The Efficiency Dilemma

Plains farmers reap the benefits—and pay the price—of irrigation upgrades

Late last year, 67-year-old Arkansas Valley farmer Bill Grasmick and his partners at GP Irrigated Farms inked a deal with Syracuse Dairy of Kansas to grow wheat, barley, triticale, corn and oats as feed for the company’s cows on 8,000 acres of Colorado prairie near the Kansas state line. For the past 40-odd growing seasons, Grasmick had flooded his farm fields west of Holly with water that began as snowmelt high in the Rocky Mountains and flowed down the Arkansas River. The dairy owners, who had become overly reliant on farms irrigated with groundwater from the vast but rapidly declining Ogallala Aquifer, figured that access to Grasmick’s renewable water source would help shore up the future of their feed supply.

For Grasmick and his partners, the deal with Syracuse presented an opportunity to finance a major efficiency improvement they’d long been contemplating: Rather than continuing to flood irrigate their crops and letting so much excess water flow back to the river, the group wanted to install 72 center-pivot sprinklers across their network of southeastern Colorado farms. Compared with flood irrigation, center pivots require far smaller water applications and also minimize runoff. The owners of Syracuse, heartened by the idea that their feed crops could get water even in the driest years, agreed to help pay for the efficiency upgrade.

Lamar, CO – September 12, 2014. Bill Grasmick stands for a photograph in a lush field of alfalfa next to a new pivot sprinkler on a portion of his farm in Lamar, Colorado, U.S., on Friday, September 12, 2014. Photo By: Matthew Staver

In most regions of Colorado, Grasmick’s next step would have been to simply buy and install his sprinkler system. Yet in the Arkansas River Basin, farmers reliant on surface water who improve their efficiency—either by swapping out irrigation systems, lining canals, or piping ditches—have been required since 2011 to ensure that they return the same amount of water to the river, at roughly the same time and place, as they did with their old and inefficient irrigation techniques.

The surface water rules, along with earlier regulations enacted for well pumping in 1996, were conceived after Kansas sued Colorado in 1985 alleging violation of the Arkansas River Compact. When the compact was signed in 1949, it essentially froze river water consumption in the basin, preventing Colorado farmers from undertaking any development that reduced the river’s flow at the Kansas state line to below 1949 levels. By the time negotiators settled the Kansas lawsuit in the mid-2000s, Colorado recognized that irrigation efficiency improvements made by Colorado farmers were increasing the fraction of diverted water that was absorbed by crops while decreasing the fraction that flowed back to the river. So the State Engineer’s Office, also known as the Division of Water Resources, enacted rules designed to ensure those improvements wouldn’t lead to another compact violation. The rules require farmers to submit detailed plans showing how they’ll purchase replacement water to offset the efficiency improvements they make. By the time Grasmick finished installing his center-pivot sprinklers in summer 2013, he’d submitted two such plans to the State Engineer and had one plan pending in water court.

Despite the steep cost of his efficiency upgrade—the pivots run between $80,000 and $100,000 apiece—and the protracted paperwork push required to get it done, Grasmick doesn’t doubt the value of his project. Compared to flood irrigation, which typically involves over-watering plants near the top of a field where water is released and leaving plants at the bottom of the field too dry, sprinkler irrigation permits a more precise and uniform application of water that can boost crop yields by giving plants exactly what they need at the optimal time of day. “We think we can actually increase our production with center pivots,” Grasmick explains. “If you’re more timely and you’re more accurate, you’re going to get better yields.”

Grasmick’s complicated quest to use his water wisely illustrates that even as farmers work to improve the water efficiency of their farms, they must constantly weigh the financial and regulatory cost of irrigation improvements against the labor savings, productivity gains and water savings those improvements provide. Still, a growing number of farmers on Colorado’s Eastern Plains are realizing that pursuing efficiency is worth the trouble. In 1999, less than 2 percent of irrigated land along the mainstem of the Arkansas River between Pueblo and Kansas was under sprinkler irrigation, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources. By April 2014, the number was 11 percent and rising.

The Case for Efficiency

The idea that Arkansas Valley farmers who improve their irrigation efficiency will wind up consuming more water and returning less to the river is based on a simple truth about the Arkansas Basin. Like many other river basins in eastern Colorado, the Arkansas is water-short, meaning that farmers are sometimes unable to exercise all of their water rights or fully irrigate their crops with the available water supply. In 2011, for instance, a year the Colorado Division of Water Resources classified as average for precipitation in the Arkansas Basin, farmers there irrigated more than 255,000 acres. Yet in 2013, a dry year, that number dropped to just under 154,000.

“Many ditch companies have available land that can be irrigated in good years and that has to be fallowed in dry years,” says Steve Witte, Division 2 engineer for the state. By adopting more efficient irrigation practices, Witte says, farmers with the right to irrigate more land can do so using the same net amount of water as before. But the result is an increase in overall crop consumption of the water applied—and a decrease in return flows.

As Colorado water planners contemplate a projected doubling of the state’s population by mid-century, many have wondered whether agricultural efficiency could free up water for use by cities and industries without doing the same damage that “buying and drying” farms and transferring their water to urban areas has done in recent decades. The answer is likely no. Many farmers and administrators say efficiency will benefit water-short farms and junior irrigators long before it makes water available for transfer to urban areas. Still, the ability to make ag water go farther will advance the state’s quest to meet competing water needs into the future.

“In water-short areas, even if farms become more efficient, I believe that the same amount of water will be diverted, just because farmers have a place to put it and they have a use for it themselves,” says Witte. “In the Arkansas Basin, one of the options is for farmers who become more efficient to divert less water, but that’s not the option that anyone has taken advantage of so far.”

Instead, farmers are reaping the benefits of efficiency improvements themselves, but only after steep investments, including the cost of abiding by state rules. When farmers in the Arkansas Basin make efficiency improvements, they must pay groups like the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association (LAWMA) to purchase water and return it to the river as compensation for the decline in return flows from their newly efficient fields. The cost of buying or leasing that water depends on a range of factors— annual snowpack and precipitation affect supply, while demand fluctuates as commodity prices change and it becomes more or less attractive for farmers to plant crops.

In 2014, a LAWMA share, which provides about one acre-foot of replacement water in an average year, cost at least $2,200 to own in perpetuity, and could be leased for an annual fee of $135. Those costs add up. Just leasing enough replacement water to run a single center-pivot sprinkler covering 120 acres would have cost $27,000 this year, while buying enough to run that sprinkler in perpetuity would have required a $440,000 investment.

On top of these compliance costs, farmers can expect to spend up to $100,000 on a center-pivot sprinkler that irrigates about 120 acres of ground. That’s no small sum in a business whose profit margins are notoriously thin, but farmers are finding such investments have benefits beyond water savings. Not only can they often put more land into production, but they are also seeing increases in the overall productivity of their fields.

“I have seen anywhere from a 5 to 10 percent increase in yields for farmers who go from flood to sprinkler,” says Joel Schneekloth, a regional water resource specialist for Colorado State University, noting that sprinklers increase yields both by reducing water stress to crops during critical times like pollination and by leaching fewer nutrients from the soil than flood irrigation does. They also apply less water—Schneekloth says that in eastern Colorado it would take just over one acre-foot of water to grow an acre of corn using sprinklers in an average precipitation year, compared to roughly two acre-feet with flood irrigation.

Increased yields and lower water use are major benefits, but they’re dwarfed by the labor savings that irrigation efficiency improvements can provide. In parts of the South Platte River Basin, which stretches from the Continental Divide to central Logan and Washington counties in eastern Colorado, more than two-thirds of the agricultural acreage is now under sprinkler irrigation, permitting farmers to cultivate more land with fewer employees and less work than in the past.

“If you’re farming around here, we are kind of in hilly country, so you have to put a lot of work into flood irrigation,” says Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District in northeastern Colorado, where 80 percent of irrigated land is now fed by sprinklers. “The farmers farm so much more land now to make a living than they used to, so they were spread real thin with flood irrigation.”

As of 2010, 44 percent of the irrigated land in the South Platte Basin was sprinkler-fed, up from 32 percent in 2001. Federal grant money earmarked for irrigation efficiency improvements played a major role in that increase, but the transition was also eased by the fact that the South Platte River Compact of 1923—unlike the Arkansas River Compact—hasn’t led to rules requiring farmers to maintain their historical return flows after installing efficiency improvements. The compact mandates that South Platte River water users in Water District 64, downstream of the Washington County line, manage their water use to keep flows at the Nebraska state line at or above 120 cubic feet per second between April 1 and Oct. 15. As long as Colorado meets that basic flow obligation, farmers along the South Platte can be as efficient as they like.

Groundwater users in the South Platte are further motivated to increase efficiency by rising costs. State law passed in 1969 and strengthened in 2003 requires that well owners develop augmentation plans to replace every gallon of groundwater they consume out of turn. The measure is intended to keep out-of-priority well depletions from harming the owners of senior surface water rights in the South Platte Basin, where, as in the Arkansas Basin, the alluvial aquifer is directly tied to the river and groundwater depletions can affect river flows. Yet augmentation water is expensive to purchase. In dry years, an acre-foot can cost upward of $150 in the Sterling and Ft. Morgan areas and much more as you move upstream, according to Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District.

Thirsty municipalities seeking water for their own urban uses compete in the same water market, which drives prices up further. To limit their expenses, savvy groundwater users adopt more efficient irrigation systems, and at the same time save on pumping costs.

Surface water irrigators in the South Platte are also eager to stretch their water resources through efficiency. The basin is heavily dependent on return flows: Water users there divert 4 million acre-feet of water per year and send about 400,000 to Nebraska, despite the fact that only 1.8 million acre-feet of water enters the basin through snowmelt or transbasin diversions from west of the Continental Divide. “In the South Platte, water gets used six or seven times before it leaves,” says Frank. “The system as a whole is efficient, even though when you look at an individual farm it doesn’t seem that way.”

Ironically, some worry that the South Platte’s dependency on return flows could someday prompt regulators there to follow the Arkansas Basin down a path of strict rules for irrigation efficiency improvements. If downstream users in the South Platte begin to complain about changes in the timing and amount of return flows brought on by the efficiency improvements of upstream irrigators, rules mandating the maintenance of historical return flows could follow.

“If return flows got low enough, water users in the lower part of the basin could try to do something about the efficiency improvements higher up in the basin,” says David Nettles, Colorado’s Division 1 engineer. “I’m not sure how successful they would be with a legal challenge, but they could work through the State Engineer or the legislature to try to get some rules in place.”

Still, as Nettles points out, if downstream users see their return flows changing because their neighbors upstream are becoming more efficient, their best line of defense may simply be to hop on the efficiency train themselves.

If downstream users in the South Platte begin to complain about changes in the timing and amount of return flows brought on by the efficiency improvements of upstream irrigators, rules mandating the maintenance of historical return flows could follow.

Technology Revolution

There is one region of Colorado’s Eastern Plains where concerns about harming downstream users through efficiency improvements are eclipsed by more existential worries about the future of irrigated agriculture itself, and where increased efficiency is considered essential for the continued viability of farming. In the Republican River Basin, which runs from north central Colorado to the Kansas state line, irrigators rely almost entirely on groundwater from the imperiled Ogallala Aquifer to water their crops.

The desire to sustain the Ogallala, combined with the fact that excessive groundwater pumping has caused Colorado to fall short of its Republican River Compact obligations during nine of the last ten years, strongly encourages irrigation efficiency in the basin. Republican River Basin irrigation was already largely dominated by center-pivot sprinklers by the late 1970s, and today all but 1 or 2 percent of land is fed by sprinklers or drip systems. Conservation tillage, which involves leaving much of last year’s crop residue on the ground to preserve soil moisture, is widespread, and many farmers now use soil mapping techniques powered by Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology that allow them to customize fertilizer, seed and water application rates across the farm.

“Recently, we’ve begun using some of this higher technology,” says Dennis Coryell, 62, who grows feed corn and wheat on 3,500 acres near Burlington and irrigates 1,500 of those. “We’re using moisture probes in the field along with remote telemetry for our wells, which enables us to monitor our soil moisture and then vary our rate of [water] application.”

Even in a place where farmers have so wholeheartedly embraced efficiency as their ticket to an irrigated future, some obstacles persist. New irrigation systems remain expensive, despite federal cost-sharing programs. Center pivots irrigate in a circular pattern, so they can’t be used on some small or oddly shaped pieces of land. Adopting new irrigation systems can require changes in farming practices, such as altering tilling patterns to avoid damaging buried drip irrigation lines. And it can be difficult for farmers to keep pace with the rapid evolution of agricultural technology and to choose where to spend their limited funds. On this front, younger
farmers have been helpful. In 2004, Coryell’s son returned to the family farm after graduating from Colorado State University, and Coryell says he’s been indispensable in helping navigate the flood of new efficiency technologies that hit the market every year.

“I think if there’s a hope for having a more sustainable irrigated agriculture in the Republican Basin,” Coryell says, “it would be our younger generation, who are willing to step up and be innovative.”

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