Ditch “inefficiencies” give us wetlands

By Richard Knight

Imagine Westerners waking up one morning only to discover that many of their most cherished wetlands have dried up, gone. This is not fiction during these times of determining the true value of water.

Most wetlands in the arid West owe their existence to the “inefficiencies” of unlined irrigation canals and flood irrigation. But when well-intentioned urban folks insist that irrigation companies use water more efficiently by piping their ditches, the result may be more about loss than water “saved” for rivers.

One of the least-known truths in the West is that many of our wetlands are the result of irrigated agriculture. For example, an irrigation company in northern Colorado irrigates about 24,000 acres, thanks to 146 miles of ditches.

The area served by the irrigation company also has approximately 1,300 acres of wetlands, and it’s no accident that most of those wetlands lie below a leaking ditch. A study by Colorado State University discovered this connection using heavy isotopes to create hydrographs of groundwater wells, ditch levels and precipitation. This is a West-wide issue.

We all know that climate change has been causing hotter, drier weather, and that helps reduce the flow of the Colorado River that 40 million Westerners depend on. In the Laramie Basin of Wyoming, 67% of its wetlands are attributed to agriculture. In North Park, Colorado, close to 75% of all wetlands are byproducts of irrigated agriculture.

Decades ago, Aldo Leopold wrote, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One, you think that heat comes from the furnace and two, you think that breakfast comes from the grocery store.”

May I add a third? We don’t know much about the water we depend on.

Farmers and ranchers produce two “goods,” a private good and a public good. They’re compensated for the private one by producing food. Their public goods, ecosystem services, are not compensated, though they include wetlands, biodiversity and plants sequestering carbon.

But knowing that rural agriculture uses 79% of the Colorado River’s water, our urban neighbors tell their rural counterparts to conserve water or, better yet, sell it to them.

Meanwhile, the environmental community would like rural agriculture to use less water so more could stay in the rivers to help fish and provide recreational opportunities.

Clearly, there are too many demands for the West’s diminishing water supply. Drinking water, ag water, river health. Where do wetlands fit in?

Wetlands cover 1% of the West’s land surface, yet halfof our threatened and endangered species rely on them. Wetlands serve a similar function to our kidneys: They filter out impurities from human land uses, making our environment healthier.

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to wise up a little. Many of these wetlands are human created; that is, they were created by farmers and ranchers and are not “natural.” Many will disappear in the pursuit of water conservation. Must it be water conservation and efficiency at all costs? 

Will we prioritize water for urban uses, including urban sprawl? Or will we support more water staying in our rivers to create a healthier environment? Will water for food production be considered a necessity? Do green lawns trump healthy rivers and wetlands?

With more informed conversations about our region, talks between rural and urban neighbors, perhaps we could pursue a triple bottom line: water for food production, water for urban uses, and, yes, water for our region’s rivers, streams and wetlands

Wouldn’t we all like that? Let’s figure out how to make that happen.

Rick Knight is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit that seeks to spur lively conversation about the West. He works at the intersection of land use and land health in the American West.

Since 1917, five generations have lived along the Animas Consolidated Ditch outside of Durango, CO, Patty Zink pictured, courtesy Dave Marston

This column was published in the following newspapers:

06/24/2024 Vail Daily Vail CO
06/26/2024 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
06/26/2024 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
06/26/2024 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
06/27/2024 Craig Daily Press Craig co
06/28/2024 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
06/29/2024 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
06/29/2024 Durango Herald Durango CO
06/29/2024 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
06/30/2024 Onland Magazine Santa Fe NM
06/30/2024 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
06/28/2024 Taos News Taos NM
06/28/2024 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
06/28/2024 Cortez Journal Cortez CO
06/29/2024 Tucson Star Tucson AZ
07/03/2024 Aspen Times Aspen CO
07/02/2024 Delta County Independent Delta CO
07/04/2024 Summit Daily frisco co
07/09/2024 The Mountain Mail Pagosa Springs CO
07/09/2024 Coyote Gulch Denver CO
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Rosemary Carstens
22 days ago

Thanks for this article, Rick Knight. I mentioned it on my Facebook page today along with some great memories around irrigation from my younger years: https://www.facebook.com/rosemarycarstens

Buzz Burrell
22 days ago

This is an interesting thesis: Continue to waste massive amounts of water because the leakage is beneficial. I am skeptical of this thesis. Because the question, “Will we prioritize water for urban uses, including urban sprawl?” is a red herring; as accurately reported here in HCN, we prioritize agriculture to a stunning degree. The swimming pools of SoCal are wasteful and culturally disgusting to us, but they use so little water it isn’t counted. Colorado River water is basically used to feed cows. I owned a farm in western Colorado for decades, remain sympathetic to classic western values, and yet the numbers tell the truth, and it’s time we update our perspective to be in line with the truth of where this water goes and what it’s best use is.

Pat McMahon
20 days ago

Roaring Fork Conservancy is a watershed advocacy organization in the Roaring Fork Watershed. Our watershed contributes 10-12% of the water in all the Colorado River Watershed. We are deep into these subjects and have several initiatives in progress dealing with drought resiliency etc. We agree with your concerns about wetlands and have long advocated that lining ditches that just run through an irrigated field with no riparian value is good, but lining where they support wetlands is not good. There is a new study recently published that challenges the normal assumption that ag is 79% of the water use. Prior studies ignored how much water riparian habitat consumes and how much is lost to reservoir evaporation. Your article was thoughtful and spot on with what we are hoping to help accomplish. Would love to have a conversation

Pat McMahon
20 days ago

It’s not right to think about this as an ag problem. We all eat and that makes it our problem. While municipal use is light, it is still real with the primary consumption being outdoor irrigation. Las Vegas’s net water use is close to zero as they have pretty much outlawed outdoor irrigation and the water from showers/toilets etc is cleaned and returned to the rivers. Residential properties in phoenix 20 years ago had 80% lush landscapes. Today, through progressive water pricing, that % has dropped to somewhere below 15%. Thankfully front range and western slope communities in Colorado are inching in this direction

sid sibo
11 days ago
Reply to  Pat McMahon

“We all eat” is absolutely true, but western irrigation to grow alfalfa in desert landscapes to feed beef cattle? Not necessarily everyone has an equal stake in that equation. Just needed to toss that point in as well. Near me in western WY, ranchers subirrigate for two weeks under their porous fields before any water stays in place for plants to utilize (yep, alfalfa plants). That water comes from grandfathered dams on river water sourced in a wilderness area, where Colorado Basin fish species are at risk. Ouch.

Ditch “inefficiencies” give us wetlands — Writers on the Range – Coyote Gulch
9 days ago

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