Letter to the editor: State of the Basin not telling whole story

I attended the State of the Basin meeting at Adams State on February 23 and was a bit disappointed in the Courier’s coverage, in that it basically summarized the output of the meeting as a beacon of collaboration. Which is true and fine, but the virtues of collaboration have been voiced since (at least) the 1967 Unification Act.  One gets tired of hearing about the sunny skies of collaboration while shoveling the continuous snow of litigations. The word collaboration is on the verge of being used to extinction.           

Because all solutions with water ultimately must go through the courts, it will always be open to argument, a process that may include, but is not dedicated to collaboration. Even Ken Salazar stated (to predictable applause) that water would be exported out of the SLV over his dead body. That sounds more like the emotional genesis of an argument than a reasoned offer of collaboration. We are not only in this Valley together, we are in Colorado together. There are things on the Front Range that many of us would hate to lose, and those people are just trying to make a way in the world, like the rest of us.

Salazar also stated that the formation of the Sand Dunes National Park served to further protect the Valley from the tubular grasp of water exporters. It is not at all clear how this can be true. What is true is that the formation of the National Park did not protect Valley aquifers from over-pumping by Valley farmers (of whom I admit to having been one) over the past two decades. Valley aquifers are in deep deficit due to water exported from the Valley as crops, not water piped to the Front Range.

Salazar’s praise of the Park, and his role in accomplishing it, is also curious because the Park is the only entity in the Valley that possesses the infrastructure to actually export wet water out of the Valley through the combined water resources of the Park and the Closed Basin Project. I am not suggesting that the Park is currently doing so, but in 30 years or so, many of us will be “dead bodies” and there is no way to predict the way future people and circumstances could change, causing the facility of the Park and Project be viewed very differently. Over time, the National Park will tend to defer to federal over local interests.

Especially considering that, shortly after the Park was funded and the deal closed, the Park filed on all the ground water under the Park. In spite of stipulations in the authorizing legislation, the Park did not want to quantify its ground water claims, and claimed it did not need to. An adversarial proceeding was required to force the Park to comply with Colorado water law. This was an early indication of the Park’s character and intents. Salazar did not mention that, and it perhaps deserved a word, parallel to his harsh judgments of urban users he claims are making fun of us by squandering water on greenery.

As a former farmer, I can say that even though I did not go broke, rarely did my farms make an income that represented market parity, or a fair return on risk, or enough to cover the externalized costs of doing business. A typical pattern is a farmer can make a living operating a farm of economic scale, but must sell the farm to pay all debts and retire. Several farmers at the Basin meeting lamented that they did not see a way to allow their son to carry on with the farm. Question: why would a parent want to endure a child to a business that basically uses very expensive resources, like water and Earth, to produce very cheap crops, for a tenuous wage. 

What exactly are we protecting in the Valley when we protect the right of a farmer to access water? Are we protecting the farmer, or the cheap food produced by any farmer willing to harness up and yank a meager living from the ground. Something to think about.

When I first came to the Valley in 1988 I sold quality alfalfa for $120 a ton. Last year, in retirement, I bought the same quality hay for my livestock for $110 a ton. This is not rational let alone sustainable. You want sustainable, try alfalfa at $760 a ton—that’s parity. In the 42 years I actively farmed, the few years when, say, alfalfa sold for $300 a ton, or wheat for $8 a bushel, or potatoes for $28 cwt, the loudest voices in the culture lamented the high cost of those commodities. Americans really do love to “protect” farmers and their water, but also feel entitled to cheap food. The water crisis is a good occasion to think about the relationship between water and cheap food, and the resulting quality of our food web, correlated to our general health.

Finally, a comment on form. It’s understood that when an organization forms, there is an enduring duty to hold meetings, a principal purpose of which is to find ways to congratulate the people who formed and/or now shepherd the organization. The State of the Basin meeting had plenty of that, and a good bit of the presentations offered information so basic and generic as to seem like a detour from going to the mat with the current, live issues. 

Many people in water organizations wax passionate when they talk about their association with “the farm.” There’s a farm in almost everyone’s past, if you scratch deep enough, and people love to wear their big hats and boast about their cows on 17.43 acres. But let’s remember that the organization folks have a paycheck coming in that supports their farming interests. Your outlook on many things related to water is very different when it’s your livelihood, not just your passion.

At the end of the day, I favor keeping water in the Valley—not because exporting Valley water will turn the Valley into a new Owens-Gobi Desert—but because there are crops growable in the Valley that could reverse tradition and surprise grief.  Imagine: with new crops in the mix, fathers no longer have to bend over backwards to help their sons make it on the farm; instead, the son is doing so well that the old man wanders into the son’s small field and asks, “Hey, son, can you lend me $200k to get started this year?” Son says, “No problem, Dad. Sure you don’t want to make that $300k?” “You’re right, Son, I forget how much I have to lose. Thanks. Hmmm . . . what smells so good?”   

John Mattingly