Keeping Water on the Farm

Most summer nights Chad Schafer has little time to visit. He’s busy going from field to field, setting the tubes that draw water from narrow ditches along Weld County Road 41 and sending it into his fields.

Because of this year’s drought and careful rationing by his irrigation district, Schafer gets his water for just 24 hours twice a week, before it is diverted to another farmer down the line. When the water is on hand, he spends hours before and after the evening meal, managing the water and changing its settings in the fields.

Just as his father before taught him, Schafer is teaching his 10-year-old and 7-year-old sons to set the irrigation tubes in the evening. The 10-year-old is rapidly getting the hang of the work. The 7-year-old, who also loves to be at his father’s side, is good primarily for conversation, Schafer says. But that’s okay, he says. “That’s how they learn.”

The drought is the worst in the region in 10 years and may be a harbinger of a weather pattern that will bring desperately dry periods more often. The prospect of more frequent droughts is worrisome, but it is not the only issue that bothers Schafer. Through the quiet summer evening, as he slowly guides a meticulously kept pick-up along the two-lane country highways, Schafer points to stark, barren fields whose waters have been sold off for spectacular sums to cities up and down the Front Range. Even when the drought is over, this water will never come back.

Chad Shafer stands in one of the fields on his Gilcrest farm. Photo By: Matthew Staver

On one 160-acre parcel he and his father once leased and cultivated every year, Schafer says the water sold for more than $1 million. Now a handful of homes dot the landscape. Lawns are the only green that remains on these former corn, potato and sugar beet fields.

Despite his carefully groomed farm operation and healthy crops, Schafer, at 39, worries about the coming years and how much of his family’s water future he can control. Since his great grandfather came to Greeley in 1912 from Russia to grow sugar beets, Schafer’s family has been making its living farming. They moved to Gilcrest in the 1940s.

Chad left Gilcrest briefly when he was 19 to go to a nearby junior college. “But I missed it so much, I had to come back,” he says. His father co-signed Chad’s first loan the next year. He rented a nearby field and planted an onion crop, which he was able to successfully harvest and sell. He paid off the loan and hasn’t looked back.

Moving Water Off the Farm

Statewide, though the vast majority of Colorado’s current water supplies go to agriculture, there’s less available than there once was because cities are buying up agricultural water at prices of more than $10,000 an acre foot. Farmers such as Schafer, who would like to buy more land and water, can’t afford those sums. The South Platte Basin is ground zero for these permanent transfers. With more than 900,000 acres of irrigated lands, the South Platte is the state’s largest irrigated agricultural economy, dwarfing the 300,000- plus acres of irrigated land in the Arkansas Basin. It’s also home to metro Denver.

“Those projects will help slow down the transfer of agricultural water to cities, but now we have to be as creative as we can with the water we have left.” – Brian Werner

The story of how the South Platte Basin’s agricultural water is shifting to urban uses is told clearly in the water records of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. In 1957, the district first began distributing the water it brings from the headwaters of the upper Colorado on the West Slope through the Alva B. Adams Tunnel into the South Platte Basin. Back then, 85 percent of its water was owned by farmers. The district, which serves Larimer, Boulder, Weld, Broomfield, Logan, Morgan, Sedgwick and Washington counties, was home to just 150,000 people.

Fast forward 55 years. Now just 34 percent of that water is owned by farmers and 850,000 people populate the district. Two new storage projects the district wants to build will help quench the thirst of such cities as Broomfield, Erie and Greeley, but it’s unlikely any new supplies will flow back to dried-up farms. “Those projects will help slow down the transfer of agricultural water to cities,” says Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner. “But now we have to be as creative as we can with the water we have left.”

Todd Doherty, who works for the state’s water policy arm, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, agrees. In 2004, the board completed its Statewide Water Supply Initiative, identifying for the first time how much water each of Colorado’s eight major river basins controlled, how that water was used, and how much water each region would need in the future for cities, farms and industry. The study revealed dramatic shortages among fast-growing cities. With nearly all of Colorado’s water supplies already claimed, those cities are looking at nearby farms to help bridge the gaps in their water supply portfolios. In the South Platte Basin, where the Schafers farm, nearly one-third of irrigated farms and ranches will be dried up in the next 30 years if Colorado cannot find better ways to partner with farms so water can be shared, rather than removed permanently. The same scenario is likely to play out in other parts of the state. In the Arkansas Basin, for instance, some 73,000 irrigated acres could be dried up.

Toward the Win-Win

Since 2007, lawmakers have authorized the CWCB to spend $4 million on studies and pilot projects testing alternatives to permanent water transfers that could meet cities’ needs while keeping water on farms. Several such programs are underway, though in some cases, implementation is bumping up against the confines of Colorado water law, says Doherty. The dynamic of return flows, where some irrigation water has historically returned to the stream to satisfy water right holders farther downstream, for example, has complex implications when it comes to enacting change.

One of the goals of the pilot projects is to determine whether Colorado’s water laws need to be amended in order to make temporary water transfers easier to implement, while protecting the rights of existing water right owners.

One high-profile effort is the Super Ditch in the Arkansas Basin. The cooperative ditch is actually a legal entity that binds the water supplies and delivery systems of seven irrigation companies. The conglomerate will allow farmers who own shares in those ditch companies to fallow lands in dry years and lease their unused water back to cities such as Fountain, outside Colorado Springs. Under temporary authorization from the state, the pilot was allowed to begin this summer, but not without dispute.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission, along with several irrigation companies with systems downstream of the Super Ditch, challenged the project in water court, concerned that their own water rights—and ability to fulfill them—would be harmed, possibly through transit losses or evaporation.

Tri-State, a large power cooperative that serves 44 rural co-ops in Colorado, believes the state exceeded its authority and wants the Super Ditch to go through a full-fledged court case before the program begins. Lee Boughey, senior manager of public affairs for Tri-State, says the company doesn’t oppose the concept of rotational fallowing, but wants the program fully vetted before it’s allowed to operate.

Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District and of the Super Ditch, says that’s exactly why the pilot is necessary—to test the project’s viability. Legal challenges or no, Winner says he isn’t going away. He believes water leasing and rotational fallowing is the future of Colorado water and says projects like the Super Ditch provide an opportunity for farmers to generate income from their water supplies just as they do from their crops. Such an option was unheard of 50 years ago when the only legal mechanism for cities to access farm water was to buy it permanently and remove it from the land. Known as “buy and dry,” this crippled rural farm communities in places like the Arkansas Basin.

Crowley County, for instance, once had a thriving agricultural economy. But early purchases by cities left the county with so little water that its farm economy failed. Now the county is one of the poorest in Colorado and the nation, with per capita income of just $18,966 and a poverty rate of 21 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

Those early, painful events, however, are helping inform Colorado’s modern approach to sharing agricultural water, with cities up and down the Front Range putting money into researching options alongside state agencies and nonprofits.

Southeast of Denver, the city of Parker is backing an innovative program in which farmers use regulated deficit irrigation to purposefully under-irrigate their fields while maintaining a crop yield that, while reduced, is economically justified. The saved water can be put into the river and credited back to cities that in turn pay farmers for the new supplies. “So far they’re seeing about a 30 percent water savings on corn and alfalfa,” Doherty says, “and they’re still getting a crop that is profitable.”

One of the challenges with regulated deficit irrigation, however, is in the record keeping the state must do to track how much water is applied, how much is saved, and how much is delivered to new users. “It’s going to be difficult to administer because the water commissioner can’t just go by a field [under deficit irrigation] and say, ‘Okay, it’s fallowed.’ The administration piece is the biggest hurdle there,” says Doherty.

Another initiative aimed at sharing irrigation water with cities is a broad-based look at water banking. Here such entities as the Colorado River Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, the state of Colorado and Front Range water utilities, among others, are evaluating existing reservoirs, such as the new Lake Nighthorse outside Durango, to see if adequate space exists for farmers to store water they might save via fallowing or deficit irrigation. Such water, if it can be harvested properly, could help cities stave off the need to build new reservoirs or to purchase more agricultural water outright. A water bank could also store saved water that could be released into the Colorado River to satisfy demands from downstream states during dry years, ensuring municipalities’ high country diversions could continue.

“It’s a different beast over here, but we’re going to have to find new mechanisms or cities will have no choice but to ‘buy and dry.” – Dan Birch

Dan Birch, deputy general manager of the Colorado River District, has been leading the water banking work. The going isn’t easy. Talks have been underway with various users for five years. Birch estimates that given the skepticism and fear among water right holders, it could easily take another five to 10 years to create a functioning program. In the meantime, the River District recently completed a study evaluating probable supply and demand for the water bank: It estimates demand for 300,000 to 400,000 acre feet of water with roughly 1 million acre feet of potential supply annually.

But unlike the Front Range, whose growers raise crops such as corn that can be easily adapted to fallowing, the West Slope’s more predominant orchards, vineyards and alfalfa hay fields are ill-suited to such programs. The study showed the West Slope on its own could derive only about 80,000 acre feet of water via rotational fallowing programs. “It’s a different beast over here,” says Birch. “But we’re going to have to find new mechanisms or cities will have no choice but to ‘buy and dry.’”

One potential legal mechanism that combines protection of agricultural lands along with irrigation water is a new tack on conservation easements. Easements are legal tools that give landowners tax credits in exchange for agreeing not to develop their lands. Now the state and others are looking at whether conservation easements that tie water to those same lands could be involved in rotational fallowing programs. Farms, for instance, whose lands are protected from development via easements could agree to fallow their fields in alternating years and lease that water to cities in exchange for income.

Temporary fallowing could also be used for farmers to help fellow farmers. The Yampa Valley, for example, is one of the few regions in Colorado where irrigated agriculture may actually grow—by as much as 40,000 acres, according to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative. But rather than building a new reservoir to capture additional early season runoff for farmers, The Nature Conservancy is helping fund an experimental rotational fallowing program.

Chad Schafer stands amid a failed corn crop spanning 60 acres, in which he had invested nearly $18,000 in seed, fertilizer and labor expenses at the start of the 2012 season. Photo By: Matthew Staver

The idea, according to Taylor Hawes, the organization’s Colorado River Program director, is for water-rich farmers at the top of the river to fallow hay fields in alternating years and send the saved water downstream to ranchers in the lower valley who need additional water. Along the way, the Yampa River’s fish and wetlands will benefit as more water stays in the stream. Farmers would be paid for the water they send down the line.

Lest the Farms Go

The Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance (CAWA), comprised by leaders of agricultural organizations from around the state, has met with both farmers and municipal water users as well as legislators and members of a statewide subcommittee on alternatives to permanent transfers. One thing that’s become evident: Both sides would prefer control. Where municipalities would feel more security through purchasing water from farmers and leasing it back to them in dry years, agricultural stakeholders prefer ideas akin to the Super Ditch, where cities contract with an irrigation company or district to provide water on a temporary or rotating basis. “Instead of buying an individual’s water—that can put them out of business—it wouldn’t have to be the same farmers giving up water every year,” explains Charlie Bartlett, a producer in Merino, near Sterling, and chair of CAWA.

Bartlett and other members of CAWA want to keep people thinking about the big picture and working together. “We all need each other in this state. I provide food that I produce, but I also need medical care, attorneys, all kinds of other goods and services that the people in the cities provide,” says Bartlett. “At the same time, much of the water we use on the farm goes back to cities, just in a different form. Milk, for example, is 80 to 90 percent water. Are these things that we’re willing to give up?”

“We have a topnotch group of engineers sitting down and really trying to work through that. If this is successful, you could have a model in which you could punch in some input and get return flows and consumptive use quantified without going through a huge, complicated court case.” – Todd Doherty

As cities, industries and farmers look for new ways to use existing supplies, water engineering experts say a tremendous amount of research and testing of crops and hydrological systems lies ahead. Currently, any time the designated use of water changes, it has to go through water court, where engineers determine how much is actually available to be transferred. Farmers who save water through efficiency measures, for example, are currently prohibited from transferring the saved water to a municipality unless they can prove actual savings in crop water consumption, rather than overall application.

Deriving verifiable data is complicated and involves analyzing historical crop and water diversion records, among other things. Those data can vacillate widely from region-to-region and from year-to-year. Depending on available records and engineering studies, the effort to quantify the water legally available to be transferred can also vary dramatically. This kind of uncertainty could be sharply reduced with better science and technology and perhaps changes to Colorado water law, Doherty says.

In the Arkansas Basin, engineers are developing a model that will help standardize and improve calculations on variables such as how much water a particular crop uses and how much water returns to the stream after it is applied to the land. “We have a topnotch group of engineers sitting down and really trying to work through that,” Doherty says. “If this is successful, you could have a model in which you could punch in some input and get return flows and consumptive use quantified without going through a huge, complicated court case.”

“We hope Colorado water law is flexible enough to have these things occur,” Doherty adds. “But at the same time we want to make sure that water right holders are protected from injury. There may need to be a legislative fix.” In the interim, farmers such as Chad Schafer continue to see less land they can afford to purchase outright or to lease. Schafer could earn more money, grow his operations and provide a legacy for his own children if he could expand his farm. But an 80-acre irrigated farm nearby sold recently for $1 million, he says—a price that is out of his reach.

Schafer also sees few young farmers coming into his community. “There is only one other guy I know of here who is younger than me, and my dad is getting ready to retire.”

If Colorado is able to slow the loss of irrigated agricultural lands, farmers who survive will operate in a world where food is becoming a more and more valuable commodity and that should translate into higher crop prices. For the multi-generation Schafer farmers, that scenario could provide a way forward as long as their water remains close to home.

Schafer says the temptation to sell for many people is simply too great to resist. “As long as I control it, we will not sell. But for a lot of people, they see the dollar signs.”

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