SALT LAKE CITY — Already 1 million acre-feet of water once used on farms, ranches and orchards throughout the seven states in the Colorado River basin is being "saved," mainly through water system improvements and reductions in consumption.
A probe of water use by the agricultural sector is included in the "Moving Forward" phase of the Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study released in May, detailing that another 1 million acre-feet could be saved in 45 years.
An acre-foot is enough water to supply the domestic needs of two families of four for a year, or in this case of water savings in the basin, 8 million people.
Experts say upward of 75 percent of those savings will be realized through the actual fallowing of farms, which comes with its own set of risks to food security.
Sterling Brown, vice president of public policy of the Utah Farm Bureau, said there is no question there is a need for greater water efficiency across all spectrums of users.
"There is no doubt that the answer in large part to meeting our water demands as our population grows is through better efficiency and minimizing waste, and that is true for both agriculture and municipal and industrial use. Agriculture must become more efficient and reduce waste, but the answer is not just that," Brown said.
"Plants and animals demand water, and frankly, a lot of water. A 1,400-pound dairy cow is going to drink 35 gallons of water a day, and again tomorrow, and on weekends and the holidays. If Americans want a safe, affordable and abundant food supply, food commands a lot of water," he said.
Agriculture is 70 percent of the domestic use of Colorado River water, accounting for more than $5 billion in goods for the domestic food economy, including hay or alfalfa that supports the livestock industry.
About 4.5 million acres of agricultural land receive Colorado River water. In Utah, that number stands at just under a half-million acres.
Since 1980, agricultural water demands have remained steady throughout the basin states, averaging about 8 million acre-feet, but production has actually increased by 25 percent due to new, more efficient water systems being installed or other advances in crop technology.
Of the nearly 1.3 million acres of irrigated land in Utah, just slightly more than half are being watered by these pressured sprinkler systems that drastically curtail water use on farms and pastures — and Utah is ahead of many other states in the West.
Utah Department of Agriculture spokesman Larry Lewis said a pivot system can achieve a water efficiency savings rate of up to 80 percent and nearly double an acre's yield of crops.
Over the past 40 years, the department has made low-interest loans available to Utah producers to encourage "smart" farming practices, including moving away from flood irrigation.
Since 2012, it has funded 70 projects on farms and ranches to improve water savings at a cost of $6 million, Lewis added.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service will spend $1.2 billion over the next five years to boost water conservation among the nation's agricultural producers, and it's making $394 million available to producers in the 2014-15 spending cycle.
Some of that conservation service money paid for on-farm improvements in Weber County for users on the Huntsville irrigation system, including sophisticated pivot systems with remote-control technology. In-ground sensors on some of the farm properties inform producers when soils get too dry, as well as the soil temperatures, helping to avoid crop loss in times of dryness and helping to reduce wasteful watering.
The Huntsville irrigation district figures it is using only a third of the water it used to, with the rest of that flowing downstream to the benefit of other users.
Brown points out that food demands of the country will keep agricultural use of water on the high end, but farming also returns much of that water to the land.
"We must recognize, on average in Utah's climate, the water that is put before the plant, the plant is going to only use 50 percent of that water," he said. "While agriculture is using 82 percent of Utah's water, only half of that is being used by the plants, and the rest is recharging the aquifer system or going downstream to other users."
Outright enclosures or lining of canals can also boost water savings. The Colorado River study points out 30,000 acre-feet of savings in Southern California, where the Coachella Canal was lined. That water was made available for other uses.
Following the catastrophic failure of the Logan Canal in 2009 in Utah, irrigation district leaders pursued a $20 million project to enclose 6 miles of that water conveyance system. Officials estimate the enclosure has saved 7,500 acre-feet of water.
The Utah Division of Water Resources has a revolving low-interest or no-interest loan fund that is helping to complete 40 agricultural efficiency projects across the state.
Carly Burton, executive director of the Utah Water Users Association and head of the Bear River Water Users Association, called the transformation to more efficient agricultural irrigation a "work in progress."
"We are always preaching conservation," he said. "It is an ongoing process as these new technologies become more available, affordable."
Burton said every irrigator above Bear Lake that draws from the system uses real-time monitoring flow devices that have been in place the past 10 years.
"It has made a world of difference," he said.
Conservation practices have their own impacts, however.
The basin study points out that where flood irrigation has been replaced by less water-using "drip" irrigation systems, groundwater levels have declined. Taking farm land out of production means future water use on that chunk of land may be at a permanent end, posing potential harm to any surrounding wildlife.
The report includes a number of recommendations and possible steps for policymakers, agricultural producers and agencies to consider, including:
Adopting regional standards and practices for remote sensing programs.
Voluntarily retiring less productive lands.
Promoting programs and policies that incentivize efficient water use.
Encouraging soil health measures in water conservation programs.
Enhancing and using mechanisms to facilitate flexible water management such as banking, transfers and exchanges.
Concern over water consumption in Utah and the West is growing due to a number of factors, unquestionably amplified by years of prolonged drought and the uncertainty of a changing climate.
The Western Governors Association has convened multiple forums to help states grapple with drought, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert organized a water advisory team to craft Utah-specific solutions.
Critics of a pair of massive water development projects, too, successfully pushed for audits that call into question the state's water management practices, conservation targets and water pricing approaches that rely on property tax revenues.
Herbert has ordered a water rate study, and some lawmakers have said the time is now for reform. A full committee discussion on water-related issues is scheduled Wednesday among members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.
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