- The Biden administration is paying Colorado River farmers and ranchers to let their fields run dry.
- Agricultural producers need better pay to make this worth their while.
- They’ve asked for more pay to show they are cooperating and preserve their way of life.
Troy Waters is a fifth-generation farmer in Grand Valley, Colorado. With a new water conservation program funded by the Biden administration, he fears his way of life will turn to dust and blow away in the wind like dried-out topsoil.
That’s because the federal government wants to conserve water in the drought-ravaged Colorado River by giving farmers and ranchers cash to let their fields lie fallow, but the interstate agency running the program isn’t offering these producers enough money to quit farming voluntarily, Waters said.
“They’re talking system conservation, and I’m afraid that’s the first step to what I would call ‘buy and dry,'” he said, referring to a fear that the federal government would buy up the land for pennies on the dollar and dry it out for good. “And there goes, you know, generations and generations of family farms like ours.”
Stuck between needing to conserve water and not go broke, Waters said, “Gosh damn, independent farmers now are having to start thinking politically.”
Water conservation is a major political issue in the American West. Climate change has made the Colorado River the dryest it’s been in more than a thousand years. Chronic overuse has depleted the reservoirs that sprawling cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas depend on. Remote workers moving to the Southwest have made the water shortage worse.
To cut back, the Biden administration has allocated $125 million to pay farmers in the Upper Basin states not to farm — a small portion of the $4 billion efforts to conserve the river’s water. Knowing they have to do something, Grand Valley farmers and ranchers want better compensation to make fallowing worth their while.
Not enough pay to quit farming
In 2022, the federal Bureau of Reclamation told the seven states in the Colorado River basin to cut their water use by up to nearly a third of the river’s flows, noting it was prepared to act unilaterally if they failed to make voluntary commitments, according to the Congressional Research Service.
With those federal dollars, the Upper Basin states of Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado quickly put together a pilot program that would pay farmers and ranchers $150 per acre-foot of water, or 326,000 gallons, that they didn’t use. Applications to participate closed March 1 and are now under review.
“There ain’t nobody in this valley that’s gonna stop farming for $150 an acre-foot,” Waters said. “I think they put out that program hoping nobody would really participate.”
The offer translates to just under $400 for every fallowed acre of land in Grand Valley, but Waters said farmers can yield $450 per acre from their crops in an average year, so offering anything less would be low-balling them. Plus, fallowing is a multi-year loss. Waters, who participated in the previous program that lasted between 2015 and 2018, said it took at least three years and twice as much water to get his fields back to yielding the same crop as before.
“$400 an acre would break every farmer in this valley,” he said, so the Grand Valley Water Users Association, the local water management organization of which Waters is a member, countered the interstate program with a fallow price around $1,300 per acre, he said, offering 1,000 of Grand Valley’s 24,000 acres up for water conservation.
“I still think that price is too cheap,” Waters said, “but it’s better than the alternative.”
Appeasing the feds
Interstate conflict may explain why the Upper Basin states cheaped out on their program despite the infusion of federal dollars. California refused to join the six other states in their plan to cut water use and proposed its own with larger cuts to its Lower Basin neighbors, Arizona and Nevada, instead. That would mean more water for California, the largest water user with some of the most senior water rights.
Though the the Department of Interior wants the states to reach a consensus, “we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River System and all those who depend on it,” Secretary Deb Haaland warned in an October 2022 press release.
The Upper Basin states made the program to show the federal government “we’re trying to do our part to save the river, but look at California, they’re not wanting to do shit,” Waters said.
The longer this Western standoff goes on, the more likely the federal government will step in, and the more Waters fears for his ancestral way of life.
His great-great-grandparents on his mother’s side moved to the Grand Valley around 1905, and his father bought their farm when he married Waters’ mother. Today, Waters and his adult son farm 600 acres of alfalfa seed, which eventually ends up feeding cattle, and winter wheat for human consumption.
“Last wheat harvest I had three combines running in the field and had a grandkid riding in each combine,” he said.
“Agriculture, it’s a way of life,” Waters explained. “We do it because that’s what we enjoy and we’re our own boss.” Farming allowed Waters to coach his son’s Little League team and volunteer in his kids’ school, making up for lost time working after dark. He doesn’t expect to get rich even though he works “most times seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
Waters worries making voluntary fallowing more attractive can make farmers and ranchers more dependent on Uncle Sam, possibly hastening the desire to sell their land. “You’re turning it back to desert ground,” he emphasized.
Nonetheless, Grand Valley applied for the better price to protect farmers and ranchers.
“Instead of just thumbing our nose and saying we’re not interested” in water conservation, Waters said the board’s strategy was “to put in something that at least would keep agricultural producers in business” if the voluntary program became a federal mandate to fallow. At this better price they received enough applications from agricultural producers to cover the thousand acres Grand Valley offered, he said.
Ironically, to preserve their way of life, farmers and ranchers made it easier to quit farming.
Are you a farmer, rancher, or resident of the Colorado River basin concerned about water conservation? Tell your story to this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.