Two dwindling river basins, one solution: Pay farmers and ranchers to use less water

December 30, 2021
MONSOON-RESEARCHMONSOON-RESEARCHMichael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Cattle near a irrigated ditch on a ranch in Gunnison, Colo. on June 30, 2021.

Farmers and ranchers in two different river basins in Colorado are facing rapidly approaching deadlines to reduce their water use. The reductions are necessary to maintain interstate river agreements preserve underground water supplies.

The state wants to pay farmers and ranchers to stop irrigating some of their acreages to help keep more water in the ground. Gov. Jared Polis' budget proposal for next year includes $15 million of COVID relief funds to fund such a program.

These river basins have their own legal arrangements and are managed by different rules. State agriculture commissioner Kate Greenberg said the solution for both areas is fewer irrigated acres.

Greenberg said the northeastern region needs to stop irrigating 10,000 acres by the end of 2024 and a total of 25,000 acres by the end of 2029 to stay in compliance with the agreement. So far, only 3,000 acres have been retired, she said.

Farmers and ranchers in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado also need to stop irrigating to preserve that region's aquifer, said Kevin Rein is the director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

“Due largely to just horrible climate and horrible hydrology issues in the basin. They have not been able to meet that goal,” Rein said. 

For both river basins, taking no action to reduce agricultural water use would mean “dire” consequences, said Kelly Romero-Heany, the assistant director for water at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. In the San Luis Valley, thousands of well users could face water cuts if the river basins don’t meet their goals. Those cuts could include local water utilities. 

Greenberg, the state agriculture commissioner, supports the funding outlined in Polis’s budget. But she doesn't want the water cuts to hurt agricultural production. 

Greenberg says some of that funding could also be used to teach, train and equip farmers and ranchers to use drought-resistant crops and other techniques to farm and raise livestock with less water.

“What we don't wanna see is that acreage just laid bare,” she said.

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