Denver Water, acting on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation and the respective water districts from Arizona, California and Nevada recently developed a drought management pilot program for the Upper Colorado River System to send more water downstream. Other than Denver Water, the water districts involved in this program represent the states known as the Lower Basin states.
The proposal addresses several concerns, which can be summed up as the Lower Basin states inability to satisfy their current water demand. Unfortunately, when the drafters of this pilot program looked up stream for more water, it seems Colorado’s agriculture industry became their target for relief.
In order to send more water to these Lower Basin states, the pilot program suggests farmers could fallow more land, employ deficit irrigation techniques and plant crops that use less water. Let us explain why these ideas will greatly damage our agriculture industry.
First, fallowing, a term for intentionally leaving a portion of a field vacant, is strategically used by farmers to let soils recover from a harvest. Fallowing can improve yields in future years, but because a farmer is choosing not to plant in a portion of the field, no crops are produced. Second, changing to deficit irrigation methods can be very difficult and result in lower crop yields. And last, crops are soil, location, elevation and climate specific, and each require an enormous investment in equipment specific to that crop. In addition, crop selection is based on market prices, demand and cost of harvest. Requiring farmers to plant different crops can be costly, and in some cases, not viable.
On top of the burdens proposed in this program is the current Colorado drought, which reduced agricultural production by 25 percent last year alone. Yet despite this drastic drop in production, Colorado’s agriculture industry still contributed over $2 billion to our state’s economy. Asking Colorado farmers to plant less, reduce their yield and even switch crops will have devastating impacts on our agriculture industry and ultimately our state’s economy.
Much like Colorado, the Lower Basin states are struggling to meet their water demand, but with growing populations in this region and declining rain and snowfall, this problem is likely here to stay. However, as Colorado and its neighboring states continue to look for solutions for water management, they need to consider who has been and will continue to be a leader of water conservation — our agriculture industry. This industry is first to experience the effects of drought and consequently is the first to take steps to better manage its water supply. Simply put, farmers and ranchers are already consummate water conservationists because their livelihoods depend on it.
The Lower Basin states can receive water above their agreed-upon allotment. If these states are looking for more water, cities such as Las Vegas need to discuss ways to better manage their current water budget, and leave Colorado farmers’ and ranchers’ water out of the discussion.
This was coauthored by state Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. He and state Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, are members of the House Agriculture, Livestock, & Natural Resources Committee.