The Ag Water NetWORK is a grant-funded initiative created by CCA and Partners for Western Conservation (PWC) to advance a single objective: to help keep ag water connected to ag land.
Irrigation Water is needed to:
Produce food that helps sustain our food security
Maintain a healthy rural economy.
Provide drinking water and habitat for wildlife, birds and amphibians
maintain the vibrant landscape we all enjoy
Provide water for recreational opportunities (fishing, skiing, rafting, hunting)
Increase the wildlife carrying capacity of an area (more water = more wildlife)
Produce fiber and seeds for building materials, erosion control, and food and fuel-grade oils.
The Ag Water Network is working to engage with and assist irrigated agricultural stakeholders around the issue of how irrigated agriculture responds to the challenges and opportunities created by population growth.
Irrigated agricultural acreage in Colorado is diminishing. To meet the water needs of a growing population, municipalities have historically purchased irrigated agricultural land and transferred the water to the city in a process commonly referred to as "Buy and Dry."
When irrigation water is removed from the land, it impacts agribusinesses, rural communities, jobs, schools and city and county tax bases. It also reduces critical wildlife watering sources and changes the landscape aesthetic. With each acre of irrigated land that is lost, Colorado's food security is reduced.
Colorado’s environment and outdoor recreation culture also requires water - whether it's for skiing, boarding, rafting, fishing, golfing or hunting. The relative youth of water rights associated with these activities, or the lack of any rights whatsoever, puts water-dependent recreation at risk when and if senior agricultural water is transferred to municipal use. Similarly, wildlife and aquatic species and the habitats upon which they depend are at risk in Colorado. These risks will increase if agricultural water continues to be permanently transferred away from ag land.
The dramatic effects of 'buy and dry' are visible in places like Crowley County, which has approximately one-tenth of the 60,000 acres of irrigated agricultural land that it had fifty years ago. In the area around Ault, 120 farms were purchased for their water rights in the mid-1980s by a Denver suburb. In these and other cases around the state, low commodity prices combined with high farm debt have greatly influenced farmer decisions to sell their water.
How will Colorado's irrigated agricultural industry respond to the continued growth of our population and the corresponding need for more municipal and industrial water? The answer to this question will have long-term impact on the size and vibrancy of irrigated agriculture going forward. The current number of Colorado residents is approximately 5.4 million people. By 2050, that number is projected to grow to between 8.5 and 10 million.1 The 2010 Statewide Water Supply initiative (SWSI) report estimated Colorado will need an additional 600,000 to 1 million acre-feet of municipal and industrial water (M & I) by 2050. The report also estimated that by 2050, Colorado could lose 500,000 to 700,000 acres of currently irrigated farmland if all the needed M & I water was obtained from agricultural sources.2
Until fairly recently, the only way for municipal and industrial (M & I) water interests to obtain water from agriculture was through the permanent dry up and transfer of water from agriculture to M & I uses. Colorado’s new water plan sets an objective that agricultural economic productivity will keep pace with growing state, national, and global needs, even if some acres go out of production. To achieve this objective, the State sets a goal of working closely with the agricultural community to share at least 50,000 acre-feet of agricultural water annually using voluntary alternative transfer methods. To assist in this objective, Colorado’s Water Plan includes market-competitive options to typical “buy-and-dry” transactions that will enable agricultural producers and municipalities to share agricultural water through leasing.3
Conceptual alternatives to 'buy and dry' include rotational lease-fallowing, deficit irrigation, and planting lower consumptive use crops. All three methods, referred to as "Alternative Transfer Methods," save agricultural consumptive use water, which can then be made available for leasing. Agricultural water leasing facilitates several potential advantages over traditional 'buy and dry.' Benefits include keeping water rights with the land, creating a non-ag-based source of revenue, creating a perennial income stream for retirement, reducing operational risk, reducing impact on rural economies and wildlife habitat, and continued food production. Agricultural water leasing can also help serve as a hedge against rising operational costs since lease agreements can be indexed to inflation.
Given the diversity of irrigated agriculture in Colorado - from grains to grapes and from hay to hemp - it is clear that a 'one-size-fits-all' approach will not be adequate to meet the complex water-related challenges of the 21st century. The success of agricultural water leasing will depend on the development and implementation of flexible, reliable and efficient water sharing approaches that comply with state water law and work well for both irrigated agricultural producers and water lessees.
There is no doubt that some agricultural dry-up will continue. The focus of the Ag Water NetWORK is to help minimize 'buy and dry' by encouraging the development and utilization of alternative ag water transfer methods.
Contact Phil Brink, consulting Project Coordinator at (720) 887-9944.