Alliance says agriculture should not be 'shock absorber' for
By CHRIS WOODKA, THE PUEBLO
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
Source: Family Farm Alliance
climate change study