Ag Water NetWORK:  "Keeping Ag Water Connected to Ag Land"

Q: What is the Ag Water Network?

A: The Ag Water Network was created by Colorado Cattlemen's Association and the Partners for Western Conservation to help keep agricultural water connected to agricultural land.  The current system of 'buy and dry' in which cities purchase agricultural water rights and use them to supply water to new housing developments negatively impacts rural economies, the environment and Colorado's food security.  A system that enables agricultural producers to continue producing food and fiber while generating consistent revenue through irrigation water leasing helps stabilize farm income and helps keep working farms in business.  


The Ag Water Network will work closely with irrigated agriculture producers on water project concept, design, implementation and funding.  Technical assistance and project documentation, grant writing and outreach are all services provided by the Ag Water Network.  The Ag Water Network increases PWC/CCA’s overall focus and organizational capacity in addressing irrigated agriculture workflow.


Q: What are the goals of the Ag Water Network?


  1. Implement projects involving ag water rights that will fill knowledge gaps related to water leasing arrangements.   
  2. Help facilitate the development of an efficient, cost-effective and flexible water leasing system that ag water right holders will find superior to 'buy and dry.'
  3. Help quantify and value agricultural ecosystem services and facilitate exchanges of ecosystem services that compensate land owners and benefit the environment.
  4. Develop and execute multi-partner funding strategies for key water projects
  5. Deliver outreach, engagement, community-level discussions, and follow-up around projects.


Q.  Why was the Ag Water Network being created?

A: In 2010, a Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI) report was released, which estimated Colorado's population could swell to as much as 10 million people by 2050, nearly doubling our current population of 5.3 million.  The demand for water driven by the increasing population could result in a municipal and industrial water supply gap of between 310,000 and 560,000 acre-feet. 


The 2010 SWSI report indicated that as much as 700,000 irrigated acres could be dried-up statewide by 2050 through the purchase and transfer of water rights from irrigated agriculture to urban areas.  The projected reduction in irrigated acreage in the South Platte River Basin alone was estimated at 20% of agricultural land under production.  Such large-scale dry-up of irrigated agriculture, known as 'buy and dry,' would have far-reaching and irreversible negative impacts on rural economies, the environment, food security, and the landscape aesthetic.  


The Ag Water Network was created to increase awareness among ag irrigation water right holders about ag water leasing alternatives, and to help facilitate ag water leasing projects that will be beneficial to both ag water right holders and the lessees of the water.  


Q:  What is the Colorado Water Plan

A: One week before Thanksgiving, 2015, the Colorado Water Plan. was released by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.  The Colorado Water Plan emphasizes water conservation, increased storage, and alternative agricultural transfer mechanisms (ATMs) as the primary means for closing the projected water gap. 


The water plan recognizes the economic, environmental and cultural value of Colorado's agriculture industry.  It promotes alternatives to "buy and dry" water transfers, and instead encourages sustainable approaches that enable irrigated land to stay in production while helping supply water for other uses.  Rotational fallowing, deficit irrigation, and planting lower consumptive use crops are the main practices being looked at for "creating" consumptive use water that would otherwise have been used by crops.   Consumptive use water is water retained by the growing plant plus the amount lost through evapotranspiration.   


The state water plan puts forth a goal of 50,000 acre-feet per year to come from alternative ag water transfer mechanisms (ATMs).  This objective appears viable, however, while the concept of ATMs is simple, the implementation is likely to be challenging as the myriad details are worked out.  Saved consumptive use water must be delivered or credited to the lessor. Delivery to a distant, upstream user requires cooperation from other parties, and it must not injure other water rights, including junior water rights that may, for example, rely on the lessor's irrigation return flows. The quantity must also be accurately measured and verified.  


Q:  How will ag water lease agreements be structured?

A: It is unlikely that any one method will be universally accepted statewide (SWP, 6-116).  Alternative ag water transfers will have to be tailored to conditions specific to each basin and will require collaboration among farmers, land owners, ditch companies, lessees and state agencies. 


A few ATMs already exist. One example is the North Sterling Irrigation Company, which for the last decade has been guaranteeing water for the Xcel power plant near Brush.  Xcel pays the irrigation company an annual base fee plus a delivery fee if water is actually needed and delivered.  So far, no water has been needed, so the irrigation company has simply received the annual base fee, much of which gets passed on to their participating shareholders.  In ten years, the irrigation company has received over $1.6 Million in payments from Xcel, much of which is passed on to the participating landowners.