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Farmers play a critical role in Colorado. To support the food and fiber they provide to the rest of us, agriculture receives more than 85 percent of the state's water deliveries. Read the latest issue of Headwaters to learn about the value of water for Colorado agriculture, how water is managed during drought years, the innovation that farmers make to survive and much more. Explore these topics by reading feature articles below or flipping through the online version of Headwaters.

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Grown in Colorado

For the Rocky Mountain State, agriculture means quality food, open space and a boon to the economic engine

By Caitlin Coleman

From fields of sunflowers to plains painted gold with corn and wheat; from ranges dotted with cattle to luscious orchards, vineyards and vegetable farms; Colorado produces a bounty of agricultural products. And Coloradans who bite into a sweet peach, chew through a juicy hamburger, sip a glass of artisan wine, or fuel up with a gasoline and ethanol mix, are likely consuming Colorado’s irrigation water while they’re at it.

When Major Stephen Long made his early expedition to Colorado’s Eastern Plains, or the “Great American Desert,” as he called it in 1820, he declared the region unfit for cultivation and uninhabitable for people sustaining themselves with agriculture. But later, when early farmers applied water to the region’s mineral-rich soils, life blossomed. “You just couldn’t stop stuff from growing,” says Dan Hobbs, an organic vegetable farmer and seed producer, who irrigates from the Arkansas River.

Over the past 150 years, Colorado’s combination of high-quality irrigation water from the mountains, its diversity of soils, and the arid climate—which reduces the incidence of crop disease—have supported local agriculture’s growth into a $40 billion industry. It remains one of the state’s largest economic sectors and employs 7 percent of the workforce.

But what if we took the water out of agriculture? Queue the eerie music. Now dissolve the corn, fade out some cows, erase the onions and potatoes, board up a few factories, close a dozen schools and focus on that list of Colorado ghost towns—it seems to scroll infinitely on and on. “It’s a bit of a doomsday scenario,” says Gregory Graff, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University. Graff is imagining a situation that he doesn’t believe plausible— a Colorado where there’s no water for irrigation. “If we were to go all the way to zero irrigation we’d do a lot more grazing,” Graff says. Livestock, after all, can be raised (and often are) through much of the year on unwatered pastures rather than being fed corn, alfalfa and hay grown in irrigated fields. “It would certainly decrease the agricultural footprint drastically—but I really don’t believe in that scenario.”

The mosaic of Colorado is, however, changing, with farm and ranch land giving way as cities grow. Additionally, as state population booms, cities are bolstering their water supplies by buying up agricultural water rights and drying up farmland. This trend is projected to continue.

Though no one expects to find all of Colorado’s irrigation headgates closed, the state’s irrigated farm lands have been shrinking even as the  production of food and fibers remains valuable. With about 86 percent of Colorado’s water diversions going toward irrigated agriculture on only about 4.5 percent of the state’s land, even a 10 percent reduction in irrigation water—a more likely future— will mean a different Colorado  economically and probably environmentally.

Read more: Grown in Colorado

A Public Resource

With a Private Right to Use

By Allen Best

Frank A. Eckhardt Jr. planted onions and sugar beets last spring with confidence. Studying the fast-receding snows along the Continental Divide, he was more leery about corn and pinto beans.

Soft-spoken and gentle in demeanor, Eckhardt farms 3,500 acres along the South Platte River near Peckham, a wink of a place 10 miles south of Greeley. The land’s water is supplied primarily by two mutual irrigation companies, Farmers Independent and Western Mutual.

Snowmelt from the mountains delivers the water to both. By July, the lower South Platte River consists primarily of treated wastewater effluent from metropolitan Denver and return flows from irrigated fields upstream. Occasional rainstorms spike the flows.

Relatively senior water rights benefit Eckhardt and his two sons plus their neighbors, who together are the primary stakeholders in the two companies. Their most senior rights date to Nov. 20, 1865, when the first ditch of Farmers Independent was completed. That date makes it 10th in priority on the South Platte River below Denver. Two miles farther down, the slightly newer Western Mutual Ditch is 13th.

Holding more senior rights gives the Eckhardts high confidence of obtaining sufficient water to irrigate their land. Seniors such as the Eckhardts can “call” for their water and get it, assuming they do not impair the ability of an even more senior water right holder to draw water from the river. Those who claimed later rights, whether upstream or downstream, have lower or junior priorities. They can draw only after the rights of the seniors have been satisfied, making their water security a bit more tenuous.

Planting in 2011, a record year for runoff, was an act of common sense. But 2012 was the complete opposite. The little snow that fell last winter had mostly melted by April. To reduce their risk, the Eckhardts left 700 acres of their rented land fallow. But they went ahead and planted corn, to be used as feed for livestock, and after Memorial Day, pinto beans. It was a decision they would come to rue.

Read more: A Public Resource

The Ever-Evolving Farmer

Why Colorado's producers must adapt to a more tenuous water supply and how they're making it work

By Joshua Zaffos

As the calendar turned to 2012, Colorado’s farmers and ranchers resumed their annual winter sport: watching mountain snowpack measurements and reservoir levels. A dry winter did little to bolster existing state water supplies. For weeks, heavy winds raked the eastern plains and western mesas, sapping moisture from the ground. Even though many reservoirs and lakes contained sufficient water, observers saw early indications of drought, reminiscent of the harsh conditions of 2002. Worst fears became reality as winter turned to spring, and then most of Colorado experienced its hottest summer on record, dating back to 1895.

Along the Bessemer Ditch near Pueblo, Tom Rusler, whose family grows a mix of onions, pinto beans and corn and also raises cattle, was among many agricultural producers who didn’t take anything for granted. After assessing the snowpack, reservoir levels and projected streamflows in the Arkansas River Basin, Rusler decided to fallow 30 percent of his family’s fields. “We learned from the last decade, and we planned ahead,” says Rusler.

Rollbacks in planting during dry years reduce short-term crop losses in a profession defined by its risks and unexpected costs. Longer-term  adaptations in farming practices, crop rotations, water use and irrigation technology are helping farmers use water more efficiently, while innovative new partnerships are also exploring how farming can persist in the face of limited water supplies. Some strategies move farther afield: Rusler’s past investments in an onion packing shed and equipment for processing and packaging beans have supported his family through the lean times.

Lessons for Colorado farmers and ranchers haven’t come easy—or cheap. Nor have they all come soon enough to keep some farmers in business. In addition to lingering drought conditions, increased demands for water from communities and industry have combined to diminish supplies for irrigated farms. Amid the pressure, some farmers have sold off water rights to cities or energy companies, while others, including Rusler and his family, are forging ahead into the parched future.

“We know there’s interest [in buying our water], and there are days when you think about that,” Rusler says, “but we’re so busy with how we make our living, we just keep our nose to the grindstone.”

Limiting Factors
Farmers across the state share Rusler’s shrewd outlook and stick-to-itiveness; such an attitude is one more crop raised through tough times in a  rapidly urbanizing landscape. Still, irrigated agriculture is already facing likely declines. Steady population growth is continually increasing communities’ demands for firm water supplies. At the same time, the expanding oil and natural gas industry is leasing surplus water that cities have stocked up, competing with farms that frequently lease the same supplies at a much cheaper rate.

Legal obligations to downstream states also constrain resources. Interstate water compacts and endangered species recovery plans mandate certain river flows reach beyond state lines. Additionally, groundwater wells in the Rio Grande, Republican and South Platte river basins have been shown to affect streamflows, leading to pumping restrictions and increasing demand from farmers seeking a more sustainable water source.

Such factors are partially responsible for the over-allocation of nearly every river system in Colorado, meaning that water rights held by expectant users exceed the actual supply of water available during most years.

Read more: The Ever-Evolving Farmer

Keeping Water On the Farm

For more on buy and dry, listen to CFWE and Rocky Mountain Community Radio's Connecting the Drops audio coverage.

By Jerd Smith

Most summer nights Chad Schafer has little time to visit. He’s busy going from field to field, setting the tubes that draw water from narrow ditches along Weld County Road 41 and sending it into his fields.

Because of this year’s drought and careful rationing by his irrigation district, Schafer gets his water for just 24 hours twice a week, before it is diverted to another farmer down the line. When the water is on hand, he spends hours before and after the evening meal, managing the water and changing its settings in the fields.

Just as his father before taught him, Schafer is teaching his 10-year-old and 7-year-old sons to set the irrigation tubes in the evening. The 10-year-old is rapidly getting the hang of the work. The 7-year-old, who also loves to be at his father’s side, is good primarily for conversation, Schafer says. But that’s okay, he says. “That’s how they learn.”

The drought is the worst in the region in 10 years and may be a harbinger of a weather pattern that will bring desperately dry periods more often. The prospect of more frequent droughts is worrisome, but it is not the only issue that bothers Schafer. Through the quiet summer evening, as he slowly guides a meticulously kept pick-up along the two-lane country highways, Schafer points to stark, barren fields whose waters have been sold off for spectacular sums to cities up and down the Front Range. Even when the drought is over, this water will never come back.

On one 160-acre parcel he and his father once leased and cultivated every year, Schafer says the water sold for more than $1 million. Now a handful of homes dot the landscape. Lawns are the only green that remains on these former corn, potato and sugar beet fields.

Despite his carefully groomed farm operation and healthy crops, Schafer, at 39, worries about the coming years and how much of his family’s water future he can control. Since his great grandfather came to Greeley in 1912 from Russia to grow sugar beets, Schafer’s family has been making its living farming. They moved to Gilcrest in the 1940s.

Chad left Gilcrest briefly when he was 19 to go to a nearby junior college. “But I missed it so much, I had to come back,” he says. His father co-signed Chad’s first loan the next year. He rented a nearby field and planted an onion crop, which he was able to successfully harvest and sell. He paid off the loan and hasn’t looked back.

Read more: Keeping Water On the Farm

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