IGNACIO – It is no secret that when it comes to water conservation, farmers feel as if they have a target on their back.
Although the nation’s consumers rely on the fruits of the agricultural industry’s labor, the perception is fickle, farmers say, because their water consumption is on a scale measured in acre-feet, not gallons. As the water supply from the Colorado River dwindles, the future of farming demands increasing attention.
The Southwestern Water Conservation District held its 39th annual seminar Friday in Ignacio to address the topic of “seeking common ground in crisis.”
About 300 people were in attendance, including both chairmen of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian tribes, ranchers, farmers and officials from agencies involved in water conservation at the federal level all the way down to local districts. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert was a surprise guest. The congresswoman for Colorado’s 3rd District informed organizers just a day before that she would be in attendance and spoke for roughly 10 minutes before the lunch hour.
The event’s schedule included panels on reusing treated wastewater, seeking common ground in the distribution of the river’s resources, and the connection been food and water for agricultural producers on the Western Slope, Front Range, and the upper and lower Colorado River Basin.
“We are supposed to talk about the future of farming, and really that’s the future of water,” said Ken Curtis, the general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District and moderator of the panel on food and water.
About 80% of the Colorado River’s water supply will be put to use in agriculture.
From the Front Range farmers, like panelist Robert Sakata, the owner of a 2,400-acre farm nestled in the expanding urban boundaries of Brighton, to lower basin users such as panelist Bart Fisher, a farmer and former chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, the impacts of the historic drought are top of mind. The need to reduce water use has affected what they grow as well as the quantity.
“We used to do all strictly vegetables,” Sakata said. “Because of some of these changes, we’ve moved away from vegetables now.”
In some cases, farmers have resorted to not growing at all.
“Buy-and-dry” programs have become a tense topic of conversation among farmers. The concept is to reduce water consumption by paying farmers annually for water to which they have a right but do not use. Although this can be done in any number of ways, the program’s epithet refers to the common method of fallowing – or intentionally not cultivating – land. Despite protections that ensure unused water rights will not be forfeited, as is historically the case, farmers are skeptical.
From a financial perspective, the incentive is small. The upper basin program offers only $150 to farmers per acre-foot of water saved (an acre-foot is the amount needed to submerge an acre of land in 1 foot of water), while farmers can typically harness far more in profits from that water if they use it for irrigation.
“When you diminish agriculture significantly by fallowing, you diminish the economic engine of the community that supports agriculture,” Fisher said.
But fallowing is not the only option for farmers seeking to profit from their water conservation. Efficiency amounts to conservation, Sakata noted.
“We reached out, through the state of Colorado and me directly, talking to the Ute Mountain Tribe and said, ‘Are you interested this year?’” said Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, referring to the reduction incentive program. “Chairman Heart and his folks said, ‘No, we want to farm. We’ve been dry and at 90% reduction in our supply, there’s no amount of money in the game. It’s important to our community, it’s important to food security.’”
Simon Martinez, the general manager of Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch, said he is more interested in testing out water-efficient crops.
This year, the farm will receive 100% of its allotted water. But Martinez is planning for a drier future.
Like many farmers looking to save water, the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch is experimenting with Kernza. The wheatgrass variant can significantly reduce water consumption compared to a crop such as alfalfa.
“We’re going to do that,” Martinez said. “(Kernza) uses less water, might be something we can utilize in cattle operations for feed purposes.”
The tribe has roughly 650 head of cattle.
Martinez hopes to test the new grain as potential cattle feed and intends on sowing 46 acres with the seed, likely this spring. Although the concept is experimental – Martinez said the crop has not been grown in the region and its exact efficacy as a cattle feed is unclear – success could mean a significant water savings for the farm.
In addition to reducing the amount of water needed to irrigate, which Martinez estimated could near 50% compared to alfalfa, grazing the farm’s herd on Kernza would increase profits by enabling the farm to sell more of the alfalfa that it does produce.
The perennial grain has grown in popularity as its viability as an alternative crop becomes increasingly intriguing to farmers. The outdoor brand Patagonia adopted it into the company’s line of sustainable foods and now produces pasta and beer with the grain.
Martinez said he is unsure of how the experiment will go. But to test out the grain on 46 acres of the 7,700-acre farm is a small sacrifice.
With future weather predictions becoming increasingly unpredictable, farmers are endorsing an array of solutions. Although this year’s ample snowfall does little to reverse the long-term impacts of the historic drought, water aficionados in the Four Corners are nonetheless grateful for the supply.
“Our prayers got answered this past year,” Chairman Heart said to applause. “It’s really good to see that our mountains are looking the way they’re supposed to look – all white during the winter.”