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Farm group advocates for water protection

Family Farm Alliance says agriculture should not be 'shock absorber' for urban growth.


Using irrigation water as drought insurance for growing urban areas is an unwise course that could threaten the nation’s food supply, a new study looking at climate change reports.

A Family Farm Alliance study says climate change could reduce snowpack, increase the need for water and decrease groundwater recharge. The group recommends more reservoirs to capture earlier runoff and balance stream flows. It also cites effective programs in which agricultural needs are incorporated into planning for future water shortages.

The study, however, has harsh criticism for water policies that rely on ag water to meet supplies for cities, a major thrust in Colorado, where a Statewide Water Supply Initiative identified a municipal supply “gap” that would most likely be filled by converting farm water to supplies for cities.

“Relying on agriculture to be a shock absorber to soften or eliminate the impending water shortage is not planning,” said Patrick O’Toole, president of the alliance. “It is a choice to put our heads in the sand and hope for the best. It is a decision that could worsen the overall impact of climate change on our nation’s economy and security.”

O’Toole, 58, ranches on the Wyoming-Colorado border about 50 miles north of Steamboat Springs. The Colorado State University graduate is a former Wyoming legislator and knows the water situation in both states well. In Wyoming, prior appropriation ties water to the land.

“That changes the way you look at it,” he said.

Beyond just those two states, however, the Family Farm Alliance is looking at a bigger picture that encompasses 16 states in the West. Its focus is to ensure the availability of affordable irrigation water.

“We’ve taken the fat and are going into the muscle and bone,” O’Toole said. ”We’re losing a huge part of our natural resources. In every choice, agriculture is taking the hit. We’re moving toward a growth scenario that needs to be analyzed or millions of acres of ag land could disappear.”

Asked what difference it makes if farms continue in the Arkansas Valley, a relatively small sector of the nation’s agricultural economy, O’Toole replied:

“If it was the only area, it wouldn’t matter. But there is a concept of redundancy in American agriculture. If there is a drought in one area, crops can still be grown. Because of the redundancy, America is strong. What’s happening isn’t in one place, and it’s happening in huge volume.”

Redundancy - whether for watersheds or supply lines - is a concept municipal planners often stress, but farmers often see their plight as the whims of Mother Nature. Looking at the variety and location of crops throughout the West and the development of farmland in areas inhospitable to dryland farming, O’Toole sees an equal danger to the nation’s food supply if redundancy throughout the industry is removed.

Asked whether any measures should be taken to interfere with the transfer of water rights, which are a property right in Colorado, and for some aging farmers the only retirement income, O’Toole said:

“I’m an individual. We’re a family operation. My kids are interested in farming. But in a decade, if we have some sort of mechanism in place, you’re looking at a scenario with no options, no water and no farmers.”

The underlying problem is unrestricted growth using water from farms, he added.

“Unlimited growth does not appear to be very intelligent,” O’Toole said.

The report says climate change could tip the scales even further against agriculture, since water already is a scarce commodity in the West.

In addition, the report says climate change could reduce snowpack while increasing the need for water as temperatures rise.

In Colorado, the U.S. Geological Survey has begun looking for signs of climate change.

“What we’re seeing is a variability in the timing of snow melts, and the trends are small if there are trends,” said David Clow, USGS snow hydrologist.

While spring runoff is occurring earlier, nothing has yet occurred outside the range of the historical record. Clow said it will be necessary to group data from a variety of sites to determine how the state’s water supply is being affected.

On a larger scale, climate change is considered a real possibility by many scientists, although how it will affect specific regions is largely unknown.

The possibility of reducing water supply in the West, where water supplies are already inadequate to meet demands, alarms the Family Farm Alliance.

“Millions of acres of barren Western lands have been transformed into the most efficient and productive agricultural system in the world,” O’Toole said. “Now is not the time to retreat from our investment.”

The report calls for more research into how climate change will affect water supply, urban and agricultural conservation, streamlining regulations surrounding construction of new storage, policies aimed at self-sufficiency of the American food supply and better ways to protect farmland.

The report also details specific actions being taken to protect farmland in some areas.

In the San Joaquin Valley in California, farmers have converted to drip irrigation systems on a large scale to conserve water. A regional management program in the Sacramento Valley is addressing the need to stretch supplies. Programs in Oregon are aimed at improving water availability for agricultural and environmental needs by timing flows.

At the same time, there are many negative impacts on agriculture, the alliance report said.

From his own experience, O’Toole has seen irrigated fields turn to weedy pastures, has watched the forests around him die and observed changes in behavior of wildlife - pronghorns at 11,000 feet.

“We see climate change on the ground,” he said.

He said a complete approach to managing watersheds is needed beyond the quick and easy fix of drying up farms to feed growth.


Some of the negative effects

  • Colorado is losing 460 acres per day of agricultural land, and will lose 3.1 million more acres by 2022 on its present course.
  • Environmental programs on the Platte River have the potential to dry up hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in Wyoming and Nebraska.
  • Growth of cities in Arizona and Nevada are drying up farms at record rates. In a few years, the Salt River Project in Arizona will cease to provide water for agriculture, the report said. Las Vegas is adding 70,000 new residents a year, and is hunting water supplies in rural areas even as it maximizes conservation through programs like reuse and paying residents to remove lawns.
  • California converted 1 million acres of farmland to urban use from 1988 to 1998, and likely will lose more ground as the population is projected to increase to 59.5 million, from 37 million today, by 2050.

- Source: Family Farm Alliance climate change study


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