Colorado agriculture is a $40 billion industry and a dominant water user in the state accounting for 86 percent of its total water diversions.  However, growing demands from competing water needs such as population growth threaten to reduce irrigated farming and ranching in coming decades. Opportunities to minimize that reduction and maintain the many values irrigated agriculture contributes to Colorado, including local food production, open space and rural livelihoods, will exist, but will require increasing creativity and collaboration from policy makers and water users alike, according to a new research report issued by CoBank in partnership with the Colorado Foundation for Water Education (CFWE).

The report, "Managing Agriculture and Water Scarcity in Colorado (and Beyond)," is the first in a three-part series that explores water development and allocation challenges throughout the West and discusses the adaptive strategies and policies key water users are implementing to manage the worsening scarcity.  

Between 2000 and 2014, Colorado's population grew from 4.3 million to 5.4 million people, one of the fastest growth rates of any state in the country. Propelled by that growth spurt, Colorado is transitioning from a more rural and sparsely populated state to one dominated by an urban and suburban corridor around the Front Range. This rapid growth has led to mounting pressures on agriculture's water use and on the state's already scarce water supply.

"Swelling water demands from cities experiencing rapid population growth, compounded by the difficulty in permitting new water storage projects, have spurred municipalities to increasingly pursue acquisitions of senior agricultural water rights from willing sellers," said Leonard Sahling, vice president of CoBank's Knowledge Exchange Division. "These transactions can be profitable for an individual farmer but threaten to undermine the viability of rural communities as farmers and supporting businesses cease operations and move out of the area."

By 2050, it is projected that the state's municipalities could experience a water supply gap - the difference between available water supply and future water demand - of up to 500,000 acre-feet, a gap that threatens to reduce irrigated acreage by 20 percent to meet the equivalent of 2.5 million people's water needs unless other cooperative solutions are implemented.

"It's essential that all water users-whether you're a farmer or developer-understand the many values of water in Colorado. Agriculture is such a major water user and contributor to Colorado's economy and heritage, it's part of who we are," said Kristin Maharg, interim director for CFWE. "As our water supply challenges get more complex, there's a greater need to understand different perspectives and share innovative ideas with each other."

Faced with pressures from drought and competing water demands, Coloradans are developing innovative strategies, technical solutions and new agreements designed to improve water efficiency and introduce flexibility into water law.

For a copy of the report, please visit the Colorado Foundation for Water Education's website at  or CoBank's Knowledge Exchange Division  Power, Energy and Water Center of Excellence.