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On The Edge

Episode Two: Cash Flows

A stone dam with water rushing through and a rocky cliffside above
Luke Runyon
The Grand Valley Diversion Dam, known as the Roller Dam, was constructed on the Colorado River in Debeque Canyon, upstream of the Grand Valley, shown here on March 12, 2020. The dam diverts the river's water in canals that deliver irrigation supplies to some of the valley's farms.

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LUKE RUNYON: I am on a hike in Western Colorado that takes you to the top of a viewpoint. Let me catch my breath for a second. It is at the top of a sandstone cliff, and from there you can see the entire Grand Valley -- where the Rocky Mountains, which are currently so beautiful and covered in snow, start to transition to desert. From up here, looking down into the valley, you get a great view of what water does when it’s applied to arid, Western landscapes. It has the power to completely transform.

In this valley irrigation canals create dividing lines. One side of the canal is dry, tan and scattered with tumbleweeds. The other side is every shade of green, full of peach blossoms in the spring. The sprawling farmlands are such a contrast to the desert I bet you can see this giant green patch from space.

And it’s the Colorado River that makes it all possible.

Throughout the southwest, agriculture accounts for the single largest use of the river’s water. Upwards of 80% is sucked up by fruit trees, alfalfa hay, romaine lettuce and cotton. It is the primary driver of the region’s entire agricultural economy.

So, it makes sense to look to farmers as the quickest and easiest way to bring the river into balance. But, it’s not so simple. Give them less water to use, and their livelihoods could be on the line along with challenges to our food supply. Maintain the status quo and the river system could collapse, and put drinking water for the entire region in jeopardy. The tradeoffs here present impossible choices.

Still, one idea has emerged as a short-term solution -- pay farmers not to farm, and then save and store the water they would’ve used for later. The federal government is putting lots of faith and money into this idea.

But farmers in the Grand Valley have tried it, and they’re not convinced.

From KUNC, this is Thirst Gap: Learning To Live With Less On The Colorado River. I’m Luke Runyon. This is episode 2, “Cash Flows.”

TROY WATERS: “This is actually a new planting of alfalfa seed. Okay, you can see just barely. See the two rows down to bed.”

When I met Troy Waters he was sporting a long gray beard. For our interview this past December he had to squeeze me in between appearances as Santa Claus in the nearby town -- Fruita, Colorado.

T. WATERS: “Anyhow, this is the Highline Canal.”

RUNYON: “Okay.”

T. WATERS: “Let me take you up to the siphon because the siphon’s cool.”

We’re in his pickup, along with son Calvin and dog Kailey, driving right alongside the valley’s dividing line -- the giant canal that takes Colorado River water to his fields. We’re on the green side.

T. WATERS: “I actually own 35 acres on the other side of the canal...”

RUNYON: “Oh, really? What's that for?”

T. WATERS: “Nothing.”

CALVIN WATERS: “Go ride a four wheeler on.”

T. WATERS: “Desert ground. Just the way this property was split.”

C. WATERS: “Everything that’s green is below the canal and everything that's brown is above it.”

Troy has farmed in this valley his whole life. The job and the land were passed down to him through generations.

T. WATERS: “I was taught this way and I've taught my son this way. Water is our most valuable resource. And it takes probably the most management and most care.”

Now, Calvin is preparing to take over the family farm. He left for college, became a chef at a hotel in Denver, until farming called him back.

C. WATERS: “And about two years into working for Marriott, I’d worked for other companies, I decided I wanted to come back to the farm. And he thought I was nuts.

T. WATERS: “Got tired of living in Denver.”

C. WATERS: “I got tired of living in Denver and I didn't really want to leave Colorado that much.”

He met his wife around the same time, and now they have a son.

C. WATERS: “And I didn't want him to grow up in the city with dad working 110 hours in a hotel and never seeing him, so moved back here for that.”

The Waters family — yes, their last name is Waters — is so rooted in agriculture here that Troy name-dropped part of the family tree that left me starstruck.

T. WATERS: “So I’ve done lots of headless chicken interviews...”

RUNYON: “Oh my gosh, Troy, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that.”

Mike the Headless Chicken. Probably the most famous chicken in Colorado history. Troy’s great-grandfather was his owner and tour manager.

Ok, back to water. Troy and Calvin run this farm together. It’s about 600 acres. Their biggest crop is seed for alfalfa hay. But Troy says they like to experiment.

T. WATERS: “Waters Farms has pretty much raised about anything you can try raising here in the lower valley: Forage alfalfa, corn, soybeans, pinto beans, barley. Tried a little popcorn one time. That was interesting.”

Part of the farm sits within an irrigation district that pulls water directly from the Colorado River miles away. That water flows by gravity down here. It’s then Troy and Calvin’s job to make sure the water makes it to each individual plant. The canal system is old, and when it comes to water rights, you want them to be old.

T. WATERS: “Traditionally we're sitting here in this valley with some of the oldest water rights on the Colorado River. We've always had plenty of water. Even though we're hot and dry, we can irrigate the crop when it needs it, not dependent on Mother Nature, you know, to get timely rains, and I think that’s what makes us really unique.”

Let me give a quick rundown of how water rights work. It’s basically a legal system meant to manage scarcity. And it’s all based on time. When did someone first put some amount of water to use. The older the right, the more protected it is. And it can be passed down through generations like a family heirloom. Senior users get their full share before anyone else, meaning farmers, some of the region’s first white settlers, often hold the oldest, and therefore most valuable rights in the West. Still, Troy says he’s felt an increasing pressure to use less.

T. WATERS: “There's been more and more talk every year about conserving water, keeping more water in the river and I'm all for that. I'm all for conserving water. I'm all for -- water is our most precious resource. And we need to protect it. And we need to utilize it the best way and manage it the best way possible.”

Around the year 2000 it seemed a switch was flipped in the Colorado River basin. Droughts started to feel less like a temporary problem and more like a permanent change in how the river functions -- hotter, drier, and less water to go around. In response to that decreasing supply, the federal government, some large cities in the West and environmental groups turned their attention to agriculture. And some ideas on how to get farmers to use less without going out of business began to gain momentum. What would it take for farmers, with their more protected water rights, to conserve?

A few different programs were rolled out. They all essentially have the same mission -- see if you could pay farmers enough money to leave some of their fields unplanted, and keep the water they were legally entitled to in the river instead of flowing over farm fields. Troy is on the board for his irrigation district and when the opportunity to join some of these programs came up.

T. WATERS: “There were some very, very long meetings and lots of arguing and yelling, when we first started talking about that. And I'll admit I was totally against it from day one, doing any of these programs. And to me it didn't make any sense in my mind leaving productive agriculture land sit vacant. We have spent 100 years turning desert ground into productive ag ground. And when you don't irrigate it, you're going backwards.”

Troy wondered if he was sacrificing, who was benefitting? Big cities and farms downstream in California? It didn’t sit right with him.

Ultimately, he saw some value in trying it as an experiment.

T. WATERS: “Me and my son talked about it and we decided, I told him, ‘Hey, maybe we need to participate just to see...’”

C. WATERS: “How we can make this work on our operation into the future.”

T. WATERS: “If, if, if push comes to shove and we were forced to. Everybody keeps saying demand management should be voluntary, temporary, and compensated. Them are the three big words. Well my fear is that it ain’t going to be voluntary. My second fear is it ain’t going to be temporary. And I can guarantee it ain’t going to be compensated good enough. We need to try it to see if we're forced to in the future, how we could implement it on our farm? How would it affect us? I had my feelings for what it would do to our ground. I wanted some proof. And like I said, I was the biggest naysayer on the board against it. I don't feel that you can sit back and be a naysayer and against something unless you actually got experience.”

How did the experience go on the Waters Farm?

C. WATERS: “Every time the wind blew, congratulations were going back to the Dust Bowl.”

That’s coming up after the break.

RUNYON: “It’s tough to get farmers to...”

T. WATERS: “To talk..”

RUNYON: “Talk, yeah.”

Troy, Calvin and I visited in their machine shed. And because it was winter time this is the place where the tractors used during the growing season get yearly maintenance.

Troy and Calvin decided to enroll about 100 acres of their own land in one of the experimental programs called the Conserved Consumptive Use Program. For a summer growing season all that farmland sat fallow. Just dirt. And they got paid to keep it that way even going so far as killing every weed that popped up.

T. WATERS: “We chose deliberately everything from our worst ground, our least productive ground to our most productive ground and everything in between.

During that year Troy and Calvin paid close attention to their fallowed ground. Troy was worried that even taking just one irrigation season off would have long-term effects on the health of his soil. That desert on the other side of the canal? It started creeping closer to his house.

C. WATERS: “You just turned it back into a desert.”

T. WATERS: “You literally turn it back to desert. So we used more water that fall to try to establish our fall crops than we normally would have. If you're going to pay me to put ground aside, it needs to be the revenue I'm losing off that ground that year, plus the revenue I'm going to lose for the next two or three years on the reduced yields. I felt it really hurt our ground and it took us several years to get it back to where it was before.”

RUNYON: “How did it feel like setting aside that farmland to not be grown for that year, even if you were getting paid for it as a farmer, did it feel like what am I doing?”

T. WATERS: “It did.”

C. WATERS: “And it looked awful.”

T. WATERS: “It looked terrible.”

C. WATERS: “You just had these big old dry patches of dirt that every time the wind blew, congratulations were going back to the Dust Bowl. It was just, it was horrible to look at.”

T. WATERS: “Yeah, it was very unattractive to look at it. It hurt me mentally to look at them. Look at a field out there just sitting there doing nothing.”

And he says if you do this across enough land like across an entire river basin, you start to get worried about where all the food is going to come from.

These types of pay-to-fallow conservation programs aren’t just being rolled out in this one valley. The federal government wants to pay farmers to leave some of their fields fallow along the entire length of the Colorado River.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which is the government’s biggest investment yet in combatting the effects of climate change, is 100% behind this idea, setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars just to pay farmers to leave their fields unplanted.

Troy would rather see those funds going to long-term solutions, like helping farmers use water more efficiently, lining the leaky canals that bring water to his farm, or to switch to less thirsty crops. If these fallowing programs become the norm, he sees all sorts of unintended consequences, everything from increased dust to damage to the local ag economy to the potential for a permanent dry-up of the West’s farmland.

T. WATERS: “But I also don't feel it's a long term fix because it wasn't for us and it didn't turn out to be the rosy bed that we thought because we ended up costing ourselves money in the long run because of lost yields and extra work and extra time that fall of trying to get a crop established. More things were on there than them dollar signs. And I'm afraid that too many other guys are just looking at that quick fix right now and not looking down the road.”

One more potential side effect: Turning water into an investment. Soon after these programs were rolled out, the Waters farm found itself with a new neighbor. A private equity fund, with a headquarters on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. It began buying up farmland here along with the associated water shares. Water Asset Management, it’s called.

NEWSCLIP: “Historic drought fueled by climate change and overuse of the river has drained its reservoirs to record lows and that is turning water in the West into a very hot commodity.”

NEWSCLIP: “In some Western farm communities, private investors, who see the increasing scarcity as a money making opportunity are showing up with their checkbooks but not without pushback.”

C. WATERS: “It's not just our valley, it's Arizona, it's California. It's anywhere that New York investment firms, carpetbaggers, you might want to say, can come in and reap the benefits of look at what we can do. And we're saving water and make money off of everyone who's been here dealing with it.”

Troy and Calvin now worry -- will there come a day when the water is so valuable here that farms like theirs can’t survive?

T. WATERS: “My passion is to see my son keep farming, maybe see my grandson or granddaughter keep farming. How long can you keep paying a farmer to set aside a third of his ground?”

Mark Harris lives just a short drive from the Waters family. I met him at his farmhouse on the outskirts of Grand Junction, the valley’s largest city. And was greeted by Eddie the sheepdog.

MARK HARRIS: “Eddie! Hi, Luke.”

RUNYON: “Good to see you.”

HARRIS: “Nice to see you.”

Mark is the recently retired general manager of the irrigation district where Troy farms. The controversial experiments to pay farmers not to farm, all those played out under his watch.

HARRIS: “To some extent in agriculture, we all raised the same crop. That’s money. If you don't raise enough of that crop, you can't continue to farm.”

During his time at the helm, Mark made a name for himself as shrewd and strategic. He pushed farmers to engage with scary ideas. He says there’s this feeling among farmers that because of their senior water rights that they’re going to be forever protected from the water scarcity taking hold along the Colorado River.

But he learned early on during his stint with the irrigation district that farmers were fooling themselves.

HARRIS: “One of the municipal providers that we meet with routinely early on told us that even with the senior water rights that the irrigators had is that they will not trump people's right to have water, people's right to be able to fight fires, run all of the civic operations that they need for septic systems and those kinds of things. And if push comes to shove, they will come to agriculture and take what is needed.”

With that in mind Mark says he began to think of these conservation programs as a way to hedge bets and get out in front of the coming struggles over water. If there is increasing pressure on farmers to conserve from cities, from environmental and recreation groups, from wildlife advocates, from the federal government -- how can you make sure you get the best deal under that scenario, even if it means making some big sacrifices?

HARRIS: “This is bigger than us. And we need to be thinking about, you know, how do we fit? Because we're never going to be likely negotiating from a position of strength. We're probably never going to be the most powerful people in the room. We need to be amongst the most, the best informed. We need to be amongst the most willing to try to find ways that we can monetize benefit for others to benefit ourselves.”

He says the programs paying farmers not to plant weren’t perfect. But they were able to prove that given the right incentives, farmers would participate.

HARRIS: “It has always been our contention that nobody can do anything on the river without affecting everyone else. So we can all be bad guys. Maybe we can all be good guys.”

The conservation programs in the Grand Valley ended in 2018. They were billed as short-term experiments. But the dry years kept coming. 2020, 2021 and 2022 all brought drier than normal weather for the Colorado River.

TINA BERGONZINI: “Thank you guys for coming.”

But here, at the 2023 annual meeting for the Grand Valley Water Users Association -- the talk was about reviving the program. This time with a lot more federal money from the Inflation Reduction Act set aside to pay farmers. 125 million for payments in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

They met in a storage garage, about 50 people in attendance, and heard about how this new iteration of the program might work. The association’s new general manager Tina Bergonzini laid out the parameters.

BERGONZINI: “Ok, system conservation. At the February 9th board meeting the board of directors voted to participate in a system conservation program to support the state’s proposal.”

The crowd wasn’t outright hostile to the idea, but several people voiced serious skepticism. One of the first questions came from a farmer who wanted to know why they were doing this -- who benefits when Grand Valley farmers use less? I met up with Tina a few weeks after the meeting, and she says she’s heard from plenty of skeptical farmers since then.

BERGONZINI: “With the feedback I’ve gotten, there’s been more curious questions of, ‘Why? How could this benefit us? Is this going to end up being permanent? Is this dangerous to our water right?” I have had a handful of people just the straight out, blunt, asking, ‘Are you sending our water to California?’”

Tina told me that this program is all about a show of good faith. Even if it’s not that much water saved, farmers here can say they’re at least doing something.

BERGONZINI: “Every little bit helps. But at the end of the day, we don’t have enough water in the upper basin in system conservation to be able to save Lake Powell. We don’t.”

This renewed program came in a moment of crisis. The Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs were about to dip low enough to lose the ability to generate hydropower. States and the federal government were in emergency mode.

But still, being at that meeting with the farmers, I could see how hard it is to draw a bright line between what happens on an acre of land in western Colorado and the future of the entire Colorado River basin. And how tempting it is for them to want to retreat into their century-old water rights.

After the meeting wrapped up and people were standing around mingling I ran into Troy and Calvin Waters. I hadn’t seen them in months. Last time we spoke this new program hadn’t been proposed yet, and I was curious if after hearing how it works if they’d want to sign up some of their land again. Troy looked at me and said, “No. Was that fast enough for you? No.”

Next time on Thirst Gap, we continue our journey down the Colorado River to its second largest reservoir, Lake Powell. It reached a record low this year.

SHERI FACINELLI: “But it's a massive lake. I mean now think about what it means when a foot of water goes down. I mean, I can't even conceive of how much water that is.”

Boaters who vacation here are witnessing the changes, and they wonder how much longer Lake Powell will be their summer playground. While some conservationists say it’s time to get rid of the reservoir all together. That’s in episode 3, “The Big Empty.”

Thirst Gap is a production of KUNC, brought to you by the Colorado Water Center and the Colorado State University Office of Engagement and Extension, with additional support from the Walton Family Foundation and the Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder. It was written and reported by me, Luke Runyon. Editing by Johanna Zorn. Our theme song was composed by Jason Paton, who also sound designed and mixed the episode. Ashley Jefcoat, Jennifer Coombes and Natalie Skowlund are our digital editors. Sean Corcoran is KUNC’s news director. Tammy Terwelp is KUNC’s president and CEO.

Special thanks to: Alex Hager, Elliot Ross, Stephanie Daniel, Desmond O’Boyle, Robert Leja, Kim Rais, and Jen Prall.

To learn more about the Colorado River, go to kunc.org/thirstgap or check out the show notes for a link.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.