A farmers’ market for water
Stegner foresaw fewer farms and more cities. Drier, more pleasant climates of the West would attract people, he mused, while soybeans and cattle could more efficiently be obtained from the wetter, more humid Midwest.
And so it is coming to pass.
Colorado was the nation’s fourth-fastest-growing state during the 1990s, even as it lost 90,000 acres a year of farmland, according to one task force study. Colorado is an urban state, with about 85 percent of state residents living in the Front Range, a narrow band of cities crunched up against the mountains. Agriculture ranks only third in the economic sectors, behind information technology and tourism.
Surprisingly, the Colorado Department of Agriculture says 93 percent of water supplies used in Colorado – including surface, water pumped from aquifers, and reused water – are devoted to agriculture. Of that, 80 percent is used for growing alfalfa, corn, and other crops used to feed livestock, mostly cattle. In short, nearly three-quarters of water in Colorado goes toward making hamburgers and steaks.
Looking at this big picture, many believe that the answer to growing cities is reducing water for agriculture. That’s been happening for decades, and such conversions from agriculture to municipal quietly continue.
On a modest scale, that sort of conversion is happening in the Eagle Valley. Avon’s new Home Depot and Super Wal-Mart, for example, are being built on land once used to grow hay for cattle.
Somewhat differently, Aurora several years ago purchased a ranch near Leadville just for the water rights. Both Denver and Aurora have done this on a massive scale in South Park, where valleys dotted with haystacks have been replaced by grass fields long gone to seed.
Easy part over
The easy conversions have been done. Upstream of metropolitan Denver on the South Platte River, nearly all the ranches are gone. Farms around Denver are also nearly gone.
Already, Aurora has gone 100 miles away to purchase water from farmers near Rocky Ford, Colorado’s cantaloupe capital. Thornton, a suburb on Denver’s north side, went halfway to Wyoming to purchase farm water near Eaton.
The most water-rich farming region is the Fort Collins-Boulder-Fort Morgan triangle. That portion of the South Platte Valley is aided by diversions through the Colorado-Big Thompson project from Grand Lake, the state’s largest transmountain diversion project.
In this triangle, the conversion from farms to cities is more readily done. However, the transmountain diverted water cannot be sold to out of district buyers. That means water diverted from the Colorado River used to irrigate corn crops near Loveland cannot be sold to Highlands Ranch, for example. But native flows can be sold.
These purchases have been unsettling in a state whose identity is rooted in agriculture. Even when farmers are eager to sell their water, it affects neighbors. To an extent, it affects all Coloradans. Do you really want to live in a state of no farms?
“It’s a tough issue, because the farmers themselves make a lot of money in the conversion but it just rips the guts out of a community,” explains Dave Little, Denver’s manager of water resources. “They no longer have the tax base because they don’t need a tractor store anymore, and they don’t have people supporting the schools or local stores. So the community dries up and blows away, along with the farm.”
In the case of Aurora’s purchase of 48 percent of the water shares in the Rocky Ford Ditch, this blowing away was literal. A lawsuit by local interests led to a negotiated settlement that requires Aurora to establish a permanent vegetative cover on the retired farmland, at a cost of up to $6 million.
Despite these and other problems, many people argue that Colorado must more actively consider conversions of ag water to urban use. In particular, one idea being advocated is for cities to pay farms for water that could be used in drier years.
“It’s inevitable,” says Dan Luecke, a water expert retained by environmental groups.
Studying the issue several years ago, he found that the same amount of water when used in cities produced 10 times as much income as when used on farms.
Moreover, while more than 90 percent of water is used for agriculture, agriculture produces less than 5 percent of the state’s wealth. “I don’t think we can only look at numbers, but that disconnect is just incredible,” Luecke says.
From the perspective of cities, there is the added problem of the plumbing infrastructure. To get agricultural water, metropolitan Denver must go downstream or to other river drainages. At some point that involves pumping water uphill – to money, as Gov. John Love long ago said. But pumping and pipelines get expensive. Furthermore, “downstream water” is inevitably less pure and hence more expensive to treat.
One option is to lease water from farms for use during drought years. Or the reverse, to buy the farms and lease the water back to the farmers except when needed. Those techniques are being used increasingly in California, Colorado’s predecessor in most things good and bad.
Another option is to condemn water owned by farmers, paying a court-ordered settlement. The Colorado Constitution clearly says that domestic use trumps agriculture or industrial use. Cities, however, have been reluctant to use this power of eminent domain for water.
Farmers have contradictory feelings about their water. On one hand, they fervently want to see agriculture remain – abandoning the farms is almost unpatriotic. However, they want to preserve their individual rights to sell water.
Storage is the ball game
Don Amendt, Gov. Bill Owens’s commissioner for agriculture, reflects these attitudes. His roots are in the South Platte River Valley, about 160 miles northeast of Denver, near the town of Illiff. His ancestors had been Germans who had farmed along the Volga River for several centuries at the invitation of Catherine the Great.
About 1900, with Russia in turmoil, and the Germans farmers about to be drafted into the czar’s army, they fled – many to the farmlands of eastern Colorado. In Colorado, irrigation ditches were still being scooped out then, and the prairie was being yoked into farms.
The farms and ranches, he says, provide wildlife habitat, wetlands and the water used to ensure endangered species in the South Platte and Colorado rivers. Furthermore, as he sees it, every part of the country should have agriculture, so the nation’s production is not wiped out if one part suffers famine or pestilince.
Yes, acknowledges Amendt, farmers are openly thinking about selling their water to the cities, and so are the bankers who finance the farmers. When it comes down to it, Amendt would “fight to the death” for the right of owners to be able to sell their water to Front Range cities, if they so choose. “If that’s their 401 K, OK,” he says.
His solution for having their cake and eating it, too – keep the farm while feeding the growing Front Range cities? More reservoirs, whether above ground or in underground aquifers, to hold back spring runoff from leaving Colorado on the Western Slope. Why should California build more golf courses? he asks. Or Las Vegas have more fountains?
Don’t misunderstand – he foresees compensation for the Western Slope, similar to the Green Mountain Dam built 60 years ago. And he points out his fervent belief that much of rural Colorado has traditionally benefited from the Front Range economic engine, particularly through state assistance to public schools.
“I think this is the ballgame,” he says after explaining the need for more reservoirs. That’s the long term. In the short term, it’s a more dire situation. “If we don’t have snowpack next winter, we have one hell of a crisis on our hands.”
So that’s the big picture from the view of agriculture in Colorado, and it probably coincides with the dominant view in Colorado’s prevailing political infrastructure. The push will be on this coming winter to begin clearing the way for reworking existing dams and then building more dams, figuring out more ways to get water from the western side of the state, where the snow commonly falls, to the east side, where the people mostly live.
But their arguments will be stoutly resisted. After several decades of accumulating evidence about the unsavory side-effects of dams, environmental activists are skeptical.
So are Western Slope leaders.