Fort Collins Conservation District

Ron Neher

Agriculture Rates a Priority in Water Use

By: Ron Neher, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Retired

I remember back about 1992, there was an article in a newspaper, Sunday issue, with the subject of water. The paper was headquartered out of Denver with an understandably large subscription base. As I recall, the article was quite lengthy and possibly ran in multiple issues. The whole idea of the article was in reference to the limited supply of water in Colorado and basically how it should be managed for the best use of the resource. As the article evolved, it became evident that the author believed way too much water was being used in agriculture, - specifically in the production of corn. It also became evident that the water, as the author stated, could be better used along the Front Range where the country sides were being developed into residential developments, than out in the common areas such as Eastern Colorado.

The article, as I recall, elaborated on the mass amount of corn production acres in Eastern Colorado, how much water was used for that purpose, and that way too much water was being used for agriculture. In addition, the article noted the large necessary demand for water’s availability along Colorado’s Front Range for various current and future domestic uses.

Colorado is one of two states where water only flows out of the state and not into it, - the other state is Hawaii. You would think with that fact in mind, we wouldn’t have a water shortage problem. But, - wrong again, - we do. And with that, comes the popular cliché that when there isn’t a surplus someone or something does without, gets a reduction, gets cut, or is simply ignored.

Fact: the earth has just so much fresh water and less than 1% (really close to 0.75%) of the fresh water on the earth is readily available for human use in one form or another. The large percentage of unusable fresh water is tied up in the polar ice caps, ground water, vapor, or some place or form other than the kitchen faucet. Think about it, - that’s not much water when the total population of earth is currently estimated at seven billion, - plus or minus a few. So, with each of us needing a drink, what should be done when there is more demand than supply.

Back shortly after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark completed their escapade to the West, man from the East ventured west and eventually settled all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It is estimated that in 1870 approximately 75% of the U.S. population was directly involved in agriculture in one form or another. Today that number has dwindled to less than 2%, - with some estimates much less, - if you can get much less.

As populations grew, the argument over who has the right to water became a greater issue. This topic has been fought in the courts, - and in some fields, - for generations. It will continue to be a focal point of controversy as demand and purpose of water are determined.

People tend to appreciate and applaud those things close to them or with things they are associated with personally. That statement should be accepted as fact with all of us. However, as less and less people are directly affiliated with agriculture, the importance of placing water with agriculture lessens.

So, with today’s population almost entirely not being directly involved in agriculture, what values do the public have regarding the priority of water. And keep this in mind, - we still need to eat.