In the past 90 years, Colorado’s population has boomed from 1 million in 1930 to more than 5.5 million in 2018. And considering its top 10 ranking in 2019 as one of the best states to live in by U.S. News & World Report, Colorado is likely to see a continuation of this growth in years to come.

However, for this growth to be sustainable, Colorado’s water supply must meet the demand. 

Recognizing this imminent challenge, Governor John Hickenlooper created Colorado’s first water plan in 2015. This plan laid forth objectives and actions to help ensure a clean, safe and consistent water supply, which is essential to the livelihood of present and future residents, not to mention Colorado farmers and ranchers for whom water is their lifeblood.

In fact, many people don’t realize that farmers and ranchers are some of the greatest stewards of water resources today. For example, when rivers are diverted to irrigate hay meadows and crops, this draws out the time it takes the water to return to the river. Known as “delayed return flow,” it can extend the length of the seasonal flow for many of Colorado’s rivers, making them viable for a longer period of time. 

See more: Discover the Future of Conservation

Moreover, without agricultural water rights intact, Colorado’s agricultural industry would fail
to supply the vast array of products and economic opportunities throughout the state, not to mention the open space and wildlife habitat our state depends on. 

“We have plenty of unfortunate examples of formerly thriving agricultural rural communities that literally dried up after water rights were sold, one by one, from the farms,” says Cindy Lair, program manager of the Colorado State Conservation Board at the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA).

Photo credit: Brendon Rockey/ San Luis Valley

Collaborating for Combined Success

One of CDA’s roles in implementing the state’s water plan is to help local conservation district leaders speak to the economic and cultural values of agricultural water rights in their communities. According to Lair, CDA’s State Conservation Board works with organizations such as the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance (CAWA) to connect conservation districts with the appropriate tools to foster productive conversations between all water stakeholders, especially agricultural water users. These efforts sometimes require funding, which is available through grant programs offered by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources’ Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Lair and her department also collaborate with the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts (CACD), a nonprofit natural resources organization that serves as a unified voice for Colorado’s 76 conservation districts, each of which falls into one of the 10 geographical watersheds across the state.

Conservation districts are special districts organized under state law to promote grassroots efforts for implementing state-of-the-art conservation practices on private land through education and demonstrations at the county level. They also work closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to implement federal Farm Bill conservation programs. Through these federal and state partnerships with the districts, landowners are provided assistance with advocacy, education, guidance, support, project funding and technical implementation of wise conservation practices.

See more: Edge-of-Field Monitoring Tests Conservation Practices

Leading the Way

As a CACD regional director, Gary Thrash has witnessed progress firsthand. “We have seen more effective and efficient uses of water by producers, and in the future, an increasing focus on non-point source pollution control to address water quality issues.” This includes implementing best management practices for fertilizer, insecticide and herbicide application, not to mention improving soil health for greater water conservation, an effort the Colorado Department of Agriculture is currently undertaking.

Photo credit: Frank Ordonez

“New farming practices that more effectively use water, cover crops and changes in crops also make a big impact on water use and water quality,” Thrash says.

For some conservation districts, their participation in the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control program has helped to reduce the annual salt load of the Colorado River by more than 1.3 million tons. However, if the program does not continue to be aggressively implemented, damages to Colorado River water users are estimated to increase by $120 million by 2035.

Looking to the future, voluntary, incentive-based water conservation tools such as Alternative Transfer Methods (ATMs) will also be key to preserving water quality and quantity for the next generation of producers, keeping water in agriculture and making every drop count.

See more: 8 Water-Conserving Tips for Summer Gardening

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