By Larry Morandi
The Colorado General Assembly is considering a bill that would explore “deficit irrigation” as an alternative transfer mechanism (ATM). ATMs look at alternatives to the acquisition of agricultural water rights and their permanent transfer to other uses. Deficit irrigation is a strategy that applies less water than necessary to meet a crop’s full needs while still achieving a profitable harvest and saving water that can be leased for other purposes.
House Bill 18-1151, co-sponsored by Water Education Colorado board member Representative Jeni Arndt, would add deficit irrigation to land fallowing for pilot projects, which the Colorado Water Conservation Board would approve, that result in leasing conserved water for other uses. It would also exclude from the calculation of “historical consumptive use”—the amount that can be transferred—any decrease in water use resulting from deficit irrigation, thus removing the fear of “use it or lose it.”
Testimony on the bill in the House Agriculture, Livestock & Natural Resources Committee on February 26 was largely supportive. Peter Nichols, a water attorney who represents irrigators in the lower Arkansas River Valley, noted the bill “is consistent with the Colorado Water Plan’s objective to share at least 50,000 acre-feet of agricultural water with other users through voluntary ATMs to protect irrigated agriculture from buy-and-dry scenarios.” An irrigator on the Catlin Canal said the bill “will provide an opportunity to pursue alternative crops that use less water and help the economy as farmers continue to buy seed and other crop services from local retailers that may not occur with land fallowing.”
Opposition was expressed over potential injury to downstream water rights with leasing saved water. Proponents argued that the whole idea behind deficit irrigation as a pilot project was to determine what the impacts might be and how effective it is in conserving and leasing water while maintaining crop productivity. The committee approved the bill on an 8-4 vote and sent it to the full House of Representatives for debate.
Larry Morandi writes on environment and natural resources issues. His articles on drought, the Colorado River and public access to water have appeared in State Legislatures magazine. He recently retired from the National Conference of State Legislatures, a think tank based in Denver, where he was Director of State Policy Research. He previously worked for the Colorado Legislative Council as staff to water committees. Larry has lived in Colorado for the past 40 years, splitting his time between Denver and Summit County.