Feeding the State with Water

-T. Wright Dickenson, Rancher and 2nd VP for Colorado Cattlemen’s Association

In Colorado there are many competing water uses and limited supply

Whiskey is for Drinking; Water is for Fighting. – While these words still ring true today, the fights that exist over water aren’t waged with six-guns or fists, but rather engineers and attorneys.  Colorado is essentially a high mountain desert where much of the West’s water originates via snowfall in the high Rocky Mountains.  Without water, agricultural production in Colorado and the down-river states would be limited–as would tourism, industrial production, cities, and more.

While water is a broad subject, let’s look at it through the lens of food production.  Everyone knows that it takes water to grow food.  Colorado’s annual precipitation averages 15-17 inches; not enough to sustain food crops that we grow in Colorado to feed ourselves and the nation- therefore we need irrigation water.  While we can all debate the merits of water use in food production, it isn’t a debatable point that humans require food to sustain life.  Without irrigation water, agricultural production in Colorado is severely hampered.

The UN produced a report entitled How to Feed the World in 2050.  By 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach more than 9 billion people.  Seventy percent of this population growth will be urban and less than 1 percent will be involved in food production.  Even more staggering is the fact that a 70 percent increase in food production will be required to provide enough food for this population explosion.  To further complicate matters, the Colorado Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI) report indicates that by 2050 Colorado could see 500,000-700,000 irrigated acres of agricultural land dried up. Agriculture is unarguably important in Colorado, contributing around $16 billion to the state’s economy each year, and housing Weld County, the richest agricultural county in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

The UN report is quick to point out that we will require more agricultural production to feed a growing population, but at the same time things like populations growth and non-agricultural water demands will challenge food production.  Ultimately this means that food producers will have to do more with less – but at what cost and to whom?

Colorado’s SWSI report clearly indicates the challenges our state must meet ; “If Colorado’s water supply continues to develop according to current trends, i.e., the status quo, this will inevitably lead to a large transfer of water out of agriculture resulting in significant loss of agricultural lands and potential harm to the environment.  Providing an adequate water supply for Colorado’s citizens, agriculture, and the environment will involve implementing a mix of local water projects and processes, conservation, reuse, agricultural transfers, and the development of new water supplies, all of which should be pursued concurrently.”

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