A look into the future of water demand and supply in the South Platte

The purpose of this tour was to further understand the diversity of water usages and water conservation in the Lower South Platte River Basin of Colorado’s northeastern corner. To learn about the diversity of water usages, representatives from Quail Ridge Dairy, Pawnee Station Power Plant, Western Sugar Cooperative, and the L7 Trade Group hemp farm spoke about the necessity of a dependable water supply in sustaining their daily operations.

A cautious Quail Ridge dairy cow panhandles a tour group member. Photo by Cyndy Hines

At Quail Ridge Dairy, water goes toward producing feed, sanitizing the automated milking machines, and cooling the milk to a temperature at which it can be processed and packaged. With a total of 4,500 cows, each cow uses 50 gallons of water per day

Agriculture is a large driver of water consumption in the South Platte, as in the state of Colorado, where over 85% of water is consumed by agriculture.

Additionally, the L7 Trade Group hemp farm uses an extensive system of monitoring and drip-irrigation in order to cultivate seeds for CBD production, an emerging, lucrative market. Hemp is often touted as a water-efficient crop that will buffer Colorado farmers from the effects of drought. In actuality, hemp requires significant up-front costs in equipment because the is not suitable to dry-land farming in Colorado and must be grown in greenhouses. These are just several examples of how businesses are harnessing South Platte River water, and in doing so, shaping the local economies of Sterling and Fort Morgan.

Hemp seeds growing in one of the L7 Trade Group’s greenhouses. Photo by Grace Harmon

The Groves Pipeline, among other projects, illustrate the importance recharge operations to augment supply in the South Platte River Basin. Water is pumped from alluvial aquifers to the river during periods of drought and then stored in the aquifers when the demands of users have already been met. These pumps also ensure that compact compliance is fulfilled, including our obligation to Nebraska to receive their due share of water. However, because water is continuously cycled, this can lead to an increased salinity concentration, a water quality concern for some irrigators. As demonstrated by one agricultural producer, an increased salinity concentration can adversely affect soybean growth. While recharge pumps, reservoirs, and other projects work to continuously cycle and distribute water to various stakeholders, ultimately, the continuous recycling of this water reveals the root issue of water scarcity not just in this basin, but across the state.

Salt is visible on the leaves of this soybean plant, an indicator of the high salinity of the water used to irrigate these crops.  Photo by Grace Harmon. 

Finally, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program works to conserve habitat for endangered species, such as the whooping crane, by restoring in-stream flows. This program operates across three states, including Wyoming and Nebraska, and uses existing recharge pumps and diversion projects to meet the demands of agricultural and municipal use. These conservation efforts also support the primary recreative activities in the basin, water fowl hunting and fishing, and work hand-in-hand with river restoration efforts after flooding in 2013. This program is currently authorized until 2020, and pending legislation could reauthorize the program for another 13 years.

This tour was coordinated by Water Education Colorado, a nonprofit organization created by the state legislature, whose mission is providing nonpartisan information about water issues in Colorado. The tour offered a range of perspectives – agricultural, industrial, and municipal, highlighting how governance structures on the state and  district level respond to the unique needs of the Lower South Platte River Basin.

Ongoing efforts by the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program support healthy floodplains and  endangered species conservation. Photo by Grace Harmon