By Greg Trainor
“In times of change, the learners will inherit the earth while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” —Eric Hoffer
The search for pure water is a staple activity of Colorado municipalities. Historically and contemporaneously, this search has followed the trail directly to the door of agriculture. “Mountain water…at any price” was a directive of the City of Grand Junction in the late 1890s and resulted in the city acquiring, via its powers of eminent domain, the most paramount water right from ranchers along Grand Mesa’s Kannah Creek. Called the Paramount Water Right, it was only a sliver of each farm’s water right but the lesson was clear: When threatened with the absence of water, cities have the power to get it, by whatever means, even if by condemnation.
This raw power carries with it the responsibility for domestic providers to seek alternatives to “buy and dry” before turning to the use of the district courts (“buy and cry”).
By today’s arithmetic, new future population may represent the “have-nots” in terms of water supply. The numbers tell the tale: Estimated supply minus projected demand equals deficits. These deficits point to statewide supply gaps in Colorado that range between 538,000 and 813,000 acre-feet of water by the year 2050. New uses, population growth, political power, and climate change are pressuring the demand, and that demand is pressuring supply. With these deficit numbers, who or what will fill the gaps? Agriculture, some say. Assuredly Colorado’s draft state water plan is maintaining options to go to ag in the coming times of want.
At the West Slope four-basin roundtable meeting on December 18, 2014, in Grand Junction, preserving agriculture in the draft water plan was a recurrent theme of discussion. Why preserve agriculture? “We have to eat” goes without saying. Agriculture is also part of our economic foundation. Historically, it is an enterprise of small business. Basin water planners want to give the little guys a chance against the juggernaut of large cities, large oil shale and energy, and large recreation. Agricultural water use is not 100 percent consumptive and, as such, contributes to other important values, such as recreation, instream flows, and wildlife habitat. Agriculture accounts for more than 86 percent of the water used in the state and is the logical bank to meet future water demand. Finally and ironically, agriculture and cities share assets that are good for both enterprises, offering the use of water from the agricultural side and the use of financial capital from the municipal domestic side. It is a simple fact that cities can raise large amounts of money through their utility enterprises. This urban treasury can be used to insure the longevity of agriculture.
The Ute Water Conservancy District, servicing the greater part of the Grand Valley in western Colorado, is the state’s largest municipal water supplier west of the “Divide.” Although Ute Water has supplies from the Federal Collbran Project of the early 1960s, it is acquiring additional agricultural water rights from the slopes of the Grand Mesa. This is an essential insurance policy against projected “gaps” between growing demand and existing water supply. Ute’s agricultural program purchases ranch lands and leases properties back to ranchers until Ute needs the water. This same template is employed by the City of Grand Junction and has been in effect since the earliest decades of the last century. Although the demand for water has not overshot supply from the Kannah Creek area, the city maintains its option to share supply between its treated water system and the agricultural operations of its own ranch lands. Through physical interconnections between Ute Water and the city’s delivery systems, it is also possible for Ute to benefit from the city’s surplus ag resources.
In other cases, Ute acquires the ag water only, leasing water back to ranchers, and then, when Ute needs the water, it takes the water off the land. Both arrangements allow the rancher capital and operating funds to continue a ranch operation without immediately drying up the land and maintaining diligence on the agricultural water decrees without threat of abandonment. But these two methods beg the question: What happens when Ute’s demand becomes permanent and the transfers of water result in the “dry,” many years after the original “buy?”
“We need agriculture,” says Larry Clever, general manager of Ute Water, referring to the many benefits agriculture brings to our communities. He continues, “Our buying needs to profit agriculture from now until 2050, and a hundred years beyond that! We have a long-term relationship with ag and we plan to maintain that.”
Others add that we need water for habitat and instream flows and we need a compatible relationship that takes what agriculture has to offer (water) and gives what a domestic water rate base has to give (money). With water and money in play, alternative agricultural transfers and assets can be developed. This is so that water is available for both agricultural and municipal uses through conservation on both sides of the equation: improved water delivery methods and alternative watering practices on the ag side, and demand-side reductions on the urban development side.
Leadership will be needed to visualize the complicated mechanisms that will preserve agriculture. Rather than simply paying money, taking water, and drying land, the municipals have the obligation to craft solutions that keeps water flowing through the system. Those in a similar position as Clever is at Ute Water may not like this, but the water utility manager becomes the urban land use manager, perhaps seen as a demotion by long-time utility managers who would rather leave the politics of land development to others. But water is politics.
This transition may have already happened in Ute’s case. Like its partnership with agriculture in the watershed, a second relationship has developed between Ute Water and the six major irrigation providers in the Grand Valley. The Grand Valley has a unique dual water system. As agricultural lands transition to urban development, the ag water is required to be used on the property for outdoor irrigation unless, of course, the development is xeric or absent water completely. If a developer does not have irrigation water shares, he has to go into the market and purchase those shares, a miniature “buy and dry.” This has the effect of causing development to ponder its costs and where it wants to invest its money. This ag irrigation water reduces the demand on Ute’s treated water system.
One wrinkle occurs when irrigation water is in short supply and the demand on Ute’s treated water system increases. People have less irrigation water for outdoor use, so increase their use of treated water to make up the difference. To suppress this rise in treated water demand, Ute increases charges for treated water: conservation via the water rate.
Ute is making use of the agricultural water without actually acquiring it. By taking advantage of water that is no longer being used for agriculture but, rather, is associated with land being purchased for development, Ute is able to maintain its domestic infrastructure without investing in expensive enlargements.
Each municipal/agricultural relationship requires a unique, local solution. Ute Water is an excellent example of crafting local solutions based on local characteristics. Each stream segment, drainage, canal system, and reservoir has its own distinct geographic fingerprint, its own water rights “genealogy,” its own historical water use, and, as a result, its own return flow characteristics. For example, some positive ideas to conserve agricultural water may result in reduced water availability to others downstream. The converse may also be true. “Preservation of agriculture” demands that suppliers and users mine their collective thinking for workable, local solutions.
To learn more, see the annual “Water Course” sponsored by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, February 11, 18, and 25 6 to 9 p.m. This year’s focus is Water for Agriculture. And check out past coverage from the Colorado Foundation for Water Education in Headwaters magazine’s Fall 2012 issue, “Rooted in Colorado,” which explored agricultural efficiency, soil health, and the economics of ag.
Greg Trainor retired as the public works/utility director for the City of Grand Junction in March 2014. He was actively engaged in many water issues relative to his work: utility construction, endangered species, parks and trail development, storm water and sanitary sewage discharges, use of compressed natural gas as an alternative fuel for public works vehicles, water rights development, kayak park development, and active engagement in Colorado’s State Water Plan (2015).
Greg has also been a member of the River Management Society for 15 years. He is the vice-president of the SW Chapter and has edited and authored submissions for the RMS Journal, organized and participated in the RMS Ranger Rendezvous, planned Chapter floats, and volunteered for the BLM in Desolation Canyon during the 2013 and 2014 river seasons.
Greg served as town manager of the Town of Rangely in the late 1970s, worked on the development plans for the Battlement Mesa New Town with ARCO Coal Company’s community development group, and was project manager with the Colorado River Water Conservation District for the Taylor Draw Dam and Hydroelectric Plant, located on the White River in western Rio Blanco County.