Poudre River Forum focuses on future of agriculture

More than 250 people crowded into the Ranch Events Complex in Loveland for the Feb. 5 Poudre River Forum. The forum brought together residents of Larimer and Weld counties to learn more about the Poudre River — and its future.

The forum included 15 booths that displayed educational materials from local organizations and videos, two panel discussions, and a keynote speaker. Questions and comments were welcomed at any point, and everyone was provided with note cards on which to write their queries.

The booths lined the walls of the auditorium and formed a horseshoe. They represented a wide range of interests from environmental planning and landscape architecture to white water rafting adventure trips.

One of the representatives was JC Ward, an educational supervisor at the City of Fort Collins Utilities. She said it was the organization’s third year at the forum and their primary purpose was to educate people about nonpoint source, or NPS, pollution, which occurs when rain and snow melt carries litter and other pollutants into local bodies of water such as lakes and rivers.

“Contrary to popular belief, most water pollution is nonpoint source,” Ward said, going on to list several examples: yard waste, fertilizer, pesticides and animal waste. According to Ward, there are several best practices that may be easily implemented to prevent NPS pollution.

“Using organic fertilizers and picking up your pet’s waste are the easiest ways,” Ward said. “Less obvious ways to prevent NPS pollution are to plant native plants in your yard and periodically check your vehicle for fluid leaks.”

Reagan Waskom, the director of Colorado Water Institute and chair of the CSU Water Center, emceed the event and began by explaining the history of the Poudre River as well as listing off some statistics. Waskom said that the No. 1 use of the Poudre River is for agriculture. However, Waskom warned this statistic may have to change since the river basin’s population is projected to increase roughly 58 percent by 2050.

Waskom then introduced the first moderated panel to discuss current realities of agriculture in the Poudre River basin as well as planning for the future. Luke Runyon, Harvest Media’s reporter based at NPR affiliate KUNC, was the moderator. The panel was composed of Rod Weimer, the farm manager at Fagerberg Produce; Luke Lind, the president and CEO of J&F Oklahoma Holdings Inc.; Casey DeHaan, the owner of Great Western Dairy; Amy Kafka, the creator of Garden Sweet organic farm; and Tom Trout, an agricultural engineer specializing in irrigation water management.

The panel began with a discussion of how each participant uses Poudre River water, and recognizing the need to begin planning now for the future.

“In the late 90s, we could see the writing on the wall about water,” Weimer said. “And how efficient we need to become to take care of that water.”

To that end, both Weimer and Kafka discussed the benefits of using drip irrigation, a water conservation technique that slowly drips water onto the roots of the crops. Weimer said Fagerberg Produce has installed roughly 800 acres of drip irrigation in order to “grow more with less.”

Runyon continued the panel’s discussion by stating that agriculture is the majority water user in the Poudre River basin and asked if it was reasonable to ask all the farmers to cut back on water use.

Weimer responded to the question and said this view was too simplistic due to the environment of northern Colorado. Weimer said since rainfall accounts for less than one-third of the water that farmers use, irrigation from the Poudre River is heavily relied on. However, Weimer also said that over the years agriculture has become progressively more water efficient.

“Agriculture’s productivity per unit of water has increased dramatically over the past 50 years.” Weimer said. The increase in productivity is due to more efficient irrigation allowing for more crops to be grown with less water, he said.

The panel went on to discuss environmental awareness and the best way to keep the agricultural sector strong while leaving water in the Poudre River and maintaining a vibrant ecosystem. All the panelists said they saw education as the best way to accomplish this goal.

“I think as a small farmer we have an opportunity to educate consumers and educate our community in being water conscious and not wasting water in the region,” Kafka said. “Educating them on ways to conserve and not waste water on lawns and other non-essentials.”

DeHaan echoed these sentiments and said farmers need to work closely with ditch and water companies in order to identify where water is not being used efficiently and enact corrective measures.

Lind also emphasized the need for education and urged farmers to pay attention to and follow market trends. Lind said he believes the market is pushing toward conservation and that it is up to farmers to follow along, while keeping in mind long-term efficiency.

The first panel rounded off the discussion by looking forward to the future of agriculture. Kafka emphasized the need to buy local produce and support local growers.

“Keeping small farms in business is sustainable,” she said.

Trout added that there needs to be renewed focus on the younger generation and getting them more interested in taking up the farming lifestyle. Trout also advocated for water storage, which the rest of the panel agreed is a beneficial practice.

“Any time we can build a reservoir and use it to hold water for a later time is a winning situation,” Weimer said.

Following the first panel discussion was Patrick O’Toole, the keynote speaker. O’Toole is the President of the Family Farm Alliance and has been involved in water-management issues for decades. O’Toole said that much has changed about agriculture and water management in the past 45 years and he expects a lot will continue to change over the next 45 years.

O’Toole spoke very little about the Poudre River, but instead focused on the relationship between farmers and conservationists.

“Conservationists and farmers must work together to protect the environment and food production,” O’Toole said.

O’Toole advocated for more responsible and efficient use of water in agriculture while keeping a local scope. “My vision isn’t super-big storage anywhere, but community-based storage,” he said.

He also emphasized the need to reform the Endangered Species Act in order to reinvigorate local fisheries as well as protect and maintain landscapes without adding unnecessary burdens to farmers.

Following O’Toole’s address was the second panel that included Daniel Luecke, an environmental scientist and hydrologist; Amelia Whiting, a lawyer for Trout Unlimited; Dave Little, the former Director of Planning for Denver Water; and Pete Taylor, a professor of sociology at Colorado State University. The panel discussed cooperation and working together on controversial water projects.

None of the panelists are working on water projects in the Poudre River basin, but they were all involved on water projects in the upper Colorado River and South Platte River. All the panelists drew from their experiences and involvement with prior controversial water projects in order to emphasize the need for trust, cooperation, identifying and differentiating between needs and wants, and compromise.

According to Little, these are the traits all parties in the negotiation must possess in order to build healthy and productive relationships.

“The key is finding balance,” Little said. “A willingness to acknowledge each other’s concerns and to work tirelessly to find common ground.”

Luecke added on to this message and said, “The going rule is complete consensus.”

One of the projects proposed for the Poudre River basin is the Halligan Water Supply Project. The City of Fort Collins wants to enlarge the Halligan Reservoir, which is located on the North Fork of the Poudre River, by 8,125 acres. According to an informational sheet a representative of the city was handing out at the forum, the enlargement of the Halligan is necessary to support the projected population and commercial growth of the city.

One Fort Collins resident who said he is opposed to the project is John Anderson. Anderson said he came to the forum in order to hear and challenge others’ perspectives on water management.

“I hope to see how they define sustainability and what it means to them,” he said. “Currently, we design with waste.”

Anderson said he believes that current water management practices are detrimental to the environment and wants to see a more natural approach such as reintroducing beavers to the Poudre River.

According to a representative of the CSU Water Resources Archive, which documents water history statewide, the absence of beavers has changed the natural landscape due to how their dams differ from human dams.

Hoping to question authority, Anderson wrote a question for the second panel down on a note card. He asked whether allowing the river to run more naturally would necessarily be a bad thing. The note card was handed in along with many others’, however the panel did not address his question.

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