Agricultural Water and the “New Normal”

Agricultural Water and the “New Normal”:
Farmer, Rancher and Manager Perspectives on
Agricultural Water in the Colorado River Basin
Peter Leigh Taylor, MaryLou Smith, Faith Sternlieb,
Julie Kallenberger and Reagan Waskom
Colorado Water Workshop, Gunnison, Colorado
July 17-19, 2013
Farmer, Rancher and Manager
Perspectives on Agricultural Water
The “new normal?”
1. Agricultural and agricultural water as key
historical underpinnings of rural communities
2. Though a “new normal” is largely created by
conditions beyond our direct control, we as
individuals and as a society can shape that new
Farmer, Rancher
and Manager
Perspectives on Agricultural
The Colorado River provides for 38 million
people, crucial support for food and agriculture,
and for complex ecosystems.
The River is highly stressed in terms of its ability
to satisfy human and environmental needs.
The Bureau of Reclamation warns of significant
future gaps between CR water supplies and
Agriculture is being looked to to help fill the
USDA “Addressing Water for
Agriculture in the CRB”
collaborative research partnership
Land-grant partners
Colorado State
University of Arizona
University of California
University of Nevada
New Mexico State
Utah State University
University of Wyoming
Sixty in-depth, semistructured telephone
in all seven CRB states
53 men; 7 women
27 producers
30 professional water
3 other water professionals
Interviewee locations
Interviewee CR
Water Sources
Animas River; Central
Arizona Project;
Coachella Canal; Colorado
River mainstem; Crystal
River; Dolores River; Gila
River; Green River; Gunnison
River; Little Snake River;
North Fork River; Pine River;
San Francisco; San Juan
River; San Miguel River;
Spanish Fork River; Virgin
River; Yampa River
Research questions
1. What are the most important pressures you experience on
your agricultural water?
2. How are you and your organizations responding?
3. How do you see the future of agriculture and agricultural
water in your area?
4. How can land-grant universities help support effective
responses to the stresses on agricultural water?
Immediate concern about drought in 2012
“we haven't had any winters in years. Our aquifers are
starting to deplete for the first time in history and our
community went into water restrictions. We have no surface
water to irrigate with and we started using pumped
water….Everybody had a real hard time.”
AZ cotton grower on the Gila
Less direct concern about drought in 2012
“Availability of water is not a concern. We have water. Price
is a concern for us.”
CA manager, Coachella Valley
Concern about future implications for water rights
“It's been pointed out to me that when there are enough
householders in Las Vegas that turn on their faucet and no
water comes out, it doesn't make any difference what kind
of compact or law there is. They are going to get water.”
CO rancher, North Fork River
a. Urban pressures
bring water to cities by separating it from farms
Ex: “Buy and dry” trends in Colorado
Most significant on Colorado’s Eastern slope.
Less common on the Colorado’s Colorado River, but still a
concern for farmers, policymakers and others
a. Urban pressures
bring cities to agriculture through suburbanization
“Land ends up being so valuable, it’s hard to own it and
remain in agriculture” Rancher on Animas River, Colorado
“We’re migrating to golf courses and housing developments.
We’re becoming more and more a municipal water district
except on the east side. A lot of farming has been
CA Imperial Valley manager
b. Environmental & recreation pressures
Many ag water users and managers deal with ESA issues as
part of their work.
“They are not financially dependent on the water the way I
am… We cannot farm anywhere. They don't have any skin in
the game.”
CO Dolores River rancher
Many farmers expressed support for the environment and say
they are also environmentalists.
a. Developing additional storage
“I'm just naive enough to believe it would take care of irrigation and
environmental concerns, endangered species concerns, provide more
stable recreation opportunities. The bottom line is that everybody could
have what they want.”
NM Gila River water manager
The users can't afford it, but to have some sort of local taxpayer subsidy
of an ag project isn't going to fly in this basin. … Ag is not the primary
industry. It's in the top three or four, but people just aren't going to raise
their taxes to pay for this….
Gunnison River rancher, Colorado
“With climatic conditions and increases in demands, at some point you
run out. It will take every tool in the toolbox—absolutely.” WY rancher
b. Increased efficiency and water conservation
Varying incentives and disincentives:
•Water rights laws & historic consumptive use
•Technical production factors: climate, soils, crops
cultivated, irrigation technology type
•Return flow considerations
•Social and cultural factors: generational transitions?
b. Increased efficiency and water conservation
“Farmers say, ‘I could actually lose some of my water
rights’…. There has to be an incentive. Otherwise, [farmers]
are going to want to hang on to their water rights.”
UT water manager
c. Permanent and temporary market transfers
Buy and Dry and “Buy and Change” (development) trends
Municipal buy-up of ag water, often with lease-back
Temporary leasing of ag water to municipalities and others
Water banking
c. Permanent and temporary market transfers
“They paid a big price for the water and they took it…. No fight,
they just offered a lot of money. They didn't force anybody. Some
think it was forced. I don't think it was forced, but I don't think we
should have sold.”
NV alfalfa grower, Virgin River
c. Permanent and temporary market transfers
Temporary leasing
Colorado law now facilitates temporary ag water leasing for
instream flows without risk of abandonment.
“If you are growing a perennial like alfalfa, or hay, I don't see how
you give away or sell your water for a year because it will do long
term damage….I just don't see how it would work if you are
growing a perennial crop.”
CO Crystal River rancher
c. Voluntary temporary and permanent market transfers
Water banking
Informal water banking experiences exist within some water
Issues grappled with include: private/public water rights,
diverse and complex land & water relationships, seniority
and return flow issues.
d. Managing conflict and cooperation
Courts and attorneys
“legal decisions may not necessarily result in a fair
agreement…but one that favors those with the most money
to fight with.”
AZ alfalfa grower
d. Managing conflict and cooperation
Negative multi-stakeholder experiences
Barriers mentioned include: incompatible values, interests &
goals; lack of trust; feeling at disadvantage in negotiation
“People are so tied up in their work, they can't go to all the
meetings. They can't protect what they have because of the
nature of what they're protecting.”
WY Green River manager
d. Managing conflict and cooperation
Positive multi-stakeholder experiences
•Grand Valley, CO, Endangered Fish Recovery Program and
the Historic Users Pool (HUP)
A bright future?
Interviewees’ view of the future was most positive where:
•Highly productive, year round production is possible
•Users have senior rights
•Nearby urban areas lower production and marketing costs
•New generations are entering farming and ranching
A bright future?
“We have 12 month a year agriculture here…We have good
soil and climate…good access to the interstate highway. We
have lots of strengths and better potential for economic
feasibility. I see the future as solid.”
AZ alfalfa grower in Yuma
“We've had a lot of discussions. We've structured our family
organization legally to make sure land remains in
agriculture. We’re keeping the land open and in
Animas River rancher, Colorado
An uncertain future?
Less optimism about the future was expressed where there
•Higher obstacles to productivity
•More junior water rights
•Ag users face more competition from urban water demand
•New generations seek futures outside of agriculture
An uncertain future?
“I see ranching and farming as being harder and harder to
do, not just here, but in all areas. There’s pressure to take
water off the Western slope to put it in the Colorado River
Compact, to take more water off the Western slope to go to
the Eastern slope where there are more people.”
CO San Miguel River rancher
“There’s an analogy used here. Western Colorado is sitting
on the tracks between the Lower Basin and the Front Range.
We expect to get run over. It's probably a matter of time and
how that happens.”
CO North Fork River rancher
“Almost everybody knows how much they use in their
households. One acre-foot is needed for four families. No
one knows how much more water they use indirectly when
they sit down to eat….Three fourths of an acre foot per
person per year is used indirectly in our own food
Imperial Valley water manager
We farmers are the first level of people concerned about the
environment…There is a huge community benefit to keeping
these lands open and productive. We produce crops, a
viewshed, a watershed, and a wildlife habitat.
AZ alfalfa grower on the Gila River
•Significant uncertainty exists about the future of ag and ag
•Ag water users face common pressures: extended drought,
competing water demands and others.
•Ag water users are developing active responses: seeking
more storage, technology improvements, water transfers
and sharing, management of conflict and cooperation.
•Experiences vary by who interviewees are, what they do
and where they are.
•Diversity and complexity represent both features of the
challenge and arguably, resources to draw upon.
“You won't believe how hard this is going to get. You have to
protect yourself from the world that's getting so much
Wyoming water manager, Green River
“It’s always a challenge operating based on the past. The
future is not going to be like the past.”
Grand County, Colorado official
“We have an obligation to our kids, to our grandkids, to
those who come after us, to ensure that that water is
available. The greatest compliment we might get twenty,
thirty, forty years down the road, will be the ‘thank
goodness that those folks were wise enough and ensured
that this water was available for us to use today.’”
NM water leader
Peter Leigh Taylor
University of Arizona Regents
For additional information on the
“Addressing Water for Agriculture” project
please see our website:

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