With Colorado’s population expected to grow from about 5.5 million now to as many as 10 million by 2050, water concerns are increasing in the semi-arid state. More than 85% of water used in Colorado is by agriculture, the state’s second-highest economic driver, but the statewide water plan released in 2015 does not include a water conservation goal for farms and ranches, according to the Colorado Independent.
Lack of a goal for the agricultural community may not be the state’s biggest challenge in terms of water conservation, however. The 2015 water plan set a high bar for businesses, cities, and towns statewide, with a goal of cutting annual usage by some 400,000 in acre-feet, but it lacks clear guidelines on how to get there. The state’s special policy advisor on water, John Stulp, says the plan is aspirational rather than a strict rule, and that it’s up to water providers to figure out how to conserve water. About 95% of water utilities now have water efficiency measures in place, but Stulp says it’s still too early to develop specific conservation numbers that water providers must reach.
The new director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Becky Mitchell, says she will help the state reach its water conservation and storage goals by increased collaboration among stakeholders, education, and outreach programs that would “address the supply-demand gap” (via Vail Daily). Another drought, like the one Colorado experienced in 2001-2001, could cause significant problems for the agricultural community.
But when it comes to drought and farming in Colorado, it seems a self-imposed fee on groundwater could work better than government regulations, according to a new study from the University of Colorado Boulder. The study suggests that self-imposed well-pumping fees can play an important role, incentivizing farmers to slash use by a third, plant less thirsty crops and water more efficiently.
The study centered around an initiative in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where several hundred farmers voted to self-impose a fee on groundwater – which is typically free and largely unregulated – beginning in 2011. The move came after a historic drought in 2002 and subsequent drier-than-average years left the region’s aquifer depleted and some farmers worried that the state might begin shutting down wells, as it had in other areas.