Richard Van Gytenbeek: Keeping agriculture and rivers healthy

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Can fish and farms coexist? The answer is yes.

In recent years, Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups have made progress by partnering with the agriculture community to enhance flows in western Colorado rivers and streams while improving farm and ranch operations. Those cooperative, win-win efforts have focused on replacing or rebuilding aging irrigation infrastructure throughout the upper Colorado River basin. Much of that irrigation infrastructure is old and in desperate need of repair — and investing in these upgrades can improve water delivery for irrigators and often help to keep a bit more water in rivers for the fish and wildlife that depend on healthy flows.

As the state works on a Water Plan in 2014, this cooperative model offers a promising way forward for meeting diverse water needs on the West Slope, from agriculture to fisheries and recreation.

Agriculture currently irrigates about 750,000 acres in western Colorado. Water is diverted from a river or stream through a diversion structure and into a ditch and then on to the hayfield or crops. Early in Colorado’s history, ranchers and farmers realized that more predictable and efficient irrigation flows could be diverted if they formed ditch companies, secured loans and built larger-scale infrastructure, including diversion structures. Those structures varied in design and complexity based on the number of irrigators using the ditch and water needs. Many of these diversion structures are now 50 to 100 years old and need repair and upgrades. Ditch companies often cannot afford to complete these improvements because of high costs and reduced membership in ditch companies and water districts.

That is where groups like Trout Unlimited can help.

Trout Unlimited staff in the upper Colorado River basin live and work in their communities. They bring to the table both technical and practical experience in rivers and agriculture, as well as public and private fundraising. Recently completed projects such as the Relief Ditch and Hartland Ditch along the Gunnison River are examples of what is possible when all parties roll up their sleeves and cooperate. These projects benefit agriculture by upgrading infrastructure and enabling farmers and ranchers to accurately divert their decreed water rights and more efficiently water their crops. In some cases, this can help to improve flows and fish habitat in downstream reaches. Constructing new diversion structures with well-designed bypass channels improves fish passage and increases boater safety, too.

Everyone wins, including our rivers and natural resources. 

Trout Unlimited and other stakeholders are working to build a cooperative and collaborative partnership with West Slope agriculture to improve the health of our western Colorado rivers and streams. Through programs like Our Colorado River, www.ourcoriver.com, we want to highlight the power of partnerships and the importance of agriculture to sustainable rural communities in western Colorado.

As water users develop a state Water Plan this year, we encourage citizens of western Colorado to support local agriculture and pragmatic solutions that enable them to continue to protect open space and wildlife habitat and improve the rivers and streams that are the life blood of the West Slope.

When West Slope agriculture wins, West Slope rivers can win, too.

Richard van Gytenbeek is coordinator of TU’s Our Colorado River program. He lives in Grand Junction.

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