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Save The Colorado Supports Farm Transfers For New Urban Water Supply

June 26, 2017

Save The Colorado Supports Farm Transfers For New Urban Water Supply

Over the last few years in the state of Colorado, significant debate and some policy outcomes have moved forward about using farm water for new water supply for growing cities.  These types of transfers of water generally fall into 3 categories.

  1. Traditional Transfer Methods
  2. Alternative Transfer Methods
  3. Using “Growth-Displaced” Water

An aerial map of Windsor, Colorado, shows that the town’s future Growth Management Area (red line) consumes a couple thousand acres of irrigated farms (green).

First, the transfer of water from agricultural to municipal uses has been a cornerstone of municipal water development for nearly a hundred years. Colorado has a long and successful history of providing water to growing municipalities by transferring water from farms to cities. This “Traditional Transfer Method” (TTM) is often pejoratively called “buy and dry” as towns and cities buy water from farmers to meet municipal needs.

In fact, over the last 10 years, water from approximately 400,000 acres of farms has been transferred from farms to cities in Colorado – TTMs are often the easiest, fastest, and most practicable method for towns and cities to get more water. Further, in northern Colorado over the last 25 years, water from approximately 420,000 acres of farms has been transferred to cities via TTMs. Further yet, the Colorado Water Plan indicates that, statewide, Colorado farmers will transfer even more water from 500,000 – 700,000 acres of farms by the year 2050.

These TTM transfers have occurred over the history of Colorado involving hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water with little or no federal or state environmental-regulatory action required (including under the Clean Water Act) because little or no regulated environmental damage occurs. Moreover, these TTMs occur between a willing buyer and a willing seller, and often the sellers (farmers) reap enormous profits from the business transaction. The water used for farming is often worth more money than the land. Save The Colorado supports the private property rights of farmers to sell their water to cities via TTMs.

Arguments against these transfers generally focus on the need to preserve agriculture as an element of
Colorado’s economy and heritage. What is often missing in this discussion is a sober assessment of the sheer number of willing sellers (i.e., agricultural producers who are looking to get out of the business) and the amount of agricultural water that has been separated from the land by development of that land. Population growth, especially in the areas served by Denver Water and Northern Water in Colorado, often results in loss of agricultural lands to urban and suburban development (see Windsor map above). Until local communities or the state take a legal and enforceable stand against such conversions, it must be accepted that the lost agricultural lands free up previously diverted and used water that can be applied to the needs of the growing population.

Second, additional water may be acquired through TTMs and nontraditional (leasing and other innovative approaches to reduce the buy-and-dry impact) transfers of agricultural water to urban uses. Often called “Alternative Transfer Methods”, these nontraditional transfers often include incentivizing crop switching, deficit irrigation, and rotational fallowing agreements (which are used very successfully in southern California). Further, any of these types of agreements can also be carefully targeted to help mitigate the impacts of “drying” on agricultural communities or environmentally sensitive areas.

Third, much of the growth in the Denver area and especially in northern Colorado occurs on top of irrigated farmland (see Windsor map above). Farmers are selling thousands of acres of irrigated farmland to developers every year, which is turned into suburban housing and commercial development. The water on these irrigated lands can be sold to the very same city that is annexing the land in a transfer type we call “using growth-displaced water”. This is a “traditional” transfer of water but occurs in an “alternative” way where cities pro-actively buy and develop water from the very same farmers that are selling their land.

Through all three of these types of transfers of water — and combining them with water conservation, water recycling, and other supply options — there is dramatic opportunity to meet the needs of growing cities without draining one more drop of water out of any river in the state of Colorado. Save The Colorado supports farmers’ property rights, supports transferring water from farms through all three methods, and promotes these transfers in our work and our legal strategies for opposing news dams and diversions and protecting rivers. People can and should argue more often and more loudly about whether the population growth should occur, and should argue about whether growth can or should be managed better to conserve water, but if or when the growth comes, supplying that growth with farm water is often fast, easy, and practicable as well as protects what little water is left in Colorado’s already degraded rivers.

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