Living Rivers - Colorado Riverkeeper
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Living Rivers Currents
November 26, 2001

Alfalfa Blues in the Upper Basin

LR Currents V1, N4, December 2001

Peter Lawson stands next to Professor Creek, which drains into the Colorado River 20 miles upstream of Moab, Utah. For eight months each year he diverts Professor Creek?s water for hay cultivation, one of the thousands of marginal alfalfa fields that dominate irrigated agriculture in the upper Colorado watershed. He offered to share his frustrations with how state and federal programs discourage efficient agricultural water use, and make it impossible for farmers to use their water rights to benefit the environment.

When Lawson purchased his farm in 1991, every drop of the Professor Creek?s water was poured on to the fields. "I went ahead and installed some fairly sophisticated sprinklers which were much more efficient in delivering water to the alfalfa," he says. "Not only was water being left in the creek, but I was able to increase my acreage under cultivation."

Despite these gains, the state of Utah forced him to buy more water rights because he was farming more land. It made no difference that he was actually using less water than before. "One can?t support a family with this business as it is, then when you try to increase efficiency, such that everyone wins, they force you to spend more money."

Lawson points out that he can only get between $80 and $100 per ton for his alfalfa. With four cuttings per year, and about one ton per acre from each cutting, that?s less than $40,000 annually from the farm. When deductions are made for land purchase, equipment and supplies, there?s very little left for anything else. This is why many farmers in the upper basin must have another source of income to make ends meet.

"I hate subsidies, but I?ve applied for them from the US Department of Agriculture on two occasions. It?s impossible to keep up with the flood of forms, so I?ve never received any money," Lawson says. "Whether you have 50 acres, or 50,000, the paperwork is the same, thus it?s the large growers with their attorneys that get all the hand outs, making it that much more difficult for the family farms to compete."

Lawson believes that it?s vital that all farmers are provided mechanisms so that more water can be left in the rivers for habitat preservation and restoration. "Now there?s nothing but disincentives, he says." Any water that he does not use can just be taken by someone else downstream, and were he to stop irrigating altogether, his water rights would be taken away and sold to somebody else.

"Despite this, I?m still trying to figure out how I might be able to use less water," he says. He?s considered shifting to orchards with drip irrigation, but the state would require him to reduce the area irrigated, or purchase even more water rights. "These laws are crazy," Lawson concludes. "It would be so easy to for us to heal our rivers, and still feed ourselves, if only the politicians would focus on addressing the problems, not preserving the corporate welfare for the larger growers."

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Living Rivers    PO Box 466     Moab, UT 84532     435.259.1063