By Ava Gilbert
The Colorado River has been getting attention like never before due to reservoir levels dropping in a decades-long drought. When assessing major water usage, people are quick to point a finger at farmers. Farmers are under immense pressure, feeding much of the U.S. while embedded in a large system, culture and economy. So, when we’re considering where to make changes to save our river system, we need a holistic approach; one that is solutions-oriented and considers the lasting impacts.
Colorado River water is sorely over-allocated. Anyone living in the seven Colorado River basin states can feel the tension of a scarce resource getting scarcer. We should all invest in positive change, instead of placing blame on others. Solutions to save the Colorado River need to come from citizens, policy makers, local and regional officials, as well as farmers. We all need to talk about realistic options as we move into a dryer future.
One option for a resilient future is for farmers to transition to more efficient irrigation methods. This doesn’t work in all situations, because water conservation equipment can be expensive and labor-intensive. Small-scale, mixed-crop producers are naturally more compatible with water-saving irrigation techniques. Common examples include drip emitters, precisely targeted at each plant’s roots, and efficient over-head wobbler emitters.
Farmers don’t get enough income to cover the cost of labor and basic equipment as is, so this kind of equipment most often requires grant funding or donations. As mentioned in MIT News, “Drip irrigation can reduce a farm’s water consumption by as much as 60% and increase crop yield by 90% compared with conventional irrigation methods. But these systems are expensive, particularly in off-grid environments where they cost farmers more than $3,000 per acre to install.”
Water retention, or keeping water on the land, can be achieved a few different ways. We know that simply having perennial vegetation present will help retain water in an area for longer. Farmers implement gardens and hedgerows throughout their property for this reason, and many other benefits. In tandem with this, small retention ponds and thoughtful landscaping can have a powerful impact on a farm’s water cycle. Zach Weiss describes the success stories of this type of work on episode 110 of the Down to Earth Podcast.
Prioritizing soil health is also a big contributing factor, and one that producers in the West are rapidly becoming more aware of. Healthy soils with organic matter and living microorganisms retain water, which means crops require less frequent irrigation. Methods such as low-till, cover-cropping, crop rotation, limited compaction and rotational grazing can help build healthy soil. This is sometimes referred to as “regenerative agriculture.” These techniques, discussed in Paul Hawken’s book called “Drawdown,” are known to increase water retention several-fold, thus creating drought tolerance and flood insurance.
Producers can also transition into growing less water-intensive crops and instead choose those better suited to an arid climate. This method works for large-scale producers, as they are typically focused on one crop. Alfalfa and corn are the most prevalent and water-intensive crops in Colorado; whereas other popular crops such as sugar beets, dry beans, or garlic need very little water.
Making this transition would require a shift in government subsidies. As mentioned in a 2021 article from American Action Forum, “Subsidies for corn — the most abundant crop in the United States — have far surpassed those for any other crop, estimated to have totaled more than $116 billion since 1995. This is followed by subsidies for wheat at $48.4 billion and for soybeans at $44.9 billion over that same period.” In fact, there’s a lot that the federal and state governments can do in terms of policy, incentive and support. The Colorado River District is an organization working to educate the public and policy makers alike, while advocating for farmers.
Another option is to stop irrigating so much land. Fallowing is the act of leaving an area out of production and unirrigated for a while. A new program called the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) is part of a broader initiative by Colorado and three other states to help stabilize the river system. It is compensating farmers who practice fallowing. Large-scale producers and ranchers don’t have the option to adopt small-scale technology that waters more precisely and don’t have the option to forgo income from crop sales. This program may especially be helpful in supporting these larger operations to transition to different crops or land management strategies. There’s a lot of criticism directed toward the SCPP, but it may have a role to play in the bigger picture.
We can also focus on cutting water use in other land management sectors in addition to commercial agriculture. Lawns and parks, for example, need to be managed much differently. While “green space” or access to nature is essential for human well-being, it should reflect natural environmental limits. Home gardens and community gardens can be sources of locally-grown food while consuming less water. Smart landscape design in public parks also reduces water consumption.
These are just a few options when it comes to using less water in agriculture. It remains unclear how much water will be conserved with each solution. Farmers and politicians need to implement a variety of approaches that will make progress across small-scale and large-scale farms, as well as other sectors. The transition to responsible water management cannot completely fall on the shoulders of farmers.
There are a number of things that we can all do. Look into reliable resources on water and attend community meetings regarding the topic. Stay up to date with new farm bills and make your support known for policies that will promote this transition. Invest in local agriculture and consider on-farm tours or volunteer opportunities to gain real context about that side of the food system.
Let’s all take responsibility for our dependence on the Colorado River and be proactive about our options.