We all need to work together to meet water demands
By Selina Heintz
After nearly three years in development and 30,000 public comments, Gov. John Hickenlooper in November announced the first-ever Colorado state water plan. The plan prioritizes conservation measures by setting impressive statewide water conservation targets for cities and industry, and proposes annual funding for healthy rivers, creating ongoing unprecedented financial support for river assessments and restoration.
As the plan was being developed, the Routt County Conservation District decided to talk with farmers and ranchers on the West Slope about what water means to their families and communities. With an aim to increase awareness for people during the Colorado water planning process, the interviews were made into videos that vividly tell the stories of several agricultural families whose livelihoods depend directly on the availability of clean water to grow crops and feed livestock. Our hope was to educate Coloradans and provide real context about agricultural water use.
While talking to farmers and ranchers, we heard the same messages over and over.
For example, all are proud to be part of Colorado’s agricultural community, and proud that agriculture is integral to our entire state and a big piece of Colorado economy, history and heritage. And in that heritage and heartbeat, water is everything. Without water, a Colorado way of life is lost.
The biggest cautionary message from Western Slope farmers and ranchers: taking water from the West Slope could devastate the region’s farms and ranches and, as a result, the entire state economy. This would not be a viable answer to the state’s water challenges.
The reality is that Colorado’s population is increasing and as drought conditions mean less water, there is a looming shortage that must be addressed with smarter solutions to ensure a sustainable future for Colorado. Whether for domestic or agricultural purposes, we can all use water better. A recent poll found that most of us are willing to reduce our use and find other ways to protect our water supply.
Farmers and ranchers have already made some changes to help conserve water through methods like grazing plans and storage, where many farming and ranching families are ensuring that existing water is maximized and can be re-used downstream.
Education also becomes pivotal in the conservation process to help urban residents understand the multiple uses of water in the state. When someone turns the faucet on, it helps to know that their water came through a tunnel from a source on the other side of the mountains. That knowledge promotes awareness of our connectedness and sharing.
Should we forget that, we risk hitting a “tipping point” where we take so much water from agricultural use that we impact the economy of the entire state. We must implement conservation measures and use water wisely first. Drying up valleys is not what works best for the state as a whole. Once that’s done there is no going back to what makes our state beautiful.
While the new plan is far from perfection, we see some value for West Slope agriculture.
The plan includes a goal that would help shift from the so-called buy-and-dry of agricultural water rights toward greater efficiency and flexible ways to share water with cities and streams. And the plan, while not categorically ruling out transmountain water diversions, makes it much less likely that we will experience new, costly and controversial large trans-mountain diversions, which would harm rivers and diminish the water supply for farms and ranches.
In the coming months and years, the Colorado Water Plan will require that people from all corners of the state work together. We each have a role to play to meet challenging water demands and the demands of our entire economy. If we work together, and with the conservation goals and smart thinking included in the Colorado Water Plan, we should able to meet our water needs and keep our farms and ranches a key part of the Colorado landscape and economy.
Selina Heintz joined the Routt County Conservation District as a supervisor in 2014 and currently serves as treasurer. She is a fourth-generation rancher in northwest Colorado and has a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Kansas State University.