Editor’s note: This is the second part in a four-part series about water in the West.
Gary Bumgarner doesn’t like to hear statistics that say irrigated agriculture makes up 85 percent of Colorado’s consumptive water use. It’s misleading, he says, and as a fourth generation Grand County rancher with senior and junior water rights, he knows a thing or two about water.
Agriculture uses the same water over and over, he says, referring to return flows and downstream water uses. Transmountain diversions use water up and never return it. It’s known as consumptive use in the water world, meaning the use permanently removes the water from its natural stream system. Bumgarner and plenty of other ranchers and farmers argue that the agriculture industry’s share of the total consumptive use in Colorado is much less than 85 percent.
More than half the water in Grand County heads east to the Front Range through transmountain diversions, which has Bumgarner concerned about the current statewide water planning process, sure, but he’s more concerned about what has already happened to water in the Colorado River Basin.
Bumgarner, who is also a Grand County commissioner, remembers when his mother used to have to cross high water in a rowboat on her way up to Kremmling, he said.
“In my teens and 20s, there was so much water,” he said. “Now, it’s a pretty stark contrast.”
When a river is over-developed — meaning too much water is taken from it — danger lurks. The effects range from water quality issues to riparian habitat depletions to economic and recreational devastation.
The agriculture industry in Colorado has a bull’s-eye on it as the state creates its water plan. Municipalities want to buy up senior agriculture water rights to secure supplies that can meet the demands of population growth — it’s known as “buy and dry” — and being that the agriculture industry uses more water than any other, it has found itself at the center of the discussion.
At a recent Colorado River Basin Roundtable meeting, Bumgarner and others brought up the consumptive use point time and time again. The agriculture representatives at the roundtable want to be sure there’s more clarification in the Colorado Basin Implementation Plan before it’s sent off to the state.
Six themes have emerged from the first draft of the basin’s plan, one of which is to “sustain agriculture.”
That’s the million dollar question. When senior agriculture water rights are private property rights, meaning the owners can do whatever they want with their property — including buy, sell and transfer their water rights. If a Front Range municipality wants to come in a buy the rights and the farmer or rancher wants to sell, then there’s not much anyone can do to stop it.
“If you’re making money, it’s sustainable. If you’re not making money, it’s not sustainable,” Bumgarner said. “Do I want my neighbor to sell out? No. Do I want the ability to sell out? Yes.”
Bumgarner said the agriculture industry has to be nimble in order to sustain itself. His family has changed its operations around three times from a dairy farm to a sheep operation to its present day business of cattle and calves.
“(Agriculture) has to learn to adapt,” he said. “Just because I do it, doesn’t mean my kids or grandkids should be doing it. It’s no different than any job. What you’re doing today doesn’t mean you should be doing it in 120 years.”
Reducing the stress on the basin
The Colorado Basin Implementation Plan does include projects and policies that “provide incentives and protections necessary to support agriculture.”
It also calls for improved water laws that would allow the agriculture community the flexibility to implement efficient irrigation without the loss of water rights.
“An additional (transmountain diversion) that supports more blue grass lawns on the Front Range while decreasing Colorado Basin irrigated agricultural lands and associated food supply is poor planning and not sustainable,” the draft reads.
But the level of conservation that irrigation efficiencies could create is debatable. Much of the water lost through irrigation inefficiencies returns to the river or groundwater system for use by downstream water diverters, according to a 2008 Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance study titled Meeting Colorado’s Future Water Supply Needs.
“Increased agricultural water conservation could potentially result in a voluntary reduction in the diversion of water to the farm, creating benefits such as improved water quality, allowing more water to remain in the streams, reduced waterlogging of soils, and reducing energy costs for pumping, but may not result in water that can be legally transferred to other uses,” according to the study. “If the use of water conservation measures can improve water supply availability without causing injury to downstream users or the environment, then the result may be improved water supplies for agriculture and other uses.”
Irrigation for agriculture isn’t the only water use under conservation scrutiny. Homeowners with non-native landscaping such as Kentucky bluegrass lawns could also start to face regulations and consequences, or at the very least some dirty looks from the neighbors.
Talk to Western Slope water officials and conservationists and you’ll hear a lot of criticism over bluegrass lawns along the Front Range, as well as in the High Country — and especially in resort towns where $20 million homes spare no expense for opulence.
Martha Cochran, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust, thinks Coloradoans have to start thinking differently about water resources and personal responsibility. She thinks a new standard could emerge for home landscaping that shuns those with bluegrass lawns, but that day will never come if citizens don’t become more educated about water resources. It also might not happen without government regulation.
“I think we can do huge amounts to reduce what’s creating the stress on the basin,” she said. “There was a time when (bluegrass lawns and swimming pools) were kind of a symbol of prosperity. I think that some day it’s going to be looked upon as just tacky.”
Municipalities are teaching and encouraging xeriscaping, a practice in which native plants and grasses, mulch and other low-water landscaping replaces landscaping that wastes water, such as bluegrass.
An informed citizenry is the best protection for Western Slope water, Pokrandt said.
“If you turn on your faucet and water didn’t come out, you’d be interested real fast,” he said.
Values differ across the state
With more than a decade of persistent drought conditions, there’s a focus on conservation. The U.S. Department of the Interior and municipal water suppliers in Arizona, Colorado, California and Nevada signed a landmark water conservation agreement last month called the Colorado River System Conservation Program. The suppliers — which include Denver Water in Colorado — are contributing $11 million to fund pilot conservation projects on the Colorado River.
And municipalities across the Western Slope like Aspen, Winter Park and Snowmass are looking at both conservation efforts and also land use codes that limit growth based on water supplies.
The City of Aspen has also incorporated a Center for Resource Conservation Slow the Flow Sprinkler Inspection program for the past two years, and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District offers a similar program through certified irrigation professionals.
These are all steps applauded by conservation groups like Western Resource Advocates. Water Program Director Bart Miller said if Colorado and the Colorado River Basin as a whole can do the right amount of urban conservation, water recycling, irrigation and energy efficiencies, the vast majority of future water needs should be met.
“I think the state water plan provides a really unique opportunity, the first ever opportunity for the state to embed, articulate and follow through on the broad range of values that folks across the state have,” he said.
While great opportunities exist, it’s also a safe bet to assume the state Water Plan won’t please all stakeholders — there will likely be some grumbling from each of the basins, but the hope is the plan can strike the right balance so it’s not about Eastern Slope vs. Western Slope, said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state water plan’s development director.
“Doing that is going to require some work,” he said. “(Colorado’s Water Plan) won’t read exactly the way every stakeholder wants it to.”
Western Slope stakeholders like Bumgarner fear the worst for the Western Slope: more transmountain diversions.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’re going to come get more water and (agriculture) will be the loser, and the tourism industry,” he said. “You’re not going rafting on rocks if there’s no water. I’m very much anti-government getting into things, but at some point the state has to figure out how many people the state can contain. We’re not going to get more water, and we’re going to double the population, so they have to take it from existing users.”
Part three in this series will explore the relationships between water and Western Slope economies.