Farms face growing water concerns

Venetucci water tower

With sustained drought across the west, water is becoming harder to find. Small farms in particular are coming up empty. (photo by Steven Saint)

Trudy Thomas

For years, Coloradans have speculated about the possibility of turning on the faucet and finding that nothing flows out. It wasn’t something we thought could actually happen. It was a joke. But that’s exactly what has happened to Venetucci Farm.

Recent notification by the Colorado Well Protective Development Association that the farm would receive no allocation water this year sent administrators scrambling to find another provider for this season’s crops.

It’s not like the farm has no water of its own. It has plenty beneath its fields. Unfortunately, water law forbids them from pumping without allocation water.

See, there’s a thing called senior water rights and some ground water sources feed the hydrologic system of a river. Folks with senior water rights are entitled to “first use” of a water body and the systems that feed it whether they lie beneath your land or not.

If a farmer pumps ground water supplying a river, they must replace what they use to satisfy water law.

With less water available these days due to climate, development and industrial stresses, there just isn’t enough to go around. So, those who have no surface water rights are vulnerable.

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Water history

Colorado’s water fight is not new. It has spanned decades. You could say it started back in 1922 with the Colorado River Compact, an agreement between seven western states. The compact divided the river into an upper basin, including Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico; and a lower basin, comprising Arizona, Nevada and California. Each basin was allotted 7,500,000 acre-feet of water per year.

Further division of water took place within each basin. In the upper basin, Colorado received 51.75 percent or approximately 3.6 million acre-feet of water per year. The quantity fluctuates with the actual availability of water.

In order to assure lower basin states received their share of the river, it was agreed that upper states couldn’t deplete the river flow below 7,500,00 acre-feet during any period of 10 consecutive years.

Over time, other compacts, federal laws, court decisions, decrees, contracts and regulatory guidelines were added and collectively have come to be known as the “Law of the River.”

For the individual water user, other rules applied; among them, “Prior Appropriation,” which refers to who has first right to the water. Specifically, the first person to use a body of water for a beneficial use has superior or senior rights.

Beneficial use is usually defined as agricultural, industrial or household use. More recently, Colorado has included ecological purposes, such as maintaining the health of a waterway as a beneficial use.

Senior water holders are entitled to a yearly quantity of water even during drought and may use their complete water allocation as long as the body of water is able to provide it.

Water holders who appropriated after them are called junior water holders and are entitled to their allotment only after senior water rights have been claimed. If there isn’t enough water to fulfill a junior water right, they will receive only a portion of their allocation.

Prior appropriation also says that landownership in proximity to a body of water (riparian use) does not automatically award first right. Someone who has previously appropriated the water for a beneficial use maintains seniority.

Changing face

The state’s robust growth has changed the balance of power in the water game. Over the last 40 years agricultural water use has dropped from 93 percent in the 1970s to 86 percent.

Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs, speaking at a recent water forum, attributed the shift to growth in municipal and industrial use. Cities, in particular, he said, have been buying up agricultural water resulting in the drying up of farms.

Even so, John Stulp, Gov. Hickenlooper’s go-to man on water, said agriculture is Colorado’s second largest industry and agricultural water irrigates nearly 3.5 million acres of fields.

Others are saying competition for water is coming from industry. The Denver Post reported that at Colorado’s auction for unallocated water this spring, hydraulic fracturing or fracking companies were the top bidders for water previously bought by farmers.

Fracking is of particular concern to environmentalists because water used in the process cannot be returned to the hydrologic cycle. It permanently removes water from an already stressed system. Regardless, Colorado officials have embraced the industry as a beneficial use.

Solutions?

Solutions to water scarcity revolve around two ideas – storage and conservation. The Northern Integrated Supply Project proposes to store excess water leaving the state in years of abundance. The project would supply 15 northern Front Range partners, including Fort Collins, Lafayette and Fort Lupton, with 40,000 acre-feet of new water.

The project includes two reservoirs and a canal and pipeline to divert water from the Poudre River. The project would cost $490 million.

Conservation methods apply to urban and agricultural settings.

At home we can install low-flow toilets and fixtures, xeriscape our yards and plant drought resistant plants. Drip irrigation for trees and plants is a more efficient way to water as is hand watering, rainwater harvesting and gray water use.

For farmers, state water advisor Stulp suggests other possible solutions: rotational fallowing where farmers lease their water to cities a few years out of every 10; interruptible supplies where water is provided intermittently; deficit irrigation or under watering, which reduces yield; water sharing through cooperatives and banks and water conservation easements, where the land is administered by a trust that dictates the land must be maintained and improved for water quality.

Subsurface drip irrigation is highly cited as an efficient watering method for farmers. But for some, the installation cost is prohibitive at approximately $2,000 per acre.

Fortunately for farmers, public opinion is strongly in favor of state incentives to improve farming irrigation practices and technology. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, 88 percent of Coloradans support such incentives.

The future for farms like Venetucci is becoming increasingly tentative. The Pikes Peak Community Foundation, which administers the farm, may have found water to lease for this growing season, alleviating concerns that area children will not enjoy the annual Venetucci pumpkin giveaway. But what will happen next year and the year after that? Nobody knows.

Trudy Thomas is the PPJPC Associate Director for Media.

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