By Jerd Smith
Colorado’s high altitude hay meadows, a significant water user in the state, could be re-operated to yield more than 40 percent in water savings, according to a new report.
The report is based on a major high tech research initiative to see if ranch-scale water conservation techniques, in which farmers are paid to voluntarily stop irrigating their fields temporarily, could produce enough saved water to help protect the Colorado River from unplanned shortages due to drought and climate change.
The research is one of several efforts to find ways to ensure demand on the Colorado River doesn’t outstrip supply, resulting in mandated cutbacks in water use in Colorado to meet the legal rights of downstream states.
The report, released June 24, looked at how much water was saved across more than 1,000 acres of hay meadows spanning several ranches near Kremmling last summer.
Ranchers stopped irrigating their hay meadows for several months, allowing the water to stay in the river rather than being diverted and applied to the fields. Because Colorado’s regulatory system only allows so-called conserved consumptive-use water to be legally transferred to another user, it was critical to the study to understand how much the hay crop would have consumed and how much remained in the river system by foregoing irrigation.
The experiment showed that the fallowing project generated 42 percent of such legally transferrable conserved water.
As a multi-decadal drought ravages the Colorado River system, many are focused on how to more closely balance its dwindling supplies with demands. Across the American West, irrigated agriculture uses roughly 80 percent of water supplies, so any breakthroughs in finding ways to maintain productivity with less water are critical to the river system’s long-term viability.
“It’s pretty promising,” said Alex Funk, an agricultural water specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The CWCB has contributed $750,000 to the research, along with other funders including American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy. The Colorado River Basin Roundtable, a public group charged with helping determine how best to manage the Colorado River’s supplies within state boundaries, is also a funder.
Funk and researchers, however, are quick to point out that the savings achieved is only one part of determining how to help agriculture reduce its water footprint while continuing to thrive, raise hay and cattle and other crops, and feed Coloradans.
An equally important finding, according to researchers, is that they were able to accurately use satellite imagery and remote sensing devices to collect data from hundreds of sites at different elevations where different types of hay were being grown.
That data was matched up against traditional tools, which were manually installed and monitored last summer, in order to verify on the ground the remotely collected data.
This is key to the research because traditional, manual data collection is too costly to conduct and cannot produce the vast amounts of detailed data such studies require.
Colorado State University’s Perry Cabot, who led the research initiative, said the experiment confirms that broad-scale, satellite-based data gathering combined with remote sensing devices produces reliable results.
“We now have a spatial model we can use to do an inventory of [water] use across fields.
“Farmers are spatial people. When they look at a map and see a water use inventory of their fields, that resonates with them,” Cabot said. (Editor’s note: Cabot serves on the Board of Trustees of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.)
“This opens up our ability to start talking about numbers that we can all look at without having to get into ‘do we need another study in another river basin,’” Cabot said.
But agricultural producers say much work remains to be done before they could commit to such a water-saving initiative, in part because they have to ensure any payments they receive will cover the costs of lost hay production, as well as the cost of buying hay for their cattle in the three-year period after they begin irrigating again.
“The big question is the recovery,” Funk said. “How long does it take to scale back your crop base and your relationships with your market? Ranchers are not lining up to do this. The bigger questions are still unanswered.”
Don Shawcroft, a producer and immediate past president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said ranchers continue to watch the issue closely.
“Producers have got to know more than they know now,” he said. “What does it mean when we force the use of less water than we normally would? For an individual producer, the question is, ‘Will I forego my ability to produce in order to have water for the residents of Colorado?’” (Editor’s note: Shawcroft also serves on the Board of Trustees of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.)
For this season and the next two summers, researchers, growers and conservationists will continue to monitor the hay fields, to measure their health, and to see what hidden effects of a summer of going without water may have on the ranches and the Colorado River itself, and the wetlands that thread these hay meadows.
Aaron Derwingson oversees agricultural water projects for The Nature Conservancy, which is one of the conservation groups helping fund the research initiative.
“We’ve got to find ways to reduce our water footprint to bring things into balance and there is a huge question about what that means for agriculture,” Derwingson said.
“Our interest is across all of these questions. How can it work for agriculture? How can it work for the environment and what does it mean for the system as a whole?”
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.
The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism.