used to predict runoff into McPhee Reservoir, which ended the irrigation season with decent carryover storage.

The El Diente Snotel is at 145 percent of normal, the Lizard Head Snotel is at 130 percent of normal, and the Scotch Creek Snotel is at 135 percent of normal.

Those numbers will climb even higher as updates comes in, said NWS meteorologist Andrew Lyons.

“Plus we’re tracking another storm for Christmas Eve that is expected to be a real snow maker for the Western Slope,” he said. “It’s stronger to the north, but will likely bring snowfall your way as well.”

Another gift for the district is the award of up to $3 million in grants from the Bureau of Reclamation to overhaul several pumping stations in time for the 2016 farming season.

Ruin Canyon, Pleasant View, Cahone, and Dove Creek pumping stations are all having critical infrastructure replaced. The pumps are 25 years old.