Vagneur: Bringing home the politics of water
The great Continental Divide splits Colorado in half geographically, but also philosophically. If you’ve been keeping up with the news, there is great angst in the state over water — how to honor past compacts with downstream states, how to plan for unprecedented growth on either side of the Divide and other issues, all of them supremely important.
Some years ago, a new neighbor with a too big shovel, caught splashing around in a small lateral ditch through his pasture asked, somewhat rhetorically, “What the hell is the big deal about water?” My reply was simply, “It is liquid gold.”
Brent Gardner-Smith has done an excellent job of detailing much of the current debate over water, particularly those issues facing the Western Slope and the Colorado River Basin, but there is more to the matter, simply because the issues affect every aspect of our lives.
According to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, agriculture uses as much as 86 percent of the available water in Colorado, although they don’t seem to declare if that’s surface water, aquifers, rain, a combination, or what, so the number seems a bit nebulous, particularly in view of recent studies in drought-stricken California, which indicate that agriculture uses about 50 percent of its available water.
In any case, it might be similar to drunks arguing over who drank the most out of a pitcher of beer, especially when it comes time to order another one. It doesn’t necessarily matter who drank the most, for in the end, when it’s gone, it’s gone.
At least one person at the Colorado Water Conservation board remarked that users will have to find a way to function within the available water supply. Brilliance comes in all forms, I reckon. Of course, and according to today’s thinking, if you want more water for municipal, industrial and recreational uses, look first at agriculture, for at this moment it has the lion’s share of the state’s existing water and surely it could get along with a lot less. That just makes sense, doesn’t it? Much of the rhetoric about water seems a little egg-headed, as though it was a philosophical rather than an authentic issue.
As you bite into that crisp, juicy apple, break off a bite of a snap pea or slice into a succulent rib-eye steak, enjoy it, for the future is not bright for agriculture. In 2017 Colorado, there are approximately two people per acre of irrigated land. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be at least four people per acre of the same land, considering population growth and the inevitable transfer of water rights from agriculture to recreation or urban areas.
There are multiple ideas about saving water for agriculture, none of which actually seem to get the job done, except for one. At present in Colorado, water rights are separate from land ownership rights. They are separate properties. If you like Eden Vardy’s annual farm-to-table feast, the popular, naturally grown eat-in at Rock Bottom Ranch, or the fruit and vegetable section at Whole Foods, think about this: Ownership of water should run with the land.
And here’s why: A rancher or farmer decides to cash in, so he sells to a developer or someone who wants the privacy and open space. The new owner settles in but is not into farming or ranching and doesn’t really care or understand about irrigating beyond a nice green yard and a few flowers. He doesn’t need all that water he bought, so he sells it to a city on the Front Range or an oil shale operation near Rifle. A little bit of agriculture dries up (and dies) with the sale of that water. It doesn’t take many such scenarios to decimate rivers, ditches and irrigation systems.
And don’t forget, minimum stream-flow rights are administered within the state’s water right priority system and are generally secondary to most of the agricultural rights in Colorado, so there’s no guarantee the trout will continue to bite.
Before you get on the bandwagon about appropriating agriculture water to augment municipal, industrial and recreational needs and wants, think about your diet and what really tastes good to you. The food you eat is dependent on water. If there isn’t enough food to go around, it won’t really matter if the toilet flushes, the dishwasher runs, or the kayak park opens.
On this Earth Day, let’s do our land and our survival a favor. Let’s ask our government representatives to change the law so that water rights run with the land. That is the only way to guarantee enough water to feed the growing throngs who find Colorado, especially the Western Slope, a great place to live.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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