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Ag in The Classroom

This spring, CAWA’s Executive Director Greg Peterson, taught a seminar at the Colorado School of Mines titled “Water Management in Agriculture” to a group of civil and environmental engineering and hydrology students.

The course began by introducing and going over the Prior Appropriation System, which there is never enough time to fully cover. It’s important to discuss to what makes a water right and how water rights are administrated, but it’s also really helpful to understand the context of the 1800s and how the problems and concerns of people at that time gave rise to a system that has been working and evolving ever since.

Class time was also spent reviewing several important case studies and research of irrigated agriculture in the West. The crop water balance, the difference between efficiency and conservation in agriculture, and how water is often reused through a river basin due to return flows. Water in irrigation is complicated and there are significant connections between irrigated farms and ranches, rivers, aquifers, habitat, and other water users.

The lining of the All-American Canal in Southern California was a great lesson that illustrates the issue. Around 68,000 acre-feet was lost annually through seepage from the canal. Over time, wetlands and Mexlicali Valley agriculture became reliant on the seepage. There were protests, but the canal was lined from 2007 to 2009 to recover the seepage water. While we have not had a lining project of this scale in Colorado, inefficient canals and ditches throughout the state provide return flows, wetlands, and habitat because they are inefficient. Lining these canals will have impacts and it’s important to understand them. Often, increasing efficiencies in irrigated agriculture is less about saving water and more about trade-offs.

Probably the most impactful reading was the editorial “High + Dry” about Crowley County. For Lauren Thatch, a graduate student getting her PhD in Hydrology, the article “provided more feeling and emotional understanding then is typically presented in a journal article and made it easier to partially step into the shoes of those who still lives in Crowley County. In the article it mentions that “For some, it’s an environmental disaster worthy of academic papers; for others, it’s a crucible in which you can assess the psychological impact of what happens when good people make shortsighted decisions.” As scientists, we’re more likely to read the scientific paper, but for those interested in fully understanding the history and challenges facing modern agriculture and to better interact with the farmers and communities, I think it’s important to also understand the later point. Specifically, in the article, I liked how it provided a picture of the County today along with its history, and I thought it did a great job of explaining the unintended consequences that occurred when farmers and neighbors started selling their water rights.”

All of this class time spent on water law and irrigated agriculture was to prepare for the second half of the seminar where we went on a series of field trips to meet farmers and ranchers and learn about agricultural operations firsthand. The class visited a local cow-calf operation, traveled along a ditch system with a ditch rider in Boulder county, and visited multiple farmers to discuss the crops they grow, how they manage their irrigation, and other agricultural practices.

“Getting to see these operations in real life has provided some broader context for both the topics we discussed in class and what I’m learning through my research,” said graduate student Mikaela Algren.

For some of the students, just getting to talk to a farmer or rancher was the best part of the class. “Listening to his journey from being a teenager who wanted to do anything but one day inherit the family farm, to working as a scientist in a lab and a bartender in California and realizing all he really wanted was to do was help people and he could best achieve this by doing something as important as growing the food they consume every day, was really inspiring,” said student Megan Hansen. “I think facilitating conversations like the one our class had with Mr. Sakata is incredibly important to making people understand agriculture-related water issues and other issues that farmers grapple with every day.”

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