Colorado Water Congress discusses strategies to save agriculture

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John Salazar

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Marsha Daughenbaugh

— One of the areas of focus at the Colorado Water Congress’ summer conference is the pressures drying out agricultural land across the state.

Industrial and municipal uses are projected to grow, and when that happens, those users often look toward irrigated agriculture as a place from which to acquire new water sources.

But as a presentation given Thursday morning by John Salazar, commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, showed, agriculture has a sizable economic impact in Colorado. Agriculture also contributes to the quality of life for Colorado and Front Range residents, as Gov. John Hickenlooper noted in a Wednesday speech. Salazar reiterated that Hickenlooper is committed to minimizing agriculture dry up.

But the panel Salazar was participating in wasn’t about why to save agriculture or how to measure its economic impact. Five members of disparate groups, including Salazar, were gathered to talk about what the process of saving agriculture in Colorado will look like and how their constituencies can come together to see it happen.

“I’ve made it my passion to try and fight and keep water on the land all of my life,” Salazar said. “I believe agriculture is really a cornerstone of Colorado's economy and this nation’s economy.”

To deal with Colorado’s projected population growth and resulting water demand, Salazar suggested conservation and land-use planning as topics to consider, citing reduced water use by people living in apartments relative to single-family homes as an example.

“We always try to plan that growth on new development of water,” he said. “I think we have to start changing that conversation.”

Marsha Daughenbaugh, executive director of Community Agriculture Alliance, asked the audience how many of them were involved in production agriculture. And while a number of hands raised into the air, her next question about who of those in the room eat or wear clothes spoke to wide consequences of ignoring agriculture.

“We need you to be aware of the pitfalls of not having production agriculture,” she said.

Daughenbaugh spoke about the impacts of Routt County’s working landscape and cultural heritage tourism and agritourism.

Everyone has a story to tell, she said, even if it’s not the traditional agriculture model.

Daughenbaugh also spoke about how the Community Agriculture Alliance has focused on education and partnered with other groups to host forums on topics such as water.

John McClow, of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, spoke about how easements are being used in the Gunnison County area to conserve agriculture.

Doug Robotham, of The Nature Conservancy, said Carpenter Ranch near Hayden is “a great example of how agriculture and conservation can come together.”

The Nature Conservancy owns Carpenter Ranch, but it holds conservation easements on many more acres in Routt County and across Colorado.

“There’s great opportunity to begin thinking creatively about the water rights of these protected properties and protected properties to come,” Robotham said.

Terry Fankhauser, of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, echoed the need for creativity and said there are efficiency gains being made in agriculture.

“Agriculture doesn't deserve to be saved,” Fankhauser said. “But agriculture does deserve the opportunity to survive.”

To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206 or email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com

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