The cooperative use of water for the common good helped build communities in the west long before the American Revolution, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs explained to delegates, members and guests attending Rocky Mountain Farmers Union’s annual convention. For 19 states and the Republic of Mexico, western water comes from Colorado. Of Colorado’s 158 rivers, all but two have their headwaters in the state. The only two that do not – the Green and the Cimarron – barley pass through Colorado at opposite corners of the state.
Colorado is limited in the amount of water it can “keep” and how much it has to guarantee to downstream states. This contractual or legal obligation becomes a significant problem during times of drought and low snowfall. Pacts and agreements have helped define how water will be allocated (and have kept lawyers employed), yet water laws are nothing new. For centuries, community ditches have been used to move water to where it is needed to grow food and support local populations. “This is the basis of civilization in America,” Justice Hobbs said, adding that Santa Fe has been around as a community for much longer than the earliest communities to have first flourished and then failed along the East Coast. These early western water ditches were organized and maintained according to understandings and enforcements in an era absent of federal agencies or attorneys.
Justice Hobbs kept his audience riveted during his two-hour presentation. Full coverage of his insights and recommendations will appear in RMFU’s December Union Farmer. During the convention, delegates re-elected Vice President Dale McCall, District V Director Ken Anderson, and District VI Director Jan Kochis. Delegates also introduced, debated, and adopted their 2015 policy. As a grassroots organization, Farmers Union policy is developed by farmers and ranchers.
Another convention speaker who considered the value of water to agriculture was Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken. He reviewed statistical data collected over more than 100 years and said he has found there is no information to indicate whether precipitation is likely to increase or decrease in the years ahead. But the west is getting warmer as average annual high temperatures are ramping upward, he said, noting that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are also increasing at a significant and somewhat parallel rate.
John Salazar, Colorado Agriculture Commissioner, and Jason Fearneyhough, Wyoming Agriculture Director, shared their observations on agricultural policy and what the future may hold farmers and ranchers. Each said that farmers and ranchers contribute much in value to local and state economies.
Delegates and members heard from an intergenerational ag panel that looked at how to connect the enthusiasm of beginning farmers with the experience of established farmers. Beginning farmers said that developing mentoring opportunities is more important than any other actions that might be taken to encourage the next generation of farm and ranch families.