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HW 2009 Basin

Finite Supply, Infinite Possibilities

By Lori Ozzello

‘The earthen Plains of Colorado had long been labeled unfit to grow anything other than buffalo, snakes, cactus and antelope.’
—C.R. Shwrayder

Unstable commodity prices, rising costs for agricultural inputs such as feed and fertilizer, and competition for a finite water supply hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of agriculture officials in the Lower South Platte River basin.

Canals, ditches, man-made streams and reservoirs, fed by return flows, native surface water, transmountain imports and the alluvial aquifer weave through the basin. Maligned by Mark Twain and a list of explorers and travelers, the hard-working South Platte has a lot to do between Greeley and the Nebraska state line.

The South Platte and Metro roundtables—water purveyors, agriculture experts, environmentalists, and state and local governments—are in the process of determining whether municipal and industrial demands can be met reliably without permanently drying up irrigated agriculture. Buying agriculture land and using the water to meet municipal demands, also known as buy and dry, is the least expensive way to acquire water, but it means sacrificing irrigated agriculture and possibly reducing groundwater tables if historic return flows diminish.

Said Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Stulp: ‘How much water can you continue to take from agriculture? That will change the way we look as a state if we continue to buy 1 or 2 percent (of farm land) yearly. It will have an impact over time.

‘It comes back to how much growth you can have in relation to ag production.’

In the midst of the uncertainties, throw in a burgeoning ethanol industry, the location of a cheese factory in Greeley, and innovations in irrigation. The result: A lot of interest and even more questions about how the river is used.
‘Will there be less irrigated agriculture over time?’ asked Weld County Commissioner and South Platte Roundtable Chair Bill Jerke. ‘Without a doubt.’

Said Stulp, ‘There's no question there are a lot of people who are nervous, but overall, it's positive.
‘In the long term, (the basin) will be strong for commodities. And there will be demand from emerging countries for more meat products, such as beef, pork and lamb.’

The question is, how will it shake out?

Eight of the state's top 10 agricultural producing counties are in the Lower South Platte basin and account for 70 percent of Colorado's agriculture sales. Cattle production is first in Weld, Morgan, Yuma and Logan counties, followed by crops including wheat, sugar beets, corn, hay and pinto beans.

Various state statistics show agriculture uses more than three-quarters of the available water, but the South Platte also sends more water, by percentage, to cities, towns and industries, than any other river basin in the state. According to Jim Hall, Division 1 Engineer, the breakdown of surface water use in the basin is approximately 71% for irrigation, 5% for industrial, and 24% for municipal purposes. These percentages include diversions for recharge and augmentation.

The numbers will change if more water is transferred from irrigated farms to municipal and industrial uses. According to a 2007 Colorado State University report and survey, the South Platte ‘expects to fallow as many as 266,000 (22 percent) of its irrigated acres in the next 25 years,’ leaving about 750,000 available for agriculture. The river transects the most populated and productive areas of the state. The state demographer forecasts the basin's population, meanwhile, is expected to increase by nearly 2 million people by 2030.

Each irrigated acre, said the report, ‘generates significant economic activity in the basin, so potential losses are substantial in sparsely populated rural areas with few other alternatives.’

One of report's authors, James Pritchett, is an agribusiness specialist and Colorado State University professor. He believes ‘this is a good time to plan for the next 30 years. Municipalities have to start thinking about it, whether they want vibrant agriculture.’

The authors, including Pritchett, wrote that the direct impact of buy and dry or fallowing is a loss of crop sales. That in turn means lost revenues for agribusinesses, such as tractor, seed and fertilizer suppliers, and lost wages for employees.

Pritchett said farmers will continue to sell land near transportation corridors, such as Interstate 76 and U.S. Highway 85, for development.

Municipalities, said Pritchett, identify buy and dry hot spots, areas where water is affordable and available, as well as less costly to treat and move.

‘It looks like Colorado doesn't want to do anything to limit growth,’ Pritchett said. ‘As long as that happens, the value of water will continue (to increase). Senior water rights are likely to be transferred.’

Water Colorado's Joe O'Brien said prices range from $30,000 per acre foot to $500, depending on the intended use. If the water is going to be used to irrigate a greenbelt or park, it's possible to buy it for as little as $500 per acre foot.
Besides buy and dry, two relatively new industries—cheese production and ethanol—are already having an effect. In January 2008, Mayor Ed Clark announced Leprino Foods would build a mozzarella factory in Greeley. The result: Dairies east of Greeley are expanding and their water needs are year-round. Hay prices are on the rise. Dairy hay is around $200 per ton, pushing cow hay to $140. In Nebraska, cow hay sells for $85 per ton.

The burgeoning ethanol industry adds another element. A National Research Council committee found in 2007 that ‘a biorefinery that produces 100 million gallons of ethanol each year would use the equivalent of the water supply for a town of about 5,000 people.’ The committee noted, though, that ethanol producers are recycling water and developing new methods while reducing their water demands.

Different ways to reduce or shift demand are already in the works. A South Platte Roundtable subgroup is exploring interruptible supplies. It's one of a handful of options, Jerke says.

‘A lot of what this study will show is that various tools are going to work better than others,’ Jerke explained.
Under interruptible contracts, ‘the farmer still gets paid and the city gets what it needs.’ A city, for instance, would have a long-term lease with a farmer. If the city needs water, it activates the contract, Jerke said. It only works with water rights holders who can deliver water to a treatment plant.

‘I'm really positive about a lot of things that are going on out there,’ Jerke said. He points to the roundtable, which includes agriculturists and water providers along with environmentalists. ‘There are people I wouldn't have dreamt of (sitting down with) 10 years ago, and the fact that we're actually doing something—I feel good about those things. The more partnerships we wind up having, the more win-win strategies.’

All of this is on the heels of the well shutdown in May 2006. That spring, under an order of the Division 1 Water Court, 440 wells were shut down. Central Colorado Water Conservancy District and its Water Augmentation Subdistrict appealed some aspects of Klein's decree. Central's WAS, as well as the cities and water providers who say pumping endangers their senior rights, await a Colorado Supreme Court decision.

After a 45-day trial in 2007, Weld County Judge Roger Klein issued a decree. A Colorado Supreme Court decision is pending. As the case wends its way through water court, high value acreage loss is significant. Some farmers in the basin gave up and moved. Others fallowed land or tried dryland farming, said CCWCD Executive Director Tom Cech.
Colorado State Extension's Troy Bauder, a research scientist and water quality specialist, said drying up some fields wasn't the best idea. Many are ‘sitting, growing weeds,’ said Bauder.

‘When a field's been in irrigated crops for 100 years, you can't just plant native grasses,’ Bauder said. Native grasses are hardy once they're established, but that takes time. The extension agency is testing cover crop demonstrations near LaSalle, to take an experimental field back to nonirrigated grass.

Some growers, he said, tried dryland farming and had success downstream of Fort Morgan. Bauder said most farms work with a combination, ‘some dryland, some ditch water, little or no well water. It's soup to nuts.’

For growers who continue farming, innovations are emerging. In the Arkansas Valley, Super Ditch proponents say they'll pool water and fallow 25 percent of members' lands to lease water to municipalities and prevent buy and dry deals on land between Pueblo and the Kansas state line. The idea still has to clear water court hurdles.

Near Parker, Frank Jeager's 20-year promotion of Rueter-Hess Reservoir has drawn new partners from the aquifer-reliant south metro area. The reservoir, slated to begin filling in 2011, is expected to ease dependence on the Denver Basin aquifers, avert buy and dry, and provide a sustainable supply.

But not everyone sees the Parker project as a way to prevent buy and dry.

‘I am not sure that the reservoir will accomplish this and in fact it is most likely a storage bucket for large amounts of changed agricultural water,’ said Joe Frank, general manager at the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District. ‘They won't be able to fill that reservoir off Cherry Creek and reusable effluent. I'm not the developer, but it's my understanding that agriculture will be one of the sources.’

Along the lower river Bauder said the efforts now aren't as collective as something like the Super Ditch. He said growers are installing more efficient irrigation and fertilization systems, experimenting with nontraditional crops and finding creative ways to share water.

‘I see more center pivot (sprinklers) going in in the South Platte basin since I started working there 10-15 years ago,’ Bauder said. ‘Mostly, it's being driven by labor and application efficiency. A grower doesn't have to set irrigation tubes every eight hours.’

The systems, Bauder said, improve irrigation efficiency by 50 percent or more over traditional furrows, but reduce return flows. Growers' options are greater with pivot irrigation because they can pinpoint fertilizer and chemical applications, cutting waste, expenses and runoff. Better efficiency may ease nitrogen management, too.

Growers also have begun to experiment with nontraditional crops. Among them is camelina, or wild flax, a relative of rapeseed and Brussels sprouts. It can be fed to livestock, cold pressed into an edible oil, or used to produce alternative fuel, such as biodiesel. Early word is that it's not particular about soil and isn't thirsty.

The state agriculture department, said Commissioner Stulp, ‘funded a research project on camelina as feedstock. The effort is to see if we can find a variety that will adapt to Colorado's climate. The pros are that it's supposed to be more adaptable. Once you've crushed the oil, what's the quality of the byproduct? Is it good enough to feed cattle? The jury's still out.’

Growers are ‘trying soybeans near Iliff,’ said Pritchett. ‘They may be a real alternative. And sugar beets might be a possibility if we cut down the size.’ If the sugar beet size is reduced, he explained, sugar content ‘goes up.’ The idea is to use less water while producing profitable foodstuffs.

Experiments, tests, development and transitions continue. Meanwhile, ag producers must factor in the unpredictable as well as the unimaginable.

The bottom line, said Stulp: ‘Farming has never been easy.’

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 Scott Hummer

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