Colorado River Crisis: Do Farmers Have the Water To Solve It?

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

In discussions about water shortages in California’s Sacramento Delta or on the Colorado River, you’ll often hear that farmers can slake the thirst caused by ballooning urban growth. Agriculture sucks up 70 to 80 percent of water in those basins. Farmers have more water than they need, some water wonks say, and can make good money selling it to thirsty urban areas. For example, California’s Imperial Valley farmers send 280 thousand acre feet of Colorado River water each year to San Diego.

What you don’t often hear in these discussions is any concern about what happens to agriculture and rural life as these transfers become more common. Bruce Finley of the Denver Post took a look at that issue here: His piece focuses on the Front Range in Colorado where “about 400,000 acres in Colorado dried up between 2000 and 2005, according to U.S. Geological Survey data...

And Colorado natural resources planners anticipate losing another 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated cropland by 2050.” Several small towns in the area have practically disappeared. Finley quotes Pat O'Toole, president of the Colorado-based Family Farm Alliance: "Denver's going to double, and so is India and China and everybody else. What are we going to do to feed people if we keep taking agricultural land out of production?"

Water brokers for suburban water managers are scouring the Colorado countryside for more water rights. They prefer “buy and dry” deals in which water ownership is permanently transferred from a farm or ranch to a populated area.

These transfers have attracted the attention of western state officials. In 2008 the Western Governor’s Association, looking ahead at water needs, said that “…states, working with interested stakeholders, should identify innovative ways to allow water transfers from agriculture to urban use while avoiding or mitigating damages to agricultural economies and environmental values.”

Jennifer Pitt of the Environmental Defense Fund recently informed me that the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University had taken up the governors’ challenge and formed the Agricultural/Urban/Environmental Water Sharing Work Group. You can find their report at:

How to avoid or mitigate damages to agricultural economies and environmental values is going to be a central as the crisis on the Colorado continues. Demands on the river continue to outstrip supply as western cities keep on growing. What happens over the long haul, for example, to Arizona’s 7,500 farms and ranches if Colorado River shortages force curtailments on the Central Arizona Water Project?

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 7:12