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When available water options become a 'Hobson's choice'

By: Jack Flobeck
August 18, 2013 Updated: August 18, 2013 at 10:40 am
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Recent press and TV coverage of Colorado agriculture have included a number of dissertations on drought, draining aquifers, dying rivers, and the economic effects of baked, shriveled crops on the prairie. Many comparisons have been drawn to the dust bowl conditions of the 1930s and '40s in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico; except that in some areas, various crops appear in worse shape than in the '30s; until a little recent rain slaked the thirst of the rock hard dirt.

If your heart and soul can take a full measure of sorrow and sadness, then read "Worst Hard Times" by Timothy Egan, and try to fathom the depths of the sights, sounds and terrors of those 200 mile wide dust storms. Right now, our farmers in Southeast Colorado - Lamar, Springfield, Walsh, and Campo - are severely affected by the drought, as are our southern neighbors along the Arkansas River and in the San Luis Valley, all struggling with low rivers and drying aquifers.

The most recent edition of Headwaters Magazine detailed some of the economics and alternatives that farmers face. Essentially it's a 'Hobson's Choice,' where the farmers get a free choice, but only one option is offered, simply because there is no other choice; when there isn't enough water.

Since the Spanish first began irrigating in New Mexico in 1598, it's widely understood and accepted that agriculture uses close to 80 percent of all the available water in the west.

With the Ogallala Aquifer reading close to "E" on the water gauge, the Colorado River declared the most endangered river in America, and the Arkansas 'running off' earlier and earlier each year; the math becomes monumentally daunting. Eighty percent of zero isn't enough to bring in a crop.

The other shoe loudly crashes when you consider the natural human instinct to continue in the heritage of your father, your grandfather, and your great grandfather; raising hay to feed stock on the ranch.

For hundreds of years, universities and research groups have studied the amount of water various crops require. It's diabolically simple: just a matter of the latitude and longitude of the fields, the climate and average temperatures there, the elevation of the fields, the depth and root structure of the plants, the soil in the fields, and ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

However it all adds up to alfalfa being identified as one of the thirstiest crops grown in the west. In the San Luis Valley, alfalfa accounts for 265 thousand planted acres producing about $120 million in value. Potatoes, barley and wheat take 125 thousand acres and produce $243 million.

Another way to look at it is that a farmer can plant an acre of barley and make $785, plant an acre of potatoes and make $3,125, or plant an acre of hay and make approximately $500.

Ironically, the potatoes, barley and wheat use a lot less water, but there that Hobson's choice again. Farmers can sell their land for high prices to developers because it has water rights, and move off the place where they have lived for three generations; or change their entire lifestyle, raise much different crops, and adapt to a new environment.

With modern scientific irrigation methods, aggressive and innovative adjustment of regulations to permit new conservation measures, and collaboration between cities and farmers; we can and will save enough water and produce enough water to both satisfy human needs, as well as keep agriculture vibrant and successful.

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Jack Flobeck is the founder of Aqua Prima Center, a nonprofit think tank for water research. Readers can contact him at colojackf@msn.com.

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