Category Archives: Agriculture

The Runoff Conundrum

When a summer storm crosses the eastern plains, drowning farmlands in a deluge, more than water ends up flowing into Colorado’s rivers, lakes and streams.

On April 13, 2017, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education was joined by Troy Bauder, with Colorado State University Extension, for a webinar in which part of the discussion centered on nonpoint source pollution. Bauder focuses on working with agricultural producers to reduce nutrient losses on their fields.

Runoff, a nonpoint source, occurs when there is more water than the soil can absorb. Agricultural runoff carries a bit of everything it touches—excess fertilizer, animal waste, soil and more. Water that is not absorbed into the ground moves across the land, picking up whatever it can carry, and drains into surface water and groundwater sources.

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Photo Credit: Lynn Betts

“Ag nutrients—nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P)—are absolutely required for productive agriculture,” Bauder says. “Of course, we need good management to prevent the accumulation of too much N and P in our soils and to reduce the potential for movement to surface and ground water.”

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Photo Credit: Dr. Jennifer L. Graham

When nitrogen and phosphorus—two nutrients found in agricultural runoff—are deposited in excess in water bodies, it leads to algal blooms, reduced dissolved oxygen content, which is harmful to aquatic plants and animals, and can compromise drinking water supplies.

If rain falls on 30 farms, with 20 of them using fertilizers to supplement nutrients in the soil, and the excess of these nutrients finds its way into the runoff, who is to blame for compromising water quality? Who is responsible for nutrient pollution? Since no one farm can be blamed for the degradation of water quality, agricultural runoff is a challenging nonpoint source pollutant to manage and regulate.

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Photo Credit: USDA

Colorado’s Regulation 85, a nutrient policy passed in 2012, regulates point sources of nitrogen, phosphorous and chlorophyll a in surface water, setting discharge limits and requiring monitoring; however, Regulation 85 currently allows for a voluntary, incentivized, approach for reducing nutrient pollution that originates in nonpoint source pollution.

“We’ve partnered with CDPHE [the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] to produce some resources and an outreach program called Colorado AG Water Quality,” Bauder continues. “The purpose of this outreach effort is to get the word out to growers about how Reg. 85 could potentially affect them.”

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Photo Credit: USDA

Taking ownership of nutrient pollution and implementing best management practices gives agriculture the opportunity to avoid stringent state regulations. In 2022, the current, voluntary, approach will be evaluated to determine if progress has been made with the implementation and adoption of best management practices (BMP) as they relate to nonpoint source pollution, agriculture and water quality. Additional regulations may be considered depending on the results.

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Conservation Tillage Photo Credit: USDA

Reducing nutrient pollution is achieved through the implementation of BMPs, including improvements in fertilizer management, conservation tillage, irrigation, manure handling and soil erosion. The adoption of BMPs by Colorado agricultural producers benefits agriculture, as well as water quality. When implemented successfully, not only will there be a reduction in nutrient pollution, but it will reduce the need for future regulation.

“We want to work with our growers on the agronomic and economic feasibility of these practices to help them understand how they can help their bottom line,” Bauder says.

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Nitrogen Application                              Photo Credit: Bob Nichols

BMP effectiveness depends on what is known as the 4 R’s: Growers need to use the right amount (rate), right placement, right timing and right source. Combined with improved irrigation management, these BMPs improve the efficacy of the nutrients and prevent the potential for movement, which often results in nonpoint source pollution. Irrigation management can include altering the method by which water is delivered with system upgrades, combined with scheduling watering at the right time of day and in the proper amounts to reduce runoff. Ultimately, implementing these BMPs will benefit the grower’s bottom line while simultaneously protecting water sources from being impacted by nutrients.

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Photo Credit: USDA

“It’s definitely important to engage growers early and often in the process,” Bauder concludes. “Not only the growers, but their representatives, commodity groups and the people who advise them.”

While nutrients are certainly necessary for successful and sustainable agriculture, the execution of BMPs will help mitigate nutrient loss and movement, and in turn, reduce nonpoint source pollution due to runoff. Providing incentives, tools and resources to growers is critical to BMP implementation and success, as well as keeping Colorado’s water sources clean and reducing the impact of nutrient pollution.

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Photo Credit: NOAA

Learn more about cyanotoxins, algal blooms, public health and efforts to reduce nutrients in our water when you listen to the recording of this April 2017 webinar presented by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and offered in partnership with Colorado Water Congress with support from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Hear about how municipal recreational lakes are monitoring and working to reduce algal blooms, discover how agricultural producers coming together and implementing best practices to minimize nutrient runoff and learn the basics of toxic algal blooms.

hw_fall_2016_final_coverFind further coverage about this topic in the Public Health Issue of Headwaters Magazine.

Not a Headwaters subscriber? Visit yourwatercolorado.org for the digital version. Headwaters is the flagship publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and covers current events, trends and opportunities in Colorado water.

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Filed under Agriculture, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Environment, groundwater, Headwaters Magazine, Water Quality

Water Challenges for Young Western Farmers

When you hear the word “farmer,” what is the first thing that comes to mind? Most people have a preconceived notion of what farming looks like, as well as what is involved in the actual practice of farming. While the average age of an American farmer is 58, and farmers over the age of 65 outnumber farmers under 35 by a ratio of six-to-one, the next generation of farmers is emerging across the country. Their work is yielding joys and challenges previously not experienced, as young farmers face a future impacted by drought, climate change and increasing municipal demands on water supplies.

This recent crop of innovative young farmers is featured in the newly released short film Conservation Generation, presented by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), an organization that “represents, mobilizes, and engages young farmers to ensure their success.” The four young farmers featured in Conservation Generation are working hard to run successful farms in the arid West, with two of them farming on Colorado’s Western Slope; Harrison Topp of Topp Fruit in Paonia, and Tyler Hoyt of Green Table Farms in Mancos.

One of the major struggles for farmers in this part of the country is the ever-increasing scarcity of water. This challenge requires that farmers find innovative solutions to the water shortages that they face. In blog posts they’ve written for the National Young Farmers Coalition to accompany the video, Topp and Hoyt each explain that picking the right land to farm was a crucial component for ensuring that their farms will have access to water.

“Water needs to be at the forefront of how we operate because it will (hopefully) help to keep us in business,” Hoyt says in the film. Both farms are located close to the headwaters of the rivers and streams that Hoyt and Topp draw from, ensuring that the water used for irrigating their crops is less likely to be contaminated by pollutants than it might be if they were further downstream.

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Tyler Hoyt         Photo Credit: NYFC

The farmers employ irrigation techniques that allow them to conserve and make the best use of the water that they are able to use. For Topp, this involved improving the method for transferring the water they are allowed to take from the Fire Mountain Canal to the orchard.

“We had a beautiful (but totally inefficient) network of hand-dug ditches that delivered water across the orchard,” says Topp, in one of his blog posts about the original irrigation system on his farm. “Stones, dirt, shovels, tarps and metal fragments were used to get the water to flow where I wanted. It could take hours to get the right amount of water kind of close to where I needed it to go.”

According the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as much as 50 percent of water used for irrigation is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or runoff caused by inefficient irrigation methods and systems. While Topp notes that their new method of irrigation—use of a gated pipe—is not as efficient as he would like, it works well for the orchard, and is an improvement.

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Photo Credit: NYFC

On Green Table Farms, Hoyt employs a host of methods that allow him to make the most of the water that he has access to. “I grow a lot of indigenous crops; those varieties that have been grown out here under dry land conditions for a very long time,” Hoyt explains in the film. “[The use of] drip tape is definitely a huge way that we manage our water so that in those years when we get very little, we can still irrigate.”

The face of farming in the United States is changing. With those changes come new challenges, some of which are the result of  climate change and increasing water scarcity. Young farmers across the country, like those featured in Conservation Generation are optimistic that by working hard, and applying their own creative ingenuity, they can find ways to overcome the issue of water scarcity and keep agriculture alive and growing in the arid West.

Additional information about the Conservation Generation can be found in NYFC’s report, Conservation Generation: How Young Farmers and Ranchers Are Essential to Tackling Water Scarcity in the Arid West; a survey of 379 young farmers in the arid West and recommendations on how their work can best be supported.

If are interested in learning more about managing agriculture and water in Colorado, check out Managing Agriculture and Water Scarcity in Colorado (and Beyond) , a report released by CFWE, in partnership with CoBank, last year.

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Grand Valley Farmers Participate in Drought Planning Effort

Drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin will continue to be a focus at the Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference which runs tomorrow through Friday, Dec. 14-16, 2016 in Las Vegas. The conference will feature expert speakers, panelists and discussions and is regularly attended by key decision makers from Colorado River Basin states. Review the agenda and learn more here.

By Hannah Holm, Coordinator, Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University

It’s been very dry in Colorado’s mountains this fall.  It’s still early, and the snowpack could catch up to “normal,” but when I flew over those mountains on November 15, they were brown. Just the barest dusting of white covered the highest ridges and north-facing slopes.

This delayed onset of winter has provided a sobering backdrop to ongoing discussions about what to do if the Colorado River Basin slips back into severe drought with Lakes Powell and Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the basin, already half-empty.

Efforts to protect the Colorado River system and those who depend on it

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Water intakes on Lake Mead. Credit: Bureau of Reclamation

If Lake Mead drops too low, farms and cities in the lower basin that have become accustomed to steady water supplies will have to drastically cut back. If Powell drops too low, Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to keep generating power or maintain sufficient releases to honor the 1922 agreement between the states that share the river. No one knows exactly how upstream water users would be affected in that scenario, but if it’s a crisis reaction, it’s unlikely to be pretty. The environment could take a hit as well: low lake levels would make it impossible to conduct periodic high releases designed to mimic historical floods in order to benefit habitat conditions in the Grand Canyon.

In the lower Colorado River Basin, discussions among Arizona, California and Nevada have centered around who will cut their water use, by how much, and at what “trigger” levels in Lake Mead. This is necessary even without an intensified drought, because lake levels keep falling even with normal water deliveries from Lake Powell. The degree of drought just ratchets the urgency up or down.

In the upper Colorado River Basin, which straddles Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, there is no single outlet at the top of the system that can be cranked up or down. Instead, there are thousands of drainages feeding into the Colorado River, with widely dispersed ranches, farms and communities taking sips and gulps along the way, including some sizeable straws pulling water across the Continental Divide to Colorado’s Front Range.

A recent modeling effort coordinated by the Colorado River District concluded that if we were to experience another drought like the one of the early 2000’s, with reservoir levels as low as they are now and without any additional conservation, Lake Powell could essentially be drained in just a few years.

Efforts are underway to figure out how to craft a demand management system that can entice upper basin water users to voluntarily dial back their consumption, and get paid for it, in order to keep Powell from falling to critically low levels.

As it turns out, that’s complicated. For an agricultural demand management system to work for farmers, it needs to provide adequate compensation, not impede long-term operations, have simple paperwork, and not put water rights at risk. For irrigation providers, it needs to pay its own way, be easy to manage, and not put water rights at risk. And for such a system to work for communities, you can’t have large swaths of fields left brown and unkempt, supply dealers left without customers, and farmworkers left jobless.

Grand Valley activities

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Credit: Grand Valley Water Users Association

A pilot project in Western Colorado’s Grand Valley is testing an approach to cutting back agricultural water use that seeks to work for everyone.

The location, just east of the Utah state line, is significant. About half of the water that flows into Lake Powell flows through Colorado’s Grand Valley first, some of it flowing through the river, and some detouring through irrigation ditches and farm fields before returning. Much of the water diverted does not return, of course, instead getting transpired through leaves of alfalfa, corn, or grass, or plumping up peaches and wine grapes.

The Grand Valley Water Users Association (GVWUA), the biggest irrigation provider in the valley, is managing the pilot project to reduce that water consumption. At an October meeting to explain the pilot program to other regional water managers and irrigators, GVWUA manager Mark Harris said that the potential for future water shortages is driving the organization’s participation in the pilot.

For the 2017 irrigation season, GVWUA will conduct the $1 million pilot with funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, The Nature Conservancy, and the Water Bank Work Group. The Water Bank Work Group is conducting long-term research on the viability of various demand management options and includes the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, and the Front Range Water Council.

In 2017, 10 farm operators dispersed across the valley, each with 120 or more acres under irrigated cultivation, will participate in the GVWUA program. There are several options: full fallow, fallow until October, fallow until September, and fallow until August. The option of fallowing until October is popular because it allows establishing a winter wheat crop for the next year. This is particularly important when there isn’t certainty about whether the program will continue the following year. Full fallowing, if continued for multiple years, could provide the opportunity for farmers to transition fields to certified organic production and sell their products for higher prices.

The total reduction in water consumption achieved by the GVWUA pilot is predicted to be 3,200 acre feet: only a drop, but an important first drop to test the system. So far, the project appears to be on course to work well for the participating farmers and the GVWUA. There is adequate compensation, management isn’t too complicated, and water rights are protected. Research indicates that temporary fallowing is more likely to benefit soil fertility than harm it. And in order to ensure that producers renting land won’t be pushed off by landowners choosing program payments over farmers’ rental payments, the program was limited to people who were actively working the land.

Making the program acceptable for the rest of the community isn’t too complicated at this small scale, although some eyebrows may be raised at the odd brown field in the spring. If brought to sufficient scale to meaningfully benefit Lake Powell, however, this would become a more significant consideration.  Harris believes that the program would have to limit participation to no more than 25 percent of the acreage GVWUA irrigates in order to avoid unacceptable impacts to the community.

In the meeting about the GVWUA program, several people voiced concern that agriculture was being expected to shoulder the burden of bringing supply and demand back into balance in the Colorado River Basin. Some cities are, in fact, also participating in programs to cut diversions to protect the reservoirs, and most have made large strides in conservation in recent decades. However, there is still a feeling that they can do more, particularly in the area of integrating land use and water planning.

If snow piles up in the mountains at reasonable levels over the next few years, it will buy time to fine tune and gradually scale up programs like the one GVWUA is testing, as well as experiments underway in other settings and on other crops, like high mountain hay meadows. Bolstering administrative capacity to coordinate a broad suite of such programs and developing legal mechanisms to ensure that conserved water reaches Lake Powell without being intercepted by other users must occur before such programs can be effective at a large scale.

If a moderate amount of conserved water is sent to Lake Powell each year, or retained in upstream reservoirs, it will reduce the chances that more drastic cuts will be needed in any one year—avoiding the deepest impacts to agriculture and communities.

If the mountains keep staying brown late into the fall, however, the upper basin’s demand management efforts will have to accelerate significantly. Under that scenario, it will be harder to keep everyone happy.

 
hannahheadshot1-28-15Hannah Holm is the coordinator and co-founder of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water challenges facing the Upper Colorado River Basin.  Colorado Mesa University is located in Grand Junction, CO.

Hannah previously facilitated the Grand Valley and Lower Gunnison Wise Water Use Council, advocated for stronger drinking water protections with Western Colorado Congress, and served on her local watershed group board in Pennsylvania. In the late 1990’s, Hannah worked for North Carolina General Assembly, where she staffed committees on the Environment, Natural Resources, Sustainable Agriculture and Smart Growth.

Hannah has a joint Master’s degree in Community & Regional Planning and Latin American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.

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Expanding the Role of Reclaimed Water

One of the main resources needed by any garden, including Denver Urban Gardens‘ (DUG) community gardens, is water. Since 1985, DUG has been working in the Denver Metro area to create sustainable, food-producing community gardens, and today operates more than 155 gardens, with 30 of those located on the grounds of Denver Public Schools (DPS).

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Photo Credit: Denver Urban Gardens

“School community gardens connect students, parents, teachers and the larger neighborhood community,” says Shannon Spurlock, director of public affairs and policy for DUG. “Our goal is to support the farm to school movement that introduces students to fresh, healthy, food choices that will lead them to make good food choices in the future.”

In the interest of sustainability, DPS has a long-term goal of switching all of their outdoor irrigation systems over to reclaimed water; however, an increase in the use of reclaimed water for irrigation could cause the number of school gardens to dwindle.

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Photo Credit: Denver Urban Gardens

Spurlock continues, “When a school’s irrigation system switches to reclaimed water, the school can no longer run a garden.” This limitation is due to Regulation 84, a public health policy that controls the ways that reclaimed water can be used, in order to protect public health and safety in Colorado. One of the ordinances that make up Regulation 84 states that reclaimed water cannot be used on crops meant for human consumption, which includes the school gardens run by DUG.

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Reclaimed Water

In Colorado, nonpotable reuse water—or reclaimed domestic wastewater that has received secondary treatment by wastewater treatment works, as well as additional treatment needed to meet standards for approved uses—is restricted to landscaping irrigation and some commercial and industrial uses. Key issues that concern the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) include the potential for bacterial and viral pathogen growth in storage and distribution systems, the development of antibiotic resistant genes and bacteria (ARG/ARB) that may be found in reclaimed water and having no clear treatment options, and the accumulation of salt due to reuse

DUG, Denver Water and WateReuse Colorado have been active proponents of amending Regulation 84 in favor of crop irrigation, as a way to make further use of a nonrenewable resource and extend the Denver Metro area water supply. DUG views the successful use of reclaimed water in other states, such as California, as an opportunity to safely increase the role of reclaimed water to agricultural irrigation, including community gardens.

“The use of reclaimed water on crops is not new,” Spurlock says. “We are benefiting from the technology and knowledge of others when it comes to food safety and security.”

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Reclaimed Water Greenhouse              Photo Credit: USDA

In California, crops have been irrigated with reclaimed water for 50 years. California Water Recycling Criteria allows for 43 specific uses of reclaimed water and encompasses the irrigation of all types of food crops, including those meant for human consumption. Different water quality requirements are necessary depending on how the final product will be consumed. Having a variety of treatment options supports water safety and reduces the potential for pathogens and ARG/ARB to be found in the water.

The California Ag Water Stewardship Initiative (CAWSI) addresses the issue of increased salt in reclaimed water, stressing the importance of farmers having access to water quality data that will allow them to adjust fertilization and irrigation practices accordingly for the most effective use of reclaimed water on crops.

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Photo Credit: USDA

California’s success using reclaimed water for irrigation gives DUG cause to be hopeful about the future of expanded reclaimed water use in Colorado. Discussions between CDPHE and proponents of increased reclaimed water usage began in spring 2016 and are slated to continue to determine whether or not the amendment process will continue, and to ensure that public health protection remains a priority if Regulation 84 is amended.

By 2050, Colorado’s population is projected to surge from 5.4 million to 10 million people. This rate of growth places a strain on the state’s already stressed water supply, widening the gap between supply and demand, and leaving water providers searching for ways to stretch a limited resource. One possible way to meet the ever-increasing demand for water is through the use of reclaimed water, and should Regulation 84 be amended in the future, its effect may stretch beyond watering a neighborhood garden.

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Photo Courtesy of Denver Urban Gardens

“Food connects our students to the land, our urban areas to rural farming, and gives everyone an opportunity to experience fresher, healthier, food that they might not experience, otherwise,” Spurlock says. “Families take what they learn in a school garden and start gardens in their own home. I have seen how growing food can have a positive influence on lives, and by amending Regulation 84 and incorporating reclaimed water into our daily lives, we can continue to have an impact.”

Watch for related coverage, including a story about water reuse and public health, in the upcoming issue of Headwaters magazine, focused on public health and water, which will hit mailboxes in early December. Not a Headwaters subscriber? Visit yourwatercolorado.org in December for the digital version. Headwaters is the flagship publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and covers current events, trends and opportunities in Colorado water.

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Accurately Estimating Evapotranspiration: The Third Colorado ET Workshop

By Tom Trout, USDA-ARS-Water Management Research

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Tom Trout checking out the CoAgMet weather station instrumentation. Credit: Peggy Greb

Water rights transfers in Colorado are based on consumptive use. A city or company that purchases water from a farmer can only use the amount of water that the farmer has historically consumed—that is, the water that actually evaporated and transpired from the crop and soil. Thus, they must estimate the evapotranspiration, or ET, for the fields that had been irrigated. The method to estimate ET commonly used in Colorado is an old method developed over 50 years ago called the Blaney-Criddle method. The method is based only on temperature and is simple, but not very accurate.

Much more accurate ET calculation methods are now available. ET weather station networks in Colorado—Colorado Agricultural Meteorological Network (CoAgMet), and Northern Water’s networkhave been collecting detailed weather data for over 20 years that can be used to calculate reference ET using globally-recognized standardized methods. Satellites have been collecting images of farm crops for over 30 years. These technologies can be combined to improve ET estimates over the past month or season or several years.

Learn about these newer technologies and the advantages and disadvantages compared to current methods at the Third Colorado ET Workshop. The workshop will present ET estimation methods and the information required to use them, including weather and satellite data. Presenters will also describe the latest research in ET estimation for both well-irrigated and deficit-irrigated crops. They will discuss how these methods could be used for more accurate and standardized consumptive use calculations for both permanent water transfers and alternative temporary transfers.

The Third Colorado ET Workshop will be held in Fort Collins on October 13, 2016. Workshop organizers include USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Colorado State University, Colorado Division of Water Resources, and Colorado Water Conservation Board.

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The workshop is part of the Ninth International Conference on Irrigation and Drainage organized by the U.S. Committee on Irrigation and Drainage (USCID) taking place October 11-14 at the Fort Collins Hilton. The theme of the USCID conference is:

Improving Irrigation Water Management—Latest Methods in Evapotranspiration and Supporting Technologies

The conference will include many presentations on the latest ET research. The recently published ASCE Manual “Evaporation, Evapotranspiration, and Irrigation Water Requirements” will be introduced at the conference. Participants can register for the whole conference, or just the Thursday Colorado ET Workshop. Learn more and register here.

Read more about Tom Trout’s cover_webrecent work in “The Ever Evolving Farmer” in the Fall 2012 issue of Headwaters magazine.

 

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No Chico Brush: Collaboration for Colorado’s Water Future

 

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Official opening of the Gunnison Tunnel by President Taft at the west portal, Montrose, Colorado, September 23, 1909. Photo by Almeron Newman.

Before irrigated agriculture in the Uncompahgre and North Fork Valleys, there was chico brush. These woody desert plants covered vast swaths of land in southwestern Colorado until the late 1800s and early 1900s, when works like the Gunnison Tunnel diverted water that was used to transform these valleys into the agricultural hubs they are today—leaving chico brush on the dusty sidelines.

As water resources in the region have grown more stretched in recent decades, many stakeholders recognize the need to update operations to improve their odds in the face of future water scarcity. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 dictates that water from the Colorado River must be shared between seven Colorado River Basin states and Mexico. Further, this compact “obligates the upper basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) to not not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry, Arizona to be depleted below 75 million acre feet over any period of 10 consecutive years,” according to the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Interstate Compacts. So far, this obligation has always been met.

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Lake Powell in Arizona. Photo by Wolfgang Staudt.

However, delivering this promised water may become much more difficult in the near future. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two of the reservoirs that store water destined for lower basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) and Mexico, reached record low levels this year, highlighted by ominous bathtub rings in the lake sediments. This is indicative of how low the Colorado River has been recently due to steadily increasing demand for a variety of municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses. According to the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation, “the gap between water supply and demand for municipal and industrial uses alone could reach 560,000 acre feet by 2050 absent proactive measures…these future gaps in municipal and industrial water supply will likely be met by voluntary transfers of water out of irrigated agriculture, as lucrative offers are made by urban utilities and industrial operators.” If this economic pull were to slowly dry up agriculture in southwestern Colorado, it would deal a significant blow to the state’s economy and heritage, not to mention the cornucopia of delicious, Colorado-grown produce that we enjoy.  

“If we don’t do something then other people are going to think we aren’t taking this seriously and then the water will be gone,” says Tom Kay, a farmer and co-owner of North Fork Organics. Without irrigation water to cultivate crops and the agricultural lifestyle in the valleys, irrigators fear that nothing will be left but chico brush.

That’s why some of those folks in the Uncompahgre and North Fork Valleys came together in 2010 to form No Chico Brush (NCB), a farmer- and rancher-led group of interested citizens who are working together to look at future water availability and irrigation efficiency. The group consists of an array of interests including county commissioners; water organizations; special interest groups like The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited; citizens; and more , according to Steve Schrock, the coordinator of NCB.

John Harold holding a piece of the drip irrigation tape that gets laid in the field.

John Harold holding a piece of the drip irrigation tape that gets laid in the field. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy, 2013. (All Internal Rights, Limited External)

With diverse interests come diverse objectives. “I wanted to find ways to educate and encourage farmers to understand that we have to modernize irrigation practices because of the pressures on water,” says John Harold, one of the farmers who brought the group together. NCB aims to keep their lands for agricultural purposes (and thus, free of chico brush) far into the future by implementing more efficient irrigation practices, which will also increase in-stream flows to benefit recreational economies and wildlife habitat. This will ensure that local communities, crops, and ecosystems continue to flourish, even in years when little water is available. It’s a natural partnership between environmental interests like Trout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy and local farmers and ranchers. However, not all of the farmers and ranchers in NCB agree on the necessity of updating irrigation infrastructure, pointing out that the current system has worked well for over a century. Having a diverse range of opinions within the group has helped to more accurately represent community needs and interests.

We don’t agree on everything but we have a lot of common goals,” says Aaron Derwingson with The Nature Conservancy. Given the sometimes unpleasant history between environmentalists and farmers, tensions were a bit high at first and the path toward partnership wasn’t easy. Despite their differences, these stakeholders do agree that working together is imperative. “(Collaboration) takes more time and more effort but for us it’s the only way we’re going to build a lasting conversation,” Derwingson says. “I think the main benefit is we can speak with a strong voice. People are going to listen to that more than any one of us individually.”

To facilitate greater adoption of water efficiency practices, the group is focusing on research on the Western Slope. Research has been done elsewhere in the state but NCB has emphasized the importance of collecting region-specific data. NCB partnered with Colorado State University and successfully acquired two grants that have helped fund this ongoing research

Sweet corn near Olathe, CO.

Sweet corn near Olathe, CO. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy, 2013. (All Internal Rights, Limited External)

Further irrigation efficiency financing has been hard to come by recently and current funding may not be enough to meet farmers’ needs in the future, Schrock says. However, some larger programs to incentivize the switch to more efficient irrigation systems are underway. In 2014, a group of municipal water providers throughout the Colorado River Basin, including Denver Water, partnered with the Bureau of Reclamation to address Colorado River water shortages and created the Colorado River System Conservation Program. This program has provided funding for water conservation pilot programs. One of these pilot programs is the Organic Transition Program, designed by Derwingson and Kay, which pays farmers to grow cover crops for three years, thereby using a third of the water they would otherwise. This also helps farmers get that land certified as organic, since one of the requirements is that the land “must not have had prohibited substances applied to it for the past three years.” Thus, farmers will save water and then be able to grow a higher value crop. “I’m looking for ways to help farmers expand their economic horizons and organic is a way to do that,” says Kay.

Fly fishing on the Gunnison River outside of Delta, Colorado.

Fly fishing on the Gunnison River outside of Delta, Colorado. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy, 2013. (All Internal Rights, Limited External)

All of us have a lot to gain when Colorado farmers and ranchers shift toward more water-efficient systems. By conserving what they can now, they are doing their part to ensure the continuation of agriculture in southwestern Colorado and the overall prosperity of our state. “Agriculture is a huge part of our heritage, economy, and history. We (in NCB) are preserving agriculture. real farms, real farmers, and not having our agricultural economy move toward hobby ranches and farms or subdivisions,” says Schrock.

Check out this Trout Unlimited video for more insight on the work of No Chico Brush.

CitizensGuideToColoradoWaterConservation2016 (1)Learn more about efficient water use in agriculture by reading CFWE’s new Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation, now available to flip through or order here.

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Preserving Water for Agriculture with the Colorado Ag Water Alliance

 

By Greg Peterson

While I was raised in Littleton, I grew up hearing stories from my family about their farm. They were farmers and ranchers along Bear Creek until their land was taken under eminent domain for the Bear Creek Reservoir. I have a hard time picturing an agricultural community in an area that is now suburbs, golf courses, and a park. To create a metropolitan area like Denver, the landscape has changed completely and will continue to change. Today, many other communities are concerned how much longer their way of life can persist in the wake of such change.

By 2050, Colorado’s population will almost double to 10 million, bringing with it a water shortage of more than 500,000 acre feet per year. Municipalities will look to agricultural water as a source of supply. In that same timeframe, the irrigated acreage in the South Platte Basin may decrease by half.

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Agricultural producers come together with the Colorado Ag Alliance to discuss the future of irrigated agriculture in the South Platte Basin.

Much of the Colorado Water Plan directly and indirectly discusses agriculture, and the Colorado Ag Water Alliance (CAWA) is hosting a series of meetings around the state to give agricultural producers the opportunity to take an active role in the implementation of the Water Plan. CAWA is comprised of leaders across the state representing major industries of production agriculture. Their goal is to preserve Colorado’s irrigated agriculture through education and constructive dialogue.

The most recent meeting was hosted in Brush for producers and ditch company representatives to discuss the future of irrigated agriculture in the South Platte Basin. The discussion covered the Colorado Water Plan, alternative transfer methods (ATMs) to “buy and dry,” how farmers can participate in such programs, and other topics.

ATMs include interruptible supply agreements, rotational fallowing, water leasing and banks, reduced crop consumptive use, and the purchase and leaseback of water rights. According to the Colorado Water Plan, ATMs are supposed to supply 50,000 acre feet per year by 2050.  John Schweizer, a farmer in the Arkansas River Basin, described the effect “buy and dry” has had on the region and talked about the success of their rotational fallowing ATM project, the Super Ditch.  A panel of various ATM projects in the South Platte Basin exchanged questions and comments with the audience on the opportunities and obstacles surrounding these projects.

However, future storage will still make up most of the future water supply. Joe Frank, of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, discussed how most of the water gap in the South Platte Basin will be mitigated with already Identified Projects and Processes (IPPs) outlined in the South Platte Basin Implementation Plan. Mike Applegate, of the Northern Water Board, discussed the status of current storage projects.

Other presentations discussed motivations among producers to conserve their water for other uses, the results of a survey on producers’ opinions of ag water leasing, and a presentation of the “use it or lose it” mentality toward water rights by the Colorado State Engineer, Dick Wolfe.

This workshop was only a part of a much larger conversation. These ideas take time and multiple discussions, but agricultural producers provide invaluable knowledge and necessary input if these ideas are to become more widespread.

CitizensGuideToColoradoWaterConservation2016 (1)Learn more about efficient water use in agriculture by reading CFWE’s new Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation, now available to flip through or order here.

bio picGreg Peterson has recently been involved in water issues in Colorado after receiving a Masters in Political Economy of Resources from The Colorado School of Mines and working as a teacher before that.  He has worked as a research associate at the Colorado Water Institute and is currently working with the Colorado Ag Water Alliance and enjoys learning about economics, agriculture and rural Colorado. 

 

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