Opinion: Farmers and ranchers lead the way on conserving the Colorado River
Disruptions to our daily lives have a way of making us appreciate things that we might normally take for granted. In the midst of a global pandemic, access to clean water and healthy food seems more vital than ever. This extraordinary situation motivates us all to take a step back to examine what we can do to ensure the long term security of our most precious natural resources.
This is particularly true when you consider one of our most important sources of water: the Colorado River. The Colorado River is an environmental wonder, home to countless plant and animal species that define our region.
We could all rally to conserve the natural beauty of the basin in its own right. But this hard-working river serves as an economic engine for our communities up and down the basin. The river is particularly vital to sustaining farms and ranches across Colorado and therefore to our collective food supplies.
Its waters irrigate nearly 6 million acres of farmland that sustain a $5 billion agricultural industry. On Colorado’s Western Slope, the river’s tributaries help support extensive ranch and farm operations which produce food for our state, our country and the world, underpinning the strong rural heritage and working landscape that is such an integral part of our state’s identity.
Unfortunately, some recent discussions have set up a false choice between healthy rivers and a strong agricultural economy, and we both reject that premise. The future of the Colorado River lies not in pitting the health of rivers against Colorado’s agricultural heritage, but rather in exploring creative demand management programs that can benefit both.
There’s no doubt that the river is grappling with dramatic threats in the form of climate change and an emerging megadrought. In the face of these challenges, there have been many discussions about the role farmers and ranchers can and should play in effectively managing and conserving finite water supplies and how public policy can help the agriculture community meet these challenges, in concert with conservation by cities, industries and individuals across the state.
The good news is that Colorado’s food producers have already been helping to drive the solutions. By voluntarily participating in on-the-ground, data-driven studies, Colorado’s agricultural community is playing an integral role in understanding water consumption and flexible water management options.
As critical sources of food for the West and pillars of rural economies, these largely family-owned and operated farms and ranches understand their important role in this fight for a sustainable future. Tackling our water issues won’t be simple, but we can work together to ensure the long-term future of the Colorado River — and in turn the communities, economies and ecosystems that rely on it.
This starts with empowering ourselves with the science we need to make informed decisions, because better data means better insights into the problems as well as the solutions. That’s why farmers and ranchers have stepped up and participated in programs like the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Alternative Agriculture (Water) Transfer Mechanisms (ATM) program, working together to study the efficacy of new irrigation techniques in conserving our water.
If we are committed to the survival of agriculture in Colorado, we must adapt our system of management in ways that serve the future of agriculture in balance with other demands on that water. By helping researchers study everything from how to stabilize riverbanks to the effects of irrigation at different altitudes, Colorado’s food producers are at the forefront of the water conservation movement.
However, we must do more than talk about the problems and possible solutions to the water problems facing Colorado. For the last year, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has supported working groups to talk about the problems and the feasibility of more flexible water management tools for the Colorado River Basin. As the board reviews the findings of their eight working groups, we encourage their endorsement and support for additional demonstration projects.
Because when it comes to safeguarding the Colorado River, we must take proactive, “learn by doing” approaches as we interrogate possible solutions and plan for the future.
Colorado’s food producers intimately understand this. We know that in order to thrive you need to learn how to adapt, a skill that farmers and ranchers have long cultivated. It is incumbent upon all of us to help chart a path forward that is productive, profitable and sustainable for all of us. We hope that you’ll join us in the conversation.
Paul Bruchez is a fifth-generation rancher who lives near Kremmling. Ted Kowalski is the senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River Initiative.
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