Farming, water and Wall Street on Colorado’s Western Slope

Agriculture producers in Colorado’s Grand Valley face difficult questions over the future of Colorado River water in the West

Chris Outcalt
Colorado Sun
Joe Bernal works on his family's farm on Sept. 1 in Fruita, Colorado.
Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun

Editor’s note: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River as the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Compact approaches. The Associated Press, The Colorado Sun, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star and The Nevada Independent are working together to explore the pressures on the river in 2022.

Also in this series: 100 years after compact, Colorado River nearing crisis point

LOMA – Under the blazing afternoon sun, Joe Bernal navigates around a row of older farm equipment. “That particular tractor my dad bought in 1975,” he says. “It’s gonna stay around here.” Bernal continues down an expansive gravel driveway, passing the gray, single-story home he grew up in. A barking dog darts around a fenced yard adjacent to the house. 

On the far side of the building, Bernal hangs a right onto Q Road. He begins pointing out the land his family has acquired over the years. His grandparents had 150 acres over there. His parents bought this land here. His great grandparents, who showed up in 1925, lived in a house right there. 

Surrounding Bernal’s land are the vistas of the Grand Valley, a strip of high desert situated on Colorado’s Western Slope marked by dusty mesas and cliffs and the winding, ever-present Colorado River, which plunges down from the mountains to the east. Grand Valley farmers and ranchers use the water to irrigate tens of thousands of acres, growing everything from peaches and corn to wheat and alfalfa.

But since 2000 flows on the river have declined 20% and water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead have dropped to less than 30% of their combined storage. With the river overtaxed, Grand Valley farmers now face difficult questions regarding the future of water in Colorado and the West. Questions about how irrigation, which accounts for about 70% of the state’s Colorado River water use, can be more efficient, whether water can be conserved and banked in Lake Powell and what, if anything, to do about someone looking to make a buck on the state’s most precious resource, so-called water speculators.

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