The battle between cities and agriculture for water was the theme for a Monday gathering of water experts from around the West who came to Colorado State University for the institution’s first Western Water Symposium. The all day discussions were timely, as Colorado is in the last few months of approving its first statewide water plan, which is due on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk by early December.
The plan, broken up by basins, seeks to prepare for a future with more Colorado residents and less water. The plan’s default solution is that the water will come from Colorado’s agriculture, said Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs, who directed the symposium.
“The Colorado Water Plan, it’s really a plan about agriculture, how do we get water for the cities and not destroy agriculture,” he said. “And we’ve got a short water supply, and the farmers can be on the short stick of this if we don’t look out for their water rights.”
While the experts spent much of Monday discussing the future of water in the Rockies, they also reminisced about how the West got here, with its water needs exceeding its resources.
It began in the mid-19th century, when three acts passed under President Abraham Lincoln, the Homestead, Land Grant College and the Pacific Railway Acts, opened the West for settlement.
But what settlers found was not the water-rich land and easily accessed gold mines depicted in popular maps of the day, said Susan Schulten, a professor of history at University of Denver. Instead, they found a sort of “American desert,” an arid plains landscape that needed water to sustain the kind of livelihoods people were accustomed to on the East Coast.
What followed was more than a century of work, building dams and reservoirs, and legal wrangling that transformed Colorado into a place that had enough water for gold miners, farmers and growing cities along the Front Range.
In the 21st century, agriculture in Colorado spans both sides of the Continental Divide, and most of it relies on water coming from the mountains. About 70 percent of the Colorado River allocations to Colorado go to agriculture, which is about average, said Reagan Waskom, the director of CSU’s Colorado Water Institute.
But water headed to Colorado’s farms isn’t the only share being eyed in the negotiations to bolster Colorado’s dwindling water supply. In 2012, the Bureau of Reclamation completed a study of the Colorado River, which has its head waters in Rocky Mountain National Park and is the lifeline for much of the arid states to the west of Colorado. To help preserve the river, the study suggested that agriculture and urban users cut back on their flows by one million acre feet…
But it was hard to figure out how to take from agriculture, which has been plagued by drought, and expanding urban areas, said Waskom, who sat on the agriculture committee.
“This big report I don’t think really got us to the future,” Waskom added.
The report suggested that much of the reduction in agriculture’s water reserves be done through fallowing, or letting farmers’ fields go dry. But that solution comes at too high a cost for Colorado’s farmers, Waskom said.
“The way you are going to get ag water is by reducing consumptive use,” he said. “How can you reduce it in such a way and that you can get water and not hurt a farming operation? There really aren’t too many ways that you can reduce consumptive use other than fallowing. If you are paid enough for that water when you fallow, maybe you come out ahead and go golfing.”