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Zornio: Amid growing water shortages, Colorado’s agricultural scene must change

As droughts continue to ravage the American West, traditional methods of agriculture remain the top drain on Colorado's dwindling water supply

Two weeks ago, experts predicted that Lake Powell — the second-largest man-made reservoir in the nation — will soon drop below critical water levels. With over three million people in danger of losing hydropower, it’s yet another bleak reminder that the Colorado River is drying up.

The Colorado River, which flows into Lake Powell on the Arizona and Utah border, originates at 10,184 feet above sea level on La Poudre Pass in the southern Rocky Mountains. In total, 40 million people gain water access from the river, and countless farms are irrigated along the way.

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

Last summer, similar concerns of a drought in Lake Powell led to large diversions from the upper basins. This included two large draws from Colorado’s reservoirs, with 14,000 acre-feet diverted from the Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, and another 20,000 acre-feet drawn from the Navajo Reservoir shared with New Mexico.

The diversions led to roughly an eight-foot and two-foot drop respectively amid already scarce water levels.

Global and local water wars are only just beginning. As climate change worsens, so, too, will the fighting. Locally, it’s already leading to increased tensions in the form of lawsuits over water and expansion rights and animosity between the West Slope and Front Range residents.

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In many ways, frustration directed at our urban centers seems fair. 

As population centers continue to boom along I-25, urban water usage is hitting an all-time high. These concerns are amplified as over 80% of the state’s water flows west of the Continental Divide, while 90% of the state’s population and the top 10 agricultural counties all sit to the east. 

This means that every year two dozen tunnels and ditches seek to move more than 500,000 acre-feet from west to east, often leading western residents to harbor a sense of thievery by the eastern regions — especially given they already don’t have enough. 

Adding fuel to the fire, only 53% of Colorado’s largest cities are said to have water restrictions, with a mere one third of those 15 cities evaluated located east of the Rocky Mountain foothills. In this light, it’s easy to see how the West Slope might feel like the Front Range is rubbing salt in an already gaping wound.

Yet for all the talk of urban xeriscaping and efficiency — both of which we should pursue — there’s simply no effort that urbanites alone can take that will address water shortages in full. As much as we use too much water, it’s sprawling agriculture that continues to use far, far more.

According to state data, a whopping 88% of water consumption is used on agricultural and food production, while only 8% is used by municipalities and 4% on industries. Curiously, despite Colorado’s chronic and increasingly dry climate, the state boasts some of the more water intensive agricultural outputs such as beef, dairy, corn and some fruits.

All of this leads to three very tough questions for Coloradans: Are we allocating our land wisely if it requires so much shuttling of water? Can we transition to less water intensive crops with incentives by leaders? And should we be shifting as a state to become the face of modern agriculture with methods such as cell-based meats and vertical farming?

This isn’t the first time I’ve suggested improvements for Colorado’s agricultural scene. Last year, I authored my first piece in this publication asking whether or not Colorado is looking at a future without cows. Within 24 hours the state’s top cattle industry representatives contacted me with complaints, asking why I wasn’t presenting their industry more positively. 

Newsflash: That’s not my job.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

It is, however, very much my job to ask tough questions that people like to avoid — and let me tell you, there isn’t a statewide politician in Colorado willing to point out that some cows and corn in the state might need to go the way of the dodo. Don’t believe me? Just ask Gov. Jared Polis what the response was after his first Meat-Out day.

Even if I’m about to feel the weight of the entire state’s agricultural industry, I’m not really the one they should be mad at. We can thank the oil and gas companies who openly rejected the science of greenhouse gases as early as the 1950s. It’s because of them that there’s only so much of the wet stuff left — and without big changes soon we’ll have even less. 

On a personal note, the idea that peaches might not make the cut bums me out. Do I want a Colorado without peaches? Heck no. But do I think that climate change may force us to reconsider anyway?

Given Lake Powell, probably.


Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.


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