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Water, water,everywhere? The choices.

By Will Lee-Ashley

Colorado’s current population exceeds 4.3 million and our water resources are stretched to the limit. By 2010 our population of 5.6 million people will be scrambling for the same meager water resources.

Of our available water, more than 80 percent is used for agricultural purposes and the remaining 20% goes to domestic use. As domestic water needs increase in the state, we can expect to see agriculture receive less and less water. Unless we are able to refocus what is really at stake in this struggle over our water, agriculture will dry up in Colorado.

The water transfers in the Arkansas Valley, where the city of Aurora bought entire ditches of water from farmers, are probably the first of many. They illustrate how easily water can be moved from rural areas to urban and how devastating the impact is on rural communities left without irrigated agriculture. Colorado will lose its $4 billion agricultural industry unless we change the terms of the water debate in this state.

For urban citizens, for whom municipalities purchase water, the decision to acquire rural Colorado’s water is not a difficult choice. Sure, it is not good to let our rural communities dry up economically, but urban citizens need water, and, besides, is there really a connection with those folks in the rural areas?

It is unbelievable to think that there is no longer a connection between people who grow food and people who eat it. But these water sales clearly demonstrate that very separation. A sale of water from agriculture to domestic use says that drinking water is more important than food production. Are both not equally essential to survival? Shouldn’t the supply of both be given paramount consideration?

Yet, water transfers in Colorado up to this point have sacrificed food production in the pursuit of drinking water.

The problem is that there are no repercussions on the dinner plates of Coloradoans if agriculture in this state disappears. This has everything to do with the structure of our food system. If the urban citizens are able to get their wheat from Argentina, tomatoes from Mexico and their beef from Iowa, rural Colorado will not be missed. The fact that we can import food from all over the globe cheaply—for now—masks the true danger of these water sales. We all know, however, that once water is transferred out of agriculture, there is no going back.

So, if agriculture and the communities they support are to survive more than one more generation, it will require an all-out effort to place Colorado-grown food on the plates of Coloradoans; we will have to take the anonymity out of our food system. Not only will this cut our dependence upon fossil fuels (our food travels an average of 1300 miles today), increase profitability at the farm gate, but it may be the only thing that keeps water and people in rural Colorado.

Imagine if the sanctity of Colorado’s food supply was among the factors taken into consideration in water transfer negotiations. This would create the need for a whole new range of alternatives for conserving and using water. For example, cities would reconsider bluegrass lawns, private swimming pools, and other water-wasteful habits. They would also consider more intensive means of water recycling.

Cities would also have an incentive to pay for irrigation technologies that would allow farmers to save water—without taking it from agriculture. Under this scenario, cities could use the saved water for urban uses.

In light of future water allocations in Colorado, the creation of markets for Colorado’s agricultural products cannot be seen as a ‘niche alternative for some producers.’ Rather, it needs to be the benchmark for a serious reconsideration of our food supply; the brunt of our $4 billion dollar agricultural economy needs to refocus itself on supplying Colorado’s citizens.

This means at the very least state-of-origin labeling, state institution procurement laws, rebuilding the infrastructure to deliver Colorado food to local markets, and incentives to make that happen. Currently, people who want to buy Colorado products have only limited ability to do so. This needs to be addressed, and so does educating consumers about the quality and availability of Colorado’s products.

It used to be that people knew where their food came from—and knew the costs associated with sacrificing their local producers. If there is to be any way agriculture in this state can keep its water, this is the way it will have to be again in the future.