Nathan Lee & Alice Plant
Under the current regime of prior appropriation, many farmers have little incentive to practice water efficient irrigation techniques.
The Law of the River functions on what is known as a “use it or lose it” system. Farmers can either use the water they are apportioned or “lose it” and allow it to flow to downstream users.
Changing to more efficient on-farm irrigation techniques generally is not considered to decrease crop consumptive use; therefore, any water “saved” under those practices is nontransferable and must flow downstream to junior users.
Further, changing to more efficient techniques can cost $400-$1,000 per acre of land, a prohibitive cost for most farmers.
Nevertheless, examples of more efficient irrigation techniques exist in the basin, largely thanks to research and support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and extension offices at the states’ land grant universities.
Changing irrigation techniques or creating water-sharing programs have costs that are often prohibitively high. Additionally, legal and administrative barriers exist. Adjudication processes can last years as state engineers must ensure that transfers are in compliance with the “No Harm Rule” and interstate compacts.
The question remains to be answered whether or not we can develop societal mechanisms to transfer water in a way that is administratively and financially efficient.
The technology exists and the costs can be mediated for farmers to use more efficient irrigation techniques. Water sharing programs have been successfully implemented. The “sufficient” part of the puzzle is highly dependent on the human ability to compromise and the flexibility or adaptability of the Law of the River.
The history of water law in the basin has demonstrated instances of rigidity and flexibility; so too have the individuals representing divergent interest groups. Only through future water law that is more flexible and a social shift from conflict to collaboration will water efficient irrigation technologies and alternative agricultural transfer methods be able to fulfill the potential they promise.
We owe nothing less to future generations!
Whether or not the Law of the River can be used as a flexible doctrine may be the most important factor for widespread use of water efficient irrigation and water sharing. With this in mind, we have three recommendations that must be met in order to secure a water friendly future for agriculture in the Colorado River Basin:
1. Transcend misconceptions of water use in agriculture. One of the most common misconceptions of water use in agriculture is the idea that more efficient irrigation strategies can lead to farmers saving water and freeing it up for other users. Decreases in crop consumptive use generally do not result from improvements in irrigation technology. Another misconception is the notion that water right transfers only affect the buyer and the seller.
Farm laborers, harvesters, suppliers, chemical providers, and equipment operators all stand to lose business or jobs when farmland is taken out of production, whether permanently or for a specified number of years.
2. Seek cooperation and collaboration among stakeholders. Water disputes are often termed “fights” or “battles” over uses of water in the West. This rhetoric reflects the attitudes on both sides of the water issue, many of whom have been embittered by years of conflict and historical mistrust. Polarization of these issues has led to lengthy adjudication processes and counterproductive disputes.
Instances of cooperation of habitually disparate groups to meet growing water needs have occurred on several occasions.
3. Make conscientious decisions, keeping in mind the needs of all stakeholders throughout the basin. The Colorado River is a resource that will be stretched to its greatest limits in the coming decades. Population projections following current trends suggest that by 2060 more than 62 million people, twice the current number, will come to depend on the Colorado River. Agricultural stakeholders must take into account the growing needs of other sectors in the region, just as those sectors must understand the importance of continued agricultural production in the region.
The Colorado River is the lifeblood of an arid region. We recommend that the people of the basin follow suit in a serious and concerted way.
Nathan Lee and Alice Plant are Colorado College student researchers for the 2013 State of the Rockies Project. For more of the project findings, visit Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Web site.