"We've Got To Find Out What The West That We Want Is”

Published online: Jan 24, 2023 Articles
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Family Farm Alliance President Patrick O’Toole, whose family operates a sheep and cattle ranch on the Wyoming-Colorado border, was interviewed last month in Las Vegas by E&E Daily while attending the Colorado River Water Users Association conference. In the Dec. 23, 2022, article titled “Population booms even as Colorado River shrinks,” he expressed the concerns that many farmers and ranchers have regarding unchecked urban growth in cities that rely on Colorado River water. 

“We’ve got to find out what the West that we want is, and then start working toward what we want, or you get what you deserve,” he said.

recent Rasmussen Reports poll confirms that over 1,000 residents polled in Colorado also don’t want sprawl, and don’t think ag water should be transported to support that sprawl. Key findings of the poll: 

  • 61 percent of Coloradans think the state has developed too much;
  • 76 percent  believe it is “very important” to protect U.S. farmland from development, so the United States is able to produce enough food to feed its own human population in the future; and
  • 71 percent said water should not be diverted from agriculture to support more residents.

For those polled, 42 percent said they currently live in a “major city” or “suburbs,” and 30 percent live in “towns” or “rural areas.” The highest percentage of respondents – 31 percent - said they would prefer to live in a “rural area.” 

Still, some urban water agencies and their supporters want to limit agricultural deliveries in the Colorado River Basin

Former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt – who also served as President Bill Clinton's secretary of the Interior from 1993 to 2001 – recently used the Nevada Independent to publicly air his view that agriculture in Arizona and California is to blame for the gridlock in solving pressing Colorado River challenges. 

In a January 11 guest opinion, he claims "Agricultural Irrigation districts in Arizona and California resist offering cuts, claiming an absolute priority under century-old legal doctrines."

Actually, some irrigators in Arizona have already taken cuts, and other irrigation districts in both states stepped up months ago with new proposals.

Most Central Arizona Project (CAP) farmers lost 70 percent of their CAP supplies last year. In 2023 and beyond, they’ll lose 100 percent if the Colorado River hydrology does not improve.

Senior priority California water agencies that utilize Colorado River water supplies have already proposed to conserve up to an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead each year, beginning in 2023 and running through 2026, using federal drought funding authorized by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. This water, which would otherwise be used by California’s communities and farms, will meaningfully contribute to stabilizing the Colorado River reservoir system. 

Imperial Irrigation District (IID) has submitted a proposal to conserve up to 250,000 acre-feet per year of that water, increasing its conservation commitments to 24 percent of its annual entitlement. Palo Verde Irrigation District is also contributing a significant chunk.

Arizona irrigators are also stepping up. The Yuma County Agriculture Water Coalition announced in late November 2022 that its members have or will submit proposals under the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Conservation and Efficiency Program. If selected, the proposals, taken together, would result in the conservation of an estimated 10 percent reduction in water use in the Yuma area for a single year, with the potential to build increased participation and conservation in future years, depending on the outcome of parallel efforts by Reclamation to revise Colorado River Interim Guidelines.

This volume is in addition to the 100,000 acre-feet per year that is pumped from the County into Mexico that reduces releases needed to fulfill Treaty obligations and benefits Lake Mead levels.

You can see for yourself in this 2-minute video how the Yuma Center for Excellence for Desert Agriculture – where the desert ag industry in partnership with the University of Arizona – are putting science to work developing solutions to the pressing challenges of arid-land crop production. 

To learn what the policy implications and unintended consequences of looking to agriculture as the “default reservoir” to meet competing demands along the Colorado River, come to Reno next month for the 2023 Family Farm Alliance annual conference. There, on Feb. 24, you can hear water managers from the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin discuss innovative approaches being employed to stretch dwindling agricultural water supplies. 

Panelists include Richard Morrison (Esq. Adjunct Professor, Arizona State University Law School); Greg Peterson (Executive Director, Colorado Ag Water Alliance); and Tina Shields, (Water Department Manager, Imperial Irrigation District). 

The 2023 Annual Meeting and Conference is an opportunity for producers, policy makers and water professionals from throughout the West to focus on topics of critical concern.

For more information, visit www.familyfarmalliance.org/