Hay waits to be raked in July just outside Steamboat Springs. An important topic at the Colorado Water Congress' Summer Conference was the drying out of irrigated agriculture lands. Hay, alfalfa and pastureland make up the majority of irrigated agriculture in the Colorado River Basin, according to the 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture.

John F. Russell/file

Hay waits to be raked in July just outside Steamboat Springs. An important topic at the Colorado Water Congress' Summer Conference was the drying out of irrigated agriculture lands. Hay, alfalfa and pastureland make up the majority of irrigated agriculture in the Colorado River Basin, according to the 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture.

Report considers economic impact of Western irrigated agriculture

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— The issue that loomed large at the Colorado Water Congress’ summer conference this week in Steamboat Springs was the drying out of agriculture.

Multiple sessions and even a speech by Gov. John Hickenlooper reiterated the threat and tried to outline solutions. But the conference is the choir, and if the ranchers, conservationists, government officials and nonprofit workers who were in attendance are going to successfully preach to the rest of Colorado, they’re going to need to brush up on their economics.

Dan Keppen, of the Family Farm Alliance, gave a presentation Wednesday about a white paper that seeks to calculate value of irrigated agriculture and show how siphoning off its water for industrial and municipal uses will have large consequences.

“The Economic Importance of Western Irrigated Agriculture: Water Values, Analysis Methods, Resource Management Decisions” was prepared by resource economist Darryll Olsen for the Family Farm Alliance and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water.

Olsen’s report states that the impact of irrigated agriculture in the West on personal income is $156 billion. The report also shows the gap between food production and projected demand increasing over time. The cost of food in the U.S. as a percent of disposable income has consistently dropped since 1945, the report states, and was only 6.7 percent in 2011.

“If you start doing things that tweak with that curve ... and all of a sudden that percentage starts to go up, it does huge things to our economy,” Keppen said. “It’s a security issue.”

But while Olsen’s report shows the value of irrigated agriculture in the West, it’s not getting the same treatment as municipal and industrial uses of water, according to Keppen.

A report from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation about the Colorado River Basin shows a loss of irrigated agriculture land by 2060. Between 2015 and 2060, the report states, irrigated acreage will shrink by 300,000 to 900,000 acres.

Models used by government agencies assume that when municipal demand grows, agriculture shrinks, Keppen said.

“How come you can't assume that ag stays the same,” he said. “What happens to the other demands? What if (agriculture) has to expand?”

Keppen said his organization has pushed for a new paradigm that considers scenarios other than irrigated agriculture shrinking.

“It seems like irrigated agriculture is the reservoir to meet these other demands,” he said. “We can’t just continue to downplay or ignore taking all this ag land out of production west wide.”

Keppen said he’s a part of a group that meets for the first time this month and will work to address water transfers from agricultural to urban use while mitigating the damages.

From experience with similar groups in the past, he said, it will be important to build a consensus on sharing water between multiple sectors and avoid unilateral transfers away from agriculture.

And while some remain skeptical about additional water storage, Keppen said, there might be benefits to properly sized and located storage if it’s part of a larger plan.

“Our ultimate goal is that policy makers and elected officials understand the importance of irrigated ag in Western” states, he said.

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

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