The seven Colorado River Basin States and stakeholders are engaging to replace an important document with a long name: The 2007 Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. These Interim Guidelines are set to expire in 2026.

Don Schwindt, left, and Dan Keppen

Over the past year, the Family Farm Alliance has worked with a group of agricultural water users from throughout the basin to develop key principles and expectations that are critical to future sustainable and durable operation of the Colorado River.  

We believe this group can play a major role as the 2007 Interim Guidelines are renegotiated.

Every agricultural community in the basin plays an important role in contributing to our cumulative national food production capacity, something that is clearly tied to our overall national security. Every farmer and rancher who lives in these communities relies on water to produce food and fiber.  

Consider the Dolores Project, which serves the communities around Cortez, Colorado. It was the last traditional Bureau of Reclamation project to be constructed in the West.

The Project provided a late-season supplemental water supply to the senior rights that had been used by the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company and its predecessors for 100  years. Utilizing sophisticated irrigation technology, it put water in the dry Dolores riverbed below the irrigation company’s old diversion and doubled the irrigated acreage in the local community.

Importantly, the Project also encompassed the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe reservation. The creation of a thriving tribal farm ensued, one that had real “wet water,” instead of a “reserved paper water right.”

Irrigated agriculture from the Dolores River brought life to a formerly dry Montezuma Valley. The Project bolstered the local economy and strengthened the area’s importance as a vital component in the nation’s food supply chain. 

The valley’s irrigated ecosystem also improved, further enhancing critically important environments for wildlife and generating other cultural benefits. Irrigated agricultural lands provide groundwater storage, open space, and riparian habitat and wildlife corridors. They also serve as important buffers between public wildlands and expanding urban and suburban areas.

These important values must be preserved, in the Montezuma Valley and beyond.  

Americans spend less of their income on food than any country in the world, but take the availability of abundant, better, safer and affordable food for granted. For a long time, there was an inborn appreciation and recognition by our political leaders for farmers, their communities, and the critical importance of a stable food supply. Sadly, it appears that many policy makers and consumers alike have lost that awareness.

Now, the narrative in some recent media coverage is even more troubling. For some, the current severe drought provides a platform to advocate taking water from farmers to make more available for cities and the environment.

The hydrology of the West may be changing, but that should not drive hasty decisions. Agricultural water cannot be simply viewed as the default “reservoir” to meet other growing water demands.

The current water rights system has worked so far, and new flexible solutions can be developed within the context of that system.

While much discussion is focused on so-called water “demand management” options, we must also seriously assess projects that enhance water supplies. Restoring our watershed forests to a healthy state is one means of improving water supplies.

Urban and agricultural water users are constantly scrutinized and held accountable for how they manage water. Water dedicated to recreational and environmental require similar scrutiny.  We need to better understand how water yield is impacted by ecosystem management activities. This can ultimately lead to a proper prioritization and appropriate allocation of environmental water uses throughout the basin. 

We need to be nimble and adaptive, and plan for the long-term, waiting for spikes in runoff and finding ways to capture excess water in smaller reservoirs in upper tributary areas, for use in future drier periods. Strategically developed underground storage can provide one solution.

Importantly, we believe that the myriad of diverse Colorado River Basin interests can and will successfully work through future droughts and water shortages in a collaborative and effective way.

Farmers and ranchers know that removing water from their operations will have unintended ecosystem, societal, and even global impacts. With inflation potentially spiraling out of control, and the seeds of a global food shortage germinating in the trampled grain fields of Ukraine, Americans are just now seeing how these developments are translated back into the supermarket.

Agricultural production in the Colorado River Basin is an irreplaceable national resource that is vital to U.S. food security, the ecosystem, and overall drought resilience. It must be protected by ensuring water remains on-farm.

The future of millions of people in urban areas, millions of acres of farms and ranches and the food and fiber they produce, and the many rural communities that dot the landscape in the basin rest on this belief.

Don Schwindt, of Cortez, is a farmer and serves on several water boards, including the Family Farm Alliance. Dan Keppen, of Klamath Falls, Ore., is executive director of the Alliance.

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