Op-Ed by Alliance President O’Toole – CSU’s Water in the West Symposium
This week Colorado State University hosts the symposium, “Water in the West,” to discuss water policy and community, environment, and industry issues for Colorado and the entire West. The program includes a variety of Colorado politicians, policy makers and other business leaders, as well as the previous and current U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture.
Unfortunately, the conference agenda fails to include voices from the farming and rural communities of Colorado, a critical component of Western water use, even though it promises discussion of creative solutions addressing the needs of food producers.
I am a rancher and irrigator on the Colorado/Wyoming border, and the President of the Family Farm Alliance, representing irrigators in the 17 Western states. The Alliance’s mission is “to ensure the availability of reliable, affordable irrigation water supplies to Western farmers and ranchers.” The Alliance’s Board of Directors is made up of farmers and ranchers. Our Advisory Board includes water managers, attorneys and other water professionals. We are credible problem solvers, as evidenced by 70 invitations to testify before Congressional water and natural resources committees since 2005.
We can get to the ditch level anywhere in the West and produce solutions for many of the complicated conflicts in the water world.
Unfortunately, organizers of this week’s symposium in Denver apparently chose to disregard the state’s agricultural community perspective, despite the strong presence of cabinet-level secretaries. We are concerned that some may simply view Western farms and ranches as reservoirs of water to support further urban growth along the I-25 corridor. Is this vision of even more urban sprawl shared by all Coloradans? I know many of my rural neighbors eschew that scenario, especially if irrigation water for rural farms, ranches and the communities that serve them is being viewed as the source to fuel that growth.
On our ranch today, we are preparing ditches and sprinklers for an early and short irrigation season. Sandhill cranes, blue herons, golden and bald eagles crisscross our watershed, which is a tributary to the Colorado River. Our valley has one of the most impressive trout passage programs in the U.S. The agricultural families who live in this community have a new generation of young farmers and ranchers on the ground. We raise “cattle, sheep, horses, dogs and children” …and sometimes, expectations.
But it can all go away—the food production, the wildlife habitat, the rural economy – especially if the continued pressures of urban growth look to farms for their future water supplies.
Much is being made of the current Colorado “system conservation” pilot program. This program – if implemented correctly – could assist the Colorado Basin in drier years. However, we must ensure that it does not instead become a program that simply pays farmers and ranchers to not irrigate, and by default become an annual “buy and dry” program for the Western Slope. Demand management (water conservation), water recycling, watershed management, conveyance, desalination, water transfers, groundwater storage, regulatory reform and surface storage are all needed in a diversified management portfolio. Importantly, surface storage provides a degree of operational flexibility and significant water supply volumes that cannot be provided by other management actions.
Western farmers like our Alliance’s members have developed some of the most efficient water use methods in the history of the world. However, one size doesn’t fit all. For example, flood irrigation during spring and early summer can mimic historic floodplain function, providing groundwater recharge and critical habitat diversity, particularly for waterfowl and other migratory birds.
Ranches and farms produce food, crucial to the rural and national economies. The role of efficiency is important, but balanced, locally-tailored water management is more important for healthy functioning systems benefitting food production and the environment.
The role of production agriculture is the crucial vector in a discussion that will indicate the Colorado we want or the Colorado we deserve. Including farmers and ranchers in broader policy discussions like the CSU symposium only makes common sense.