Saturday, August 8, 2020

SUBSCRIPTIONS

Moab, UT

89.3 F
Moab
More

    Opinion: Secretary Babbitt’s river plan doesn’t go far enough

    Featured Stories

    Survey: Local parents want daily in-person teaching

    “I really don’t think that 40% of all people are not going to send their kid to school.”

    Tales of Trails: Savor spectacular views from thrilling Shafer Trail

    In the 1890s, Moab pioneer brothers Frank M. And John S. Shafer developed the route from what had been a Native American pathway connecting what is now Canyonlands National Park to the river below.

    At 99, Moab man is knighted by France

    “The French people will never forget his courage and devotion to the great cause of freedom,”

    Leaving Guatemala, Part 4: ‘A year in the land of eternal spring’

    Though I planned to return someday, whether as a Peace Corps volunteer or not, this experience proved that even the best-laid plans go awry.

    Leaving Guatemala, Part 3: Sudden departure came with painful goodbyes

    Men donned wooden masks and numerous layers of sweatshirts and ponchos then proceeded to hit each other with whips as they danced around the town square.
    Submitted
    Submitted
    Public submissions to The Times-Independent can range from press releases to obituaries to feature stories and news. All submissions are subject to editorial review and approval.
    The Colorado River is a vital source of water for crop irrigation. Courtesy photo
    Denise Fort

    By Denise Fort

    Each spring, the acequias in New Mexico carry cold, clear snowmelt to freshly furrowed fields on small farms. The centuries-old irrigation culture is recognized in state law and supported by strong communities.

    These farms often come to mind when we think about agriculture in the West: a cool riparian valley with adjacent fields and people rooted in the land, growing crops that may be sold at a farmer’s market in a nearby town.

    So when former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suggested in a recent opinion piece that a portion of agricultural water rights should be transferred to urban areas, it no doubt conjured up some strong emotions — small family farms drying up so that suburbanites could water their lawns and golf courses.

    But Secretary Babbitt’s proposal makes sense, and he is right about the need to recognize the mismatch in population in the Colorado River Basin between the urbanized West and rural areas where most of the basin’s water is allocated. He is also right that the Colorado River cannot continue serving 40 million people, irrigating the same acreage, and meeting our aspirations for healthy rivers, in this time of megadrought.

    There are a lot of caveats to his idea of people voluntarily retiring irrigation rights, including the need to create a process that allows full public participation. But unless we begin to retire irrigated acreage with a carefully managed strategy, we will have showdowns among states and tribes that share the basin’s water and increasingly desiccated rivers.

    The real obstacle to Babbitt’s proposal springs from our romanticized vision of what agriculture looks like in the West. New Mexico may have acequia-fed fields, but it’s also in the nation’s top 10 for the number of dairy cattle, the products of which are largely exported to other states.

    For every rain-fed cornfield sprouting emerald-like in the Arizona desert, there are tens of thousands of acres of alfalfa fields guzzling up millions of gallons of water per year. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of food, which means that the arid West is, in effect, exporting our water via huge, corporate farms.

    Let’s not forget that it is agribusiness — not small farmers — that’s responsible for 80% of the water use in the West.

    Meanwhile, climate change is drying up what water remains. The declining flows and warming temperatures are no longer just a contested forecast about the future, but our lived experience. In my own corner of the West I’m astounded by how quickly desertification is occurring, with hard-packed soils where there was vegetation just a few years ago.

    Those obnoxious duststorms (haboobs) seem to be moving northward, leading me to tell everyone to watch Ken Burns’ powerful TV series on the Dust Bowl. Ranchers are on the front line in New Mexico, where grazing is looking more and more problematic.

    Of course, water isn’t just valuable to farms and cities. The West has a huge outdoor recreation industry that depends on hiking, rafting and fishing, and our riparian areas grant solace in hectic times. Declining river flows, dried-up springs and parsimonious releases for fishes detract from this sector of a growing economy.

    Babbitt proposes to alleviate this situation by creating a mechanism by which farmers can lease their water rights to municipalities for a set period of time. He proposes free-market transactions, entirely voluntary and at the full discretion of each operator, funded by the federal government. I suggest that agricultural water also be made available to remain in our rivers for the health of our fragile river ecosystems.

    Of course, there is a danger to a market-driven solution. If there were a federally run market in water rights, one would expect to see low-value agricultural areas to be the first to be approached for water sales.

    That might be why in Europe policies explicitly protect small farms. This could lessen the departure of farmers from parts of northern New Mexico or rural areas on Colorado’s Western Slope, and other areas where small farms still exist.

    No one is choosing the drought that has settled into the western United States, along with warming temperatures, wildfires and the rest of our changed climate. We have to cooperate to lessen the effect of climate on individuals and our shared environment. That is why Bruce Babbitt’s proposal deserves a good, full-throated civic discussion. I just hope it is followed by actions to help the lands and people west of the 100th meridian thrive in the 21st century.

    Fort is a contributor to WritersontheRange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a Professor Emerita at the University of New Mexico School of Law, and chaired President Clinton’s Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission.

    Share this!

    - Advertisement -

    Latest News

    USFS proposes campground fee increases

    Members of the public are invited to comment on the proposed fee changes to the developed recreation program.

    Pine Gulch burns north of Grand Junction

    Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Maribeth Pecotte said the fire continued to grow in Sunday’s hot and dry conditions, which are expected to persist through the first half of the week.

    Zion rangers looking for vandals; squares painted on stone

    While most of the paint was removed, the area still has some paint remaining on the sandstone

    BLM lifts fire bans in Tres Rios, Uncompahgre field office areas

    “The BLM areas near the City of Durango are ‘Day Use Only,’ and overnight camping and campfires are prohibited to reduce fire risk."

    BLM proposes updates to oil, gas regs

    Federal royalties generated from onshore oil and gas production on federal lands totaled nearly $4.23 billion in Fiscal Year 2019.