OWF Initiative – Sustainable Irrigated Agriculture

Ditch rider testing outlet valve on plains reservoir after repairs, photo provided by Stephen Smith

Ditch rider testing outlet valve on plains reservoir after repairs, photo provided by Stephen Smith

“Food grows where water flows.”

– Colorado Farm Bureau

“We should not forget that it will be just as important to our descendants to be prosperous in their time as it is to us to be prosperous in our time.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

The OWF initiative for Sustainable Irrigated Agriculture seeks to use technology and information to support sustainable irrigated agriculture.  We feel that there is a need to understand broad issues facing agriculture, such as urban growth onto agricultural lands, increasing municipal and industrial (M&I) demand for water, impacts of climate change on agricultural practices, interactions of agriculture with the environment, socio-economic impacts on agriculture (such as aging workforce), impacts of federal programs, changes in laws, regulations, and policies.  OWF is working on tools to help understand large system issues and provide context in a way that individual farmers and ditch companies can make personal and business decisions, and government can align policies and programs to support agriculture.  Below are examples of how OWF is providing tools and services to support sustainable irrigated agriculture.

Understanding Trends in Water Resources and Agriculture

OWF is developing data sets and analysis tools to answer big-picture questions about agriculture:

  • What are the trends for urban growth onto working agricultural land? OWF is developing visualization tools to understand trends, challenges, and opportunities.
  • What opportunities are there for preserving irrigated agriculture through collaboration with conservation programs, open space programs, etc?  OWF is working with Western Water Partnerships, a new non-profit organization, to help advance water sharing opportunities between farms and cities.
  • What are the trends in agricultural water ownership (transfers to M&I) compared to the use of the water (does M&I use as a firm supply, supplemental as needed, or is it an insurance policy for the future)? OWF is developing visualizations tools to understand trends and current status.
  • What are the decisions that impact agriculture on an annual basis, such as commodity prices, water supply forecasts, insurance purchases, etc., and how do short-term trends impact longer-term water resources issues?

Supporting Innovation in Agriculture

OWF is supporting innovation in agriculture as follows:

Implementing Alternatives to Buy and Dry – Agricultural Sustainability

The increasing water needs of municipalities and industries, so called “consumptive uses”, compete with agriculture for water supplies.  The story of water needs for various users compared to available supplies is at times strikingly simple in concept but also complex in reality, depending on perspective.  For example, agriculture does extract over 80% of the water diverted from rivers and consequently even a small transfer from agriculture to M&I seems reasonable.  However, a significant amount of water diverted for agriculture is returned to the system (depending on irrigation practices), and the return flows may be used multiple times by downstream users and the environment.  Water delivered via streams and rivers provides environmental flows and water that is not consumptively used may soak into the ground and contribute to the groundwater reservoir for future water supplies.  Cities that own water as shares in ditch companies often do not need the water in many years and consequently will continue to rent water to farmers until future growth demands a permanent transfer of the water.  Cities can only permanently transfer the amount of water that has been historically consumed (used by crops) and must ensure that the remaining water is made available for downstream users in quantity, in place, and in time.  Although increasing municipal water use efficiency is a high priority, cities are still faced with growth, climate change, and prolonged permitting processes on new storage projects, which may lead them to consider agricultural water transfers as their best option for certain water supplies.  Agricultural transfers are particularly attractive for cities that do not have senior water rights, rely on nonsustainable supplies such as nonrenewable groundwater or supplemental supplies that are not certain each year, do not have storage, and are facing high growth.

Permanent “buy and dry” of agriculture, resulting in transfer of water off the land, has been widely recognized by agricultural interests and the public as undesirable.  Not only is the agricultural production of the land lost, but buy and dry also impacts rural economies, local food sourcing, open space, wetlands and wildlife habitat, and fundamentally alters a system that has been functioning for many years.  Local agriculture also has broader impacts, such as forage grown in one river basin being used as feed for animals in other river basins.  In short, a “simple water transfer” has impacts that go far beyond the transaction and a permanent transfer has permanent impacts.  The concept of “Alternative Transfer Methods (ATMs)” is to implement mechanisms to share water between users in a way that does not result in permanent buy and dry of agricultural lands.   Many stakeholders see the benefits of ATMs such as from a personal value perspective.    However, the business side of implementing ATMs has proven challenging because they require additional coordination and financial investment to ensure that they can deliver water when needed, and during a drought there often is little water to share in any case.  The question facing many is whether the pure market approach to water allocation will result in the optimal future, or is it possible to invest time and funding to determine workable ATM solutions that support social values and can work within a market that is governed by financial drivers.

OWF is working to evaluate ATMs and in the broader context of Agricultural Sustainability, as follows:

  • OWF is pursuing options to provide educational materials, data, and information to ditch companies and their shareholders so that farmers understand alternatives to selling their water and permanently drying up their farm.
  • OWF collaborated with the Colorado Water Institute to evaluate ATM options for the Poudre River Basin.  Read the report from the study here.
  • OWF is the fiscal agent on a proposal to study the use of working agricultural lands as a conservation buffer between cities and agriculture, with option to temporarily transfer water when needed (Western Water Partnerships and Colorado Open Lands, a Colorado land trust, have partnered on this study).
  • OWF is continuing to explore how data products and information can help frame the challenges and opportunities for ATMs, for example for funding programs like the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s ATM Grant Program.
  • OWF is interested in implementing cost-effective data management systems and software tools that can provide data needed to operate ATMs within water administration systems, for example as part of large-system coordination.