Community Agriculture Alliance: Every drop counts |

Community Agriculture Alliance: Every drop counts

Christine Shook Newton/For Steamboat Today
Community Agriculture Alliance

It may be no surprise that agriculture is the nation’s thirstiest industry; simply put, it takes water to grow food and fiber. Rising demands from competing water users in the municipal and industrial sector, paired with a growing population, puts strain on balancing the water budget and adds pressure to agriculture’s share of water rights.

In addition to competing sectors, prolonged drought and interstate legal obligations are forcing water users to conserve this vital, limited resource. The good news is, some Colorado growers and agricultural producers are taking a proactive approach to water scarcity by adopting farming practices that use less water.

In Routt County, ag producers are conserving water by implementing innovative irrigation techniques that increase their water use efficiency, keeping better records of water use by installing measuring devices and installing closed pipelines to convey water through leaking or eroding irrigation ditches.

Routt County is also home to landowners who are reseeding introduced, non-native pastures with native species and making strategic changes in the rotation or mix of production crops. This conserves water by deliberately growing species with a lower consumptive use while increasing resiliency, because these species tend to be more drought tolerant.

An opportunity to conserve water by switching from conventionally tilled and fallowed crop rotations to a reduced tillage system has Routt County growers increasing their water infiltration and storage capacity while reducing water erosion. Creative solutions may also become available to local producers as collaboration between landowners, policy makers and water managers explore ways growers could seasonally defer irrigation while protecting the integrity of their water rights and the livelihood of their operation.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service is an agency under the U.S. Department of Agriculture whose mission it is to “Help People Help the Land.” It is our duty to work with private landowners to implement voluntary conservation practices that improve a variety of resource concerns, including, water conservation.

The USDA-NRCS can assist private landowners with technical advice about how they can protect and conserve resources and make their operations more resilient to changes beyond their control. Certain projects and upgrades may also qualify for financial incentives to assist producers in what may be a costly transition.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board estimates that agriculture represents about 86 percent of our state’s consumptive water use. Due to current law and the necessity of agriculture for human survival, it is likely agriculture will continue to be the largest water user in the future. However, it is to be expected that the state’s future water needs will have an impact on irrigated agriculture, farms and ranches.

Because supplies are already variable due to factors beyond our control, such as prolonged drought and groundwater overdraft, we can protect ourselves by exhibiting a willingness to adapt and focusing on sustainability.

A symbiotic relationship exists between agriculture and other water users, and we rely on each other to come up with solutions. I encourage you to contact your local NRCS, CSU Extension or any other local entity focused on sustainability and call for creative solutions to meet our state’s future water needs.

Every drop counts.

Christine Shook-Newton is district conservationist with USDA-NRCS.

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