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Water focused plans – Colorado River Basin pulls focus on water management

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

When water use and management comes up, the Colorado River Basin is often at the forefront of the discussion. Water shortages in the Basin have created concern for a wide spectrum of people, ranging from agriculture to municipalities.

The Family Farm Alliance, an organization representing western irrigators from 17 western states, recently released a report looking at the issues surrounding the Basin and their recommendations for moving forward.

Alliance President Pat O’Toole, a Savery rancher, noted, “Leaders in the Colorado River Basin can and will successfully work through future droughts and water shortages in a collaborative and effective way. The future of millions of people and millions of acres of farms and ranches and the food and fiber they produce in the Basin rests on this belief.”

O’Toole continued, “We’ve been working on this report for a year and a half, and we feel, as everyone else does, that the Colorado River Basin is going to be an area of contention and opportunity. Since Wyoming is the headwaters, it is pretty important.”

The report, titled “Colorado River Water Management – Principles and Recommendations,” looks to highlight positive recommendations that resolve differences and complex water problems.

“We have crafted this paper articulating our principles for smart, effective management of water resources in the Colorado River Basin,” said Alliance board member Don Schwindt, a farmer from southwestern Colorado. “Our goal is to help decision-makers in the Basin deal with the harsh realities of current and future water shortages due to drought and over-allocation of water.”

Water issues

The paper looks at eight principles as the main drivers for water decisions moving into the future.

First, the Family Farm Alliance emphasized that state water laws, compacts and decrees should be the foundation for decision-making during times of water shortage.

“Water use and related beneficial use data must be accurately measured and portrayed,” the document added. “Benefits of water use must reflect all economic, societal and environmental impacts.”

The Family Farm Alliance additionally focused on ensuring that the true costs of transferring water away from irrigated farms, including unintended consequences and third-party impacts, must be considered to determine the fair value of land fallowing proposals.

“Agricultural water conservation can help stretch water supplies, but it has its limits,” Family Farm Alliance described.

The organization continued, “Public sentiment supports water remaining with irrigated agriculture and developing strategic water storage opportunities as insurance against shortages.”

Family Farm Alliance also emphasized improving water reuse and recycling technologies to stretch existing supplies in urban, environmental and other uses in the report.

Finally, before continuing to grow urban areas, Family Farm Alliance mentioned that it is important to lock in sustainable and diverse water supplies.

“We believe the principles and recommendations in this paper can guide policy leaders to solutions that do not pit one user against another in resolving differences and complex water problems,” said Alliance board member Ron Rayner, a rancher from Arizona. “We look forward to working with the many agricultural, urban, energy and environmental water users in finding these solutions so critical to the future of the Colorado River Basin.”   

Against agriculture

As water use is discussed across the West, O’Toole expressed concern for a growing sentiment against agriculture, partially due to the industry’s use of water for irrigation.

Water use in the Colorado River Basin, O’Toole said, is the most efficient in the world. He added that people from around the world come to see the efficiency of water usage.

He explained that drought in California has resulted in widespread discussion about food production, and he said, “Drought has allowed some of the people most violently opposed to making food to think the whole food system needs to be upturned because there is drought. The whole discussion demonizes agriculture.”

O’Toole added that this marks the first time in American history that agriculture has had to justify itself.

He said, “Others talk about the ways to take water away from farmers and ranchers, but we need to talk about how we need to produce more food.”

Role of conservation

O’Toole also emphasized that ag performs many essential water-related functions. He noted that one of the things that is highlighted in the report is the role of conservation that agriculture carries out.

“People don’t understand that without flood irrigation, we would have endangered species in migratory birds,” he explained. “Flood irrigation is a critical part of both producing food and recharging aquifers.”

In Wyoming, he noted that flood irrigation is critical to how the rivers work.

In addition, water storage is important.

“If we don’t have storage, but we have an easy winter and a lot of moisture in the spring, we aren’t going to have water late in the season, and we won’t have fisheries,” O’Toole said. “Understanding how the complete system works is very important.”


O’Toole said that several trends can be seen on a national scale as far as water use is concerned.

“Water is a private property right, and the states were given control of the water within their borders,” he said. “There are a lot of people who want to tear the system apart, which is essentially federalizing our water. We want to articulate that we don’t agree with that.”

Water use and protection, he continued, should be driven by the individual and those with the private property rights to own and control the water within their boundaries.

“We are seeing a total attempt to federalize waters,” O’Toole said. “The waters of the U.S. rule is a good example of that.”

He continued, “What we need to do is give power to the individuals and local areas. That is where the best work is done.”

Inside the Family Farm Alliance

The Family Farm Alliance, a grass roots organization, was formed nearly 25 years ago with the sole mission of protecting and enhancing irrigated agriculture in the western United States.

“We represent family farmers from all over the West,” Alliance President Pat O’Toole commented.

The organization advocates for family farms and water rights across the West in a variety of ways.

“We have a history of working in Washington, D.C., and we have testified 45 times in the last 10 years to Congress,” O’Toole said. “We bring farmers to testify about all kinds of water issues.”

O’Toole noted that the organization strives to perpetuate American agriculture, rural America and families that farm across the West.


Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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