We desperately need a heavy, wet winter this next year in the West. The Colorado River is close to becoming a stream. This Western drought is tougher than I thought. Some folks in the Southwest received lots of monsoon moisture this summer and saved a lot of cows going to slaughter.

But having the Colorado River run dry is a serious issue. The House Committee on Natural Resources held a two-day hearing on the issue and heard some dire testimony. Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at their lowest levels since they were constructed. Over the past 20 years, the river has been obligated to deliver 17.5 million acre feet to seven states with booming populations.

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Agriculture consumes about 85 percent of the Colorado River water. As usual, when urban growth develops, agriculture suffers water losses and less food production. The seven states have been in a collaborative process to reallocate water deliveries for the past 20 years: who gets what.

Then compound things with a 20-year drought, which some say we are in. It seems to me we have one every few years, but the last two years have been tough on snowpack. And it appears the culprit is climate change, which is the reason for everything Mother Nature throws at us.

The main solutions that Congress came to were: more water storage, conservation, reclamation, desalination and more money to improve water delivery infrastructure to solve the Southwest water problems. I would like to know just how many acres lie fallow in the Southwest.

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In California and Oregon, it seems to be all about fish. You probably haven’t thought about it much, but California’s Imperial Valley, Yuma, AZ, and the Phoenix Valley are huge producers of ag products that we all expect to be in the grocery store produce department. Yuma County is the third largest vegetable-producing area of the nation and is completely dependent on the river.

Nearly all of the farmland in the Southwest is irrigated farmland, and irrigated farmland appears to be where some folks want to take their urban water from. Farmers have increased production while using less water—15 percent less since 1990. More efficient irrigation methods are being utilized, like drip tape irrigation of alfalfa fields. Agriculture is doing its part of producing more with less.

Arizona is losing 18 percent of its Colorado River water delivery this next year. Nevada is losing 7 percent, and Mexico is losing 5 percent of its annual appointments. Farmers on the Central Arizona Project will take the brunt of the water loss, which will lead to lots of fallow ground and economic hardship.

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So, we need more water—imagine that—but how is the Southwest going to grow? Not very easily without more water resources. The Family Farm Alliance (FFA), which represents Western irrigated agriculture, feels the following guidelines should guide the decision-making process:

Recognize that Western irrigated agriculture is a strategic and irreplaceable national resource. Provide certainty to all users and interests with equitable apportionment decisions made from a foundation of state water law, common sense and fairness. Address critical data gaps to facilitate the trust needed to make fair operational and legal decisions related to the next set of interim guidelines. Manage Lake Mead to provide the Lower Basin’s share of the Colorado River Compact water to Lower Basin users. Manage Lake Powell to meet both the Colorado Compact obligations to the Lower Basin, and protect the upper Colorado River Compact obligations to the four Upper Basin states. Expand supply augmentation opportunities as options for meeting growing water demands, at a time when Colorado River supplies appear to be diminishing. Emphasize that future growth cannot be encouraged without locking in sustainable and diverse water supplies.

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FFA also suggests that we start managing our forests better to improve the watershed. Water runoff would improve dramatically with cleaned up forests and dealing with beetle infestations and other invasive species. Pat O’Toole, FFA president, said that a 2000 study conducted by the Forest Service on the North Platte River drainage showed that restricting timber harvest had already impacted the watershed and water yield to the tune of a minimum 160,000 acre feet per year. And that’s just one drainage. Imagine the collective water output if we managed our forests properly.

Water is life, and where water flows, food grows. Now it’s the government’s turn to step up and show some responsibility for forest management—the water is worth the effort. Meanwhile, pray a little harder for a wet winter. PETE CROW

What do you think?


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