Irrigation Efficiency Measures

Colorado is in a historic drought and agriculture uses roughly 85 percent of the state’s water. It seems obvious, then, that making agriculture more efficient is a surefire way to preserve Colorado’s dwindling water supply. And yet, state water law often encourages farmers and ranchers to use as much water as they legally can, just to keep their water rights intact. This summer, Democratic state Sen. Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village plans to draft legislation that will remove the usage incentive from the law. Her bill would allow Western Slope irrigators who adopt more efficient watering systems to get credit for the water they save. Schwartz is chairing the Water Resources Review Committee, a state body made up of lawmakers who meet every summer to draft legislation on water issues. Several Roaring Fork Valley water lawyers, ranchers and activists also participate. The group will hold eight meetings throughout the summer, beginning July 17 in Gunnison, and Schwartz said she plans to reintroduce an irrigation efficiency measure that was stripped from a bill she carried, partly because of opposition from Front Range water interests, during the 2013 legislative session. When an irrigator makes improvements to their water delivery system by replacing flood irrigation with sprinkler irrigation, improving a head gate or piping a ditch, for instance, they wind up diverting less water from a river, Schwartz explained.

Under Colorado’s “use it or lose it” water law, an irrigator who isn’t diverting the maximum amount of water that their right allows is at risk of losing some of it when they go to court to change its use or sell it. In court, judges examine a water right owner’s “historic consumptive use,” the amount that’s put to work irrigating crops. If that historic use is less than what a water right allows, a judge can strip the unused water from its owner and put it up for sale. People sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to avoid this fate: Bill Fales of Cold Mountain Ranch, south of Carbondale, said some ranchers in Colorado install sprinkler systems but leave their flood irrigation systems in place as well, to allow for the possibility of boosting their water use on short notice to preserve their rights. “They put in systems so that they can flood irrigate underneath their sprinklers,” Fales said. To avoid that kind of excess, Schwartz’s proposal would allow an irrigator to legally protect water that’s left in the stream after irrigation improvements are completed, so that their “historic consumptive use” isn’t reduced. The extra water could be left in the river to protect ecosystems, or it could be put to another non-consumptive use downstream. “How do we support investment in some new irrigation practices, and then give that farmer or rancher the guarantee that if they will divert less, they won’t lose some historic use?” Schwartz asked.