Western Colorado rancher Bill Fales said he thinks that California will come for Colorado’s water someday soon.
“I used to think it would come in my lifetime,” he said. He looked at a gray pall of rain shrouding the peak of Mount Sopris outside his kitchen window, and then at his Australian shepherd, Bridger, lying on the wood floor with her eyes turned up. “If we didn’t have this wet year, it was going to come in this dog’s lifetime, and she’s thirteen.”
But Fales isn’t necessarily concerned about California coming for his water rights. For him, the issue is closer to home.
“California will start it, but when they demand more water from Colorado, Denver is not gonna be helping us out,” he said. “Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Fort Collins are going to dictate the [state’s water] policy. It’s going to protect them, not us.”
Amidst a historic megadrought, states along the Colorado River are facing increasing pressure to reduce their water use. Already, federal regulators from the Bureau of Reclamation have agreed to consider a proposal that would cut water use in California, Arizona, and Nevada by up to 13% of their legal water allocation. While the same demands have not been made of Colorado, the risk of potential water cuts there has become a flashpoint in rural-urban tensions over water use in the state.
Agricultural producers like Bill Fales often take comfort in the age of their water rights. According to Colorado water law, the age of a water right signifies its strength. Even in dry years, water users with the oldest rights still get to use their full amount.
Bill Fales opens a headgate on one of his flood irrigation systems. (Photo by Austin Corona)
But in Colorado’s case, that system could be more of a curse than a blessing. As confirmed by Dave Kanzer, Director of Science and Interstate Matters for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, many of Colorado’s major cities, namely Denver, Aurora, and Colorado Springs, rely on relatively new, or vulnerable, water rights for their drinking supply from the Colorado River.
Because cities like Denver may not always be able to rely on their own water rights for security, they could end up buying older water rights from agricultural producers and using them instead. That could permanently dry up some western Colorado farms and ranches.
Alternatively, those cities could ask the state not to apply Colorado water law strictly in order to safeguard the health and safety of urban populations. The Colorado state constitution prioritizes domestic water use over irrigation in times of shortage.
Even if he doesn’t know exactly how it will happen, Fales said he can sense that kind of future coming. “I used to feel pretty smug out here, irrigating my alfalfa. My rights are way senior to most of Denver’s, but if I think I’m gonna be out here, still irrigating the way I historically have, and someone in Arvada [a Denver suburb] turns on their faucet to brush their teeth and nothing comes out, well…” He laughed. “I think my water rights are gonna be a whole lot less secure than they are right now.”
Across the upper Colorado River Basin (which includes Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico), similar discussions are taking shape. If these states ever need to leave more water in the river, they will have to decide who bears the burden.
Anne Castle, Chair of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the form of these conversations is unique to each state, but that tough internal discussions are happening in all of them.
In Colorado, this debate has become a new chapter in historic disputes between Colorado water users on the east and west sides of the Continental Divide (80% of Colorado’s population lives on the eastern side). At its core, western Colorado communities are wondering if they should trust the state to advocate their interests, or if they should make more efforts to craft the Colorado River water policies that will affect them most.
The result of this debate could have significant impacts for western Colorado generally. Jim Holway, Director of the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, said water shortages in agriculture could affect far more than the farmers and ranchers themselves.
“The future of agriculture is the future of rural portions of these seven basin states. If we can’t address the challenges around agriculture, if we can’t find a way to maintain an agricultural economy, we’re going to hollow out much of the rural areas of the West,” Holway said.
This past March, the Babbitt Center worked with local partners and researchers from Arizona State University to hold a scenario planning workshop with 29 members of agricultural communities in western Colorado’s Grand Valley, many of whom were not agricultural producers themselves. Together, community members discussed different possibilities in an increasingly dry future, and how the Grand Valley should address them.
“In general, I’d say non-producers are concerned,” Holway said regarding the workshop. Though he acknowledged that the workshop self-selected towards community members who happened to care about agriculture.
Holway said the loss of agricultural output can mean job losses, dust storms and erosion, decreased property values and tax revenue, and loss of open space (if the land is developed) for communities.
“Agriculture often has a role in shaping the culture, identity, and landscapes of rural communities that greatly exceeds its direct impact on the local and regional economy,” Holway said.
But some in the state worry that if rural western Colorado advocates too fiercely for its interests, it will make the state look divided as it goes into contentious negotiations with other states and federal regulators about new guidelines for the Colorado River, which will likely begin this year. These negotiations are separate from the proposal agreed to earlier this year.
This concern manifested this year during debates about the Colorado River Drought Task Force created by Colorado’s state legislature. State Senators Dylan Roberts and Perry Will say they created the task force to give western Colorado farmers and ranchers more direct engagement in Colorado’s efforts to deal with potential calls for water from downstream states.
“We don’t want the bureaucrats making these decisions for us,” Will said in a testimony before the state Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
The bill also ensures that any policy recommendations made by the task force, all of which must be voted on by the state legislature, only involve temporary, voluntary, and compensated reductions in agricultural water use in order to meet downstream calls. This measure is meant to avoid permanent dry-ups.
But while its supporters say it makes drought preparedness efforts more transparent and accessible, critics say the bill is sowing unnecessary division at a time when the state needs to show strength.
Speaking at the Governor’s Drought Summit in Denver this past June, general counsel to the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, John McClow, told the audience he was concerned that the task force was dividing the state at a time when Colorado needs to stand unified as it negotiates with other states, tribes, and federal agencies over the future of the Colorado River.
“In recent months, that solidarity is beginning to crumble, aided and abetted by the creation of the Colorado River [Drought] Task Force,” McClow said to the audience.
Water managers and mayors from Eastern Colorado cities like Denver, Aurora, Pueblo, and Colorado Springs have echoed those sentiments in public testimonies before the state legislature.
But for Bill Fales, neither argument is entirely convincing. First, he’s suspicious about attempts to temporarily cut agricultural water use in order to send water downstream.
“If you have an orchard or an alfalfa field, you can’t fallow for a year without having long damage. The trees might all die in an orchard. Your alfalfa will definitely suffer.”
Secondly, even though he doesn’t believe the state government has his best interests at heart, he’s also suspicious that anyone assigned to represent ag producers on the state task force will do so adequately. He says having a task force with agricultural representation is “comforting”, but he’s just “too cynical”.
“A lot of people who will be affected by [the task force] don’t have the time, and sometimes the skill set, to be on a task force,” he said. “And so that makes it really tough. I couldn’t put together a good one. It’s not a direct criticism of the people trying to do it. But it’s a real challenge.”
In the meantime, he said has other things to worry about. Colorado is currently reintroducing wolves, which has him worried about his cows, and he’ll need to find a buyer for this year’s calves.
Austin Corona writes on environmental politics in the Western United States and the Middle East. He currently covers water issues for Aspen Daily News and writes a monthly Substack about the water crisis in the West.
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