Opportunities for Further Study

One of the initiatives of this project included pinpointing pilot projects and other topics that could help CRB agricultural water users and managers address obstacles (legal, institutional, technical, social and other) that may stand in the way of identified opportunities. Based on the study’s findings, the Project Team identified the following prospects that call for additional research, outreach and education by the land-grant universities in the basin.


Ag Water Conservation

Throughout the CRB, there is great interest in conserving water, but considerable doubt that it can be done in ways that benefit farmers. The physical nature of irrigation, in that water not consumed by crops returns to the system for the use of other farmers, makes it difficult to pin down how water can be conserved. Water law protecting those with water rights from injury is necessary, but adds complexities that are hard to reason through. Irrigation efficiency improvements, including both conveyance and on-farm application systems are available and increasingly being used, but significant disincentives prevent their widespread use in the CRB. The issue is fear of losing water rights if one uses less water than you have a right to, and disdain for conserving water that is going to leave agriculture and be used for purposes deemed less important, such as irrigating lush lawns in cities. Who pays for the cost of upgrading 100 year old infrastructure when the benefits accrue largely to those other than the farmers themselves is also an issue.

Opportunity: Colorado State University recently received a USDA grant to undertake an effort focused on ag water conservation in the CRB. This study seeks to: identify current water conservation technologies and opportunities; catalogue the legal, economic, and sociological obstacles to employing those technologically available solutions; and work with irrigators, water attorneys, policy makers, and economists to develop a user-driven matrix and process leading to decisions for focused action.

Young Farmers

With average age of farmers in the Colorado River Basin above fifty, many are concerned that we will not have sufficient young farmers to carry on the work of agriculture. In many cases, the younger generation would like to stay in farming, though it is very difficult for them to afford the land and water at the prices it commands given competition for that land and water for other purposes. Also, the local food movement has intrigued a number of young people who would like to enter farming, but who find the capital cost to get into farming prohibitive, and who have little knowledge of how to go about farming.

Opportunity: An effort could be undertaken to explore creative strategies to provide funding and apprenticeship arrangements for enterprising young farmers. One conservancy district we know of is looking at ways of bringing conservation easements into the mix as a means of accomplishing the goal. We understand the Family Farm Alliance has taken on this issue as one of their challenges. We hear of young farmer groups forming around the basin to provide support and encouragement for each other.

Urban/Ag Partnerships

Public sentiment is increasingly precluding the permanent dry up of agriculture to transfer water to cities, but much of it is still occurring as “purchase leaseback” where it is not readily obvious that ag land is destined for dry up. Cities purchase the farms but lease them back for farming until the water is needed in coming years for future growth. Alternatives to such permanent transfers such as rotational fallowing, deficit irrigation, and water banks are being investigated, but except for two large projects in the lower basin, they do not seem to be widespread. In Colorado, where the Super Ditch has been attempting for several years to provide a means for farmers on multiple ditches to lease some of their water through a rotational fallowing arrangement, legal issues have created significant roadblocks. Additionally, cities want permanent supplies since once they sell a tap they are obligated to service it forever.

Much attention has been paid to the flexibility that could be introduced by making intrastate and interstate water markets, with proponents arguing that strengthening and making markets more flexible would allow water to move more quickly to “higher values.” More attention needs to be made to what kinds of values are really at stake with water transfers in different contexts in the CRB. A more systematic study of the social and economic impacts of various kinds of water transfers, permanent, drought lease-backs with cities and farmers holding the right and leasing it to the other, fallowing, etc., could shed light onto the trade-offs that are promoted, perhaps with insufficient discussion, by assuming that the value of water can be measured solely in economic terms.

Opportunity: An effort could be undertaken to find a city and a ditch company where significant lands are involved in “purchase leaseback” and work with them to find alternatives to the eventual drying of the land. The manager of one municipal water utility has proposed the forming of an ag/urban partnership in which the two manage a large area together—to keep farmers farming in all but the driest years, but providing drought year supply for the city in other years. Working out the details and implications of such arrangements would require considerable legal, economic and sociological expertise, but could result in a model to be adopted in any number of places throughout the basin.

Multi-Sector Stakeholder Collaboration

Throughout the basin, we heard stories of both successful and unsuccessful attempts at multi-stakeholder collaboration, commonly in efforts to resolve conflict between ag water uses and environmental goals. The nature of conflict and cooperation between these two water user groups, their interests, cultural orientations toward the resource, particularly in the context of the prospect of extended drought and predicted climate change and pressures on the Colorado River Compact is of importance. As supplies get tighter and demand stronger, does the environment take the shortage first, as so often in the past? Or has the legal and political context shifted significantly enough that agriculture will be asked to support more directly environmental values? To what extent and where does this increasingly high-stakes interaction among water uses have to be a zero-sum situation with winners and losers? Where might multiple use approaches be appropriate geographically, legally, etc.? In some cases, meetings among these groups have been ongoing for years, with little progress. In other cases, efforts have resulted in tangible improvements for both ag production and the environment. What are the factors leading to the difference? What makes the process work for some and not work for others?

Opportunity: Land-grant universities have long been helpful to ag producers and water managers in introducing technological advances. But increasingly, we are seeing that the challenge for addressing the security of ag water while considering urban and environmental pressures calls for a different kind of expertise: sociological, legal and economic. An effort could be undertaken to identify those leaders and those attributes that have led to successful multi-sector water collaboration and widely introduce those leaders and attributes across the basin in training workshops for irrigation districts and others in conflict with other sectors over water. Universities could also undertake training of Extension agents and others as facilitators of water policy conflict.

Educating the Public about Agriculture

Our society has done a remarkable job in just a couple of decades educating our children about the need for environmental stewardship. Kids are well versed in the need to recycle, turn off the tap while brushing teeth, and participate in river-cleanup projects. But we have not done a very good job helping children—or others—understand the tradeoffs and the hard decisions that have to be made to have both a healthy environment and to live our daily lives in the manner we have become accustomed. Food to eat is a basic necessity, yet few children—or adults—give it much thought. It’s much easier to teach children about the importance of keeping water in the stream for fish than to teach them about the need to keep water in agriculture for food. We must teach these concepts in tandem.

Opportunity: Land-grant universities are in a prime position to take on this effort. But it cannot be done in the same way we have tried to do it in the past. It is not simply a matter of putting out brochures or a poster illustrating that agriculture is important. What is needed is relationship building opportunities for children and adults to visit farms and ranches—not just as a one-time field trip, but in a program designed to build long-term relationships. Further, children and adults should be exposed to community dialogues in which the realities of tradeoffs and difficult decisions about allocation of natural resources is central. We must find ways to bring differing viewpoints to the surface proactively and to engage our citizens and children in processes to understand the economic and social realities side by side the environmental needs. One community has introduced an initiative bringing together agricultural, municipal, business, recreational and environmental stakeholders for a year-long study of all aspects of their local river—in an attempt to combine the goals of a working river/healthy river and to define collaborative actions to promote the two.

Other Topics/Strategies
  • Develop analyses that provide a comparative context including case studies from within the CRB to highlight innovative arrangements for water management, historical perspectives, competition from other uses.
  • Examine the options for ag producers should they reduce their use of Colorado River water. Can they or will they move to groundwater use? What are the implications of a switch to alternative water sources?
  • Study groundwater/surface water interaction: conjunctive use pressures and procedure/law changes: who and what interests benefit? To what extent do changing approaches to conjunctive management help improve effective management for livelihood, environment, and the economy? What may be the drawbacks and weaknesses of emerging forms of conjunctive management?
  • Prepare an analysis of current reports already available, such as the recently released Pacific Institute Report on ag in the basin.