Less water produces more food for Colorado farmers


While farmers around him give up control over water used for a century to irrigate crops, Marc Arnusch is crouching in a thick cornfield inspecting blue digits on his new sensor. The third-generation farmer installed it to measure exactly the level of moisture in soil right at the roots of his corn. He’s also considering underground tubes that emit water only upon contact by roots.

This technology, made for farming in the Israeli desert, enables precision for applying only as much water as necessary to maximize production of sugar beets, onions and corn. Agriculture across Colorado and the West continues to use 85 percent of total water supplies. But growing numbers of farmers are shifting toward greater efficiency, replacing ditch-and-flood irrigation with center-pivot sprinklers and tubes that emit tiny drops.

Colorado officials say they’re counting on such increased efficiency and conservation as the state readies for an increase in people and industry — with a projected annual shortfall of 163 billion gallons.

State water planners anticipate farmers will be able to transfer more of their huge share of water to meet intensifying demands of Front Range industry and housing developers.

“Basically, we’re going to ask the agricultural community to do what the municipal community has already done: Let technology work for you,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Greater efficiency irrigating crops means farmers could grow more and make more water available to companies and cities, Eklund added.

But the rising expectations for agricultural water worries Arnusch, 42, who is a Colorado Farm Bureau board member. “Efficiency doesn’t necessarily translate to using less volume of water,” he said. “We want to retain that ownership. Then we control the future of the water.”

Agricultural ownership control over water rights, Colorado Farm Bureau leaders contend, is crucial. Farmers currently appear to be losing ground as some willingly sell water rights, like 401(k) accounts for rural families, via brokers who transfer them to cities.

In the South Platte River Basin, state data show loss of water reduced 1.1 million acres of agricultural land during the past three decades to 813,000 acres. That decrease of nearly 300,000 acres adds to large losses in southeastern Colorado after sales by farmers to cities in the 1970s shifted 14.6 billion to 19.5 billion gallons of water. Some went to companies involved in the oil and gas boom. Others went to expanding cities.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has declared “buy and dry” must end. Hickenlooper’s senior water adviser, John Stulp, said in a recent interview that, given food and environmental benefits of agriculture, the notion that agriculture’s 85 percent share of water should shrink is unrealistic.

Yet Colorado will encourage alternative transfer mechanisms for shifting water to cities — with farmers leasing water temporarily while retaining ownership — aiming to move 16.2 billion gallons a year. Stulp said any ATM deals will be voluntary. “There is no mandate to agriculture,” he said. “No one is asking growers to give up ownership of that water.”

The rising competition for water that affects Arnusch also increasingly challenges farmers around the West from Colorado to California. In the 19th century, geologist John Wesley Powell, exploring the West for the government, declared it arid and mostly unsuitable for agriculture, and warned “there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”

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