The 2023 update to the Colorado Water Plan was approved and released in January of this year. The most recent update to this plan, which was first drafted in 2015, focuses on four action areas: vibrant communities, robust agriculture, thriving watersheds, and resilient planning. As we anticipate another hot, dry summer with increased water use restrictions, and our state population to grow by more than half by 2050, what social factors in the plan are Coloradans responsible for addressing?
There is a deep societal divide in Colorado between urban and agricultural water users. Conversations are often heavy with blame and scorn, each group believing the other is responsible for the water crisis. Agricultural users are blamed for continuing to plant water-intensive crops, and urban users are criticized for their indifference to the water crisis. With lots of diverse livelihoods in our state, people are going to see the water crisis from different perspectives.
Instead of trying to place blame, we should seek understanding and develop a shared vision of what we desire from our lives here in Colorado.
Where water is naturally supplied in Colorado is not necessarily where the greatest demand lies. According to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, 80% of the state’s water flows west of the Continental Divide, but 90% of the state’s population lies on the east side, as does most of the state’s irrigated agriculture. As far as how that water is consumed, 86% is used for agriculture across the state, while 7% goes to municipalities, like households and city parks, as well as to industry. The rest goes to self-supplied industry, which includes businesses like breweries and activities such as snowmaking for ski resorts.
However, focusing solely on the numbers ignores the important social context of livelihoods and well-being. For farmers and ranchers, this is their job and way of life, and these professions are integral to our state history and identity. Yet the water crisis is putting strain on the industry and on communities. A 2021 study in Northeastern Colorado revealed how water ownership is a contested matter even within small rural towns that depend on each other for well-being. One study participant acknowledged that “Owning [water] gives some clout; you sell it, you lose the clout.” People living in urban areas need to realize that for many producers, selling their water means selling their past and their future, but many are often left with no other choice.
Additionally, people’s values are often in conflict. The same study revealed surprisingly mixed feelings regarding change in rural farming and ranching communities. Some producers are concerned with past and projected losses, while others have noticed innovation bridging the gap between agricultural and urban communities.
Some other notable conflicts most of us are probably familiar with: wanting healthy rivers and watersheds that support intact ecosystems and good hunting and fishing opportunities; but also to continue growing water-intensive cash crops such as alfalfa and corn. Or the common desire for lush green lawns and parks; but also the personal freedom to take whatever length of shower we want. Importantly, we must recognize the complexity of personal experiences and goals for our shared future when considering the water crisis. Coloradans are not defined by a single value, nor by whether they live in an urban or an agricultural community.
At this point, we know that innovative, equitable, and sustainable changes must be made, both in cities and in agriculture. As with any kind of change, there are challenges. For farmers, even transitioning from high-water crops like alfalfa to less consumptive crops such as hemp are fraught with financial uncertainty. In addition, the widening gap between supply and demand will continue to drive up the cost of water, posing challenges for residential, industrial and agricultural users, especially smaller farms that make important local or regional contributions to the economy and lower-income communities. For urban areas, population increases will require more development — and more access to a dwindling supply of water.
So what can we do to bridge this divide? There’s no simple solution to the water crisis, and it’s not going away, but there are things we can do to build a better water future for Colorado.
Studies show that a comprehensive understanding of water knowledge by all water users (so, everybody!) enhances our ability for meaningful public engagement and equitable water management practices that are suited to a local context. In addition to enhancing your own knowledge of the water crisis, you can participate in local meetings to get involved with critical water initiatives in your own community.
We need the voices of all of Colorado’s residents to be involved in one of the greatest challenges facing our state. Meaningful participation in local issues that include discussions of livelihood and finding shared meaning will help move us toward a brighter future.
Kaitlyn Stabell, of Fort Collins, is a master’s student in the Conservation Leadership program at Colorado State University.
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