USA — BUCKEYE The scorching of Colorado forests by super-intense wildfires is worsening the water woes for Eldon Ackerman and other Larimer County farmers, jeopardizing thousands of irrigated acres that normally produce millions of dollars in crops. The problem: soot, sediment and debris washing from burned forests have made the Cache la Poudre River less reliable as Fort Collins’ main water supply for urban households. Particles clog treatment facilities. So, city officials say, they must heavily tap their secondary supply water piped under mountains from the Western Slope. That water typically has been leased to farmers. Fort Collins officials recently notified 80 farmers not to expect any leased water this spring. And suddenly, Ackerman instead of ordering seeds and fertilizer is talking with insurers and preparing to lay off hired hands. “It looks like we’re losing water,” he told the workers. “If we are, I don’t think I can keep all of you employed.” Ackerman and other food growers north of Fort Collins also are anticipating larger fires. They know that while this year’s 136-square-mile High Park fire was big, it burned only 10 percent of the Poudre River watershed that still is loaded with bone-dry beetle-killed trees. “As that burns and it needs to burn it’s going to create more problems for us,” said Ackerman, who has counted on water rented from Fort Collins to irrigate 1,500 acres of corn and sugar beets near Wellington. “When I run out of water, I’m going to start selling off parcels for houses. What other choice do I have?” Shutting off the tap would mean more of the remaining farm fields between subdivisions are barren.
Agriculture loses clout
In the big picture, this intensifying water crunch reflects a shifting balance of power between cities and the agriculture that traditionally has anchored life along Colorado’s northern Front Range. Drought and the oil-and-gas industry’s appetite for drilling water already have weakened farmers’ position. Cities in recent years have purchased interests in irrigation-ditch companies. Farmers have sold their water rights, taking advantage of high prices. Financial stress and low commodity prices forced some to sell. Others simply sought profit. The result is that city interests increasingly dominate decision-making. “Now, cities are getting very conservative because of the drought, compounded with the wildfire,” said Reagan Waskom, director of Colorado State University’s Water Center. For years, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Undersecretary Harris Sherman, who oversees the Forest Service, have warned that unhealthy Rocky Mountain watersheds could cause trouble that reverberates far beyond the trees. “We’ve got this twofold issue of drought complicated by fire, and the issue of more fires. What that will do to our water yields is very unknown,” said John Stulp, a Colorado agriculture leader serving as a special water adviser to Gov. John Hickenlooper. Fort Collins holding back water “points out what fires can do on the negative side,” Stulp said, “upsetting the normal operation of any kind of water system.” For farmers, the trouble is hitting five months after the High Park fire, just as they prepare to make business decisions for the coming year. Given the uncertainties of sediment polluting the Poudre, Fort Collins “is extremely unlikely to make any water rentals” next year, city water-resources manager Donnie Dustin told farmers in a Nov. 14 e-mail. Holding back water would happen “regardless of the amount of snowpack,” Dustin wrote. “The ability to consistently treat Poudre River water is likely to be an ongoing concern for the next few years.” Cities cannot be blamed for holding back water they now control, said Rocky Mountain Farmers Union president Kent Peppler. “Their first priority has to be domestic use, and if they think runoff from the fire is going to pollute their supplies, they have to do this,” he said. But agriculture “isn’t going to get any easier if these fires continue. “We’re all a little scared,” Peppler said. “This is serious stuff. Millions of dollars of crops are on the line.”
Some farmers who count on Fort Collins water may be able to adapt by using other sources if they haven’t sold off water rights. Others are planning to shift from water-intensive crops, such as sugar beets and corn, to wheat, which requires less water but is less lucrative. “We’ve been under stress this whole decade,” said Grant Family Farms owner Lewis Grant, 89, who serves on advisory boards for Larimer County and Fort Collins and is involved in efforts to preserve farms amid spreading subdivisions. “It’s almost hopeless for younger farmers. Land is so expensive. Water is so expensive.” On the sprawling farm northwest of Wellington, Grant produces eggs that end up in Whole Foods Markets. The farm’s produce including squash, lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, kale and cabbage is sold by King Soopers and other markets. Water rented from Fort Collins irrigates about 25 percent of his crops, he said. One solution may be for Fort Collins to install extra sediment-control tanks to enable consistent use of the Poudre. “That would seem reasonable to me,” Grant said. City officials say they’re considering costs. Such facilities likely would force higher water bills for city dwellers and higher prices for farmers and energy companies that vie for city water. At the Ackerman farm and ranch, seven workers last week went about their jobs in the face of uncertainty. Most support families on their wages. An accountant, whose husband is disabled, braced for possible reduced hours. Others have skills that more robust industries may absorb. “I was thinking about possibly looking into the oil field,” Dave Yoder said, taking a break from running an excavator. The failure was in the forest areas.Advertisement
Following a 10-year strategy, ACT fire managers have created a mosaic across the landscape of different fuel levels, burning at every opportunity.
But forests have been too wet to burn this spring and the past two summers.
A network of 500 fire trails and strategic burns along the north-west urban edge, heavy grazing and extra grass slashing will create a fortress for the territory which forecasters say faces a higher than average risk this summer.
After a fire-fuelled tornado in January 2003 killed four Canberrans and frightened thousands more, CSIRO fire expert Phil Cheney told the subsequent inquiry the fire’s penetration into urban areas under extreme conditions did not reflect a failure of fuel management on the urban interface.