CSU researchers share $4.9 million grant for water allocation research

Julia Trowbridge

With the “Arid West” experiencing climate change and a growing population, it’s time to look at water rights. Colorado State University professors are joining up with researchers across universities and disciplines in Colorado, Nevada and Arizona to do just that. 

In partnership with the University of Nevada Reno, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the Desert Research Institute, CSU researchers received a $4.9 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture in order to create an economic model of how water rights should be allocated in the long term.

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This topic has come up due to changes in population growth and climate change, especially in sustaining and increasing agricultural productivity, according to the research proposal. 

The research centers around the concept of water rights. Water rights refer to a business’s right to irrigate water. Dale Manning, an agricultural and resource economics professor at CSU, said the longer the business has had the water right, the more secure the business’s water supply claim is. This is important because people with more secure rights get priority access to water resources. 

“What happens is, if you’re a senior water right and can’t get the water you’ve historically used, you can tell all the people who are more junior to you, who started diverting water after you, to stop diverting,” Manning said.

The research project focuses on the water basins that the researchers are around: the South Platte river basin, the Verde River basin and the Walker river basin. Although the economic models are being designed around these basins, the research team wants these models to be tailored to any area that relies on surface water, Manning said.

Agriculture diverts the most water in the west, and it diverts anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the water supply each year, said Christopher Goemans, an agricultural and resource economics professor at CSU. With the expansion of population, agricultural, municipal and industrial areas are forced to compete for the water resources available.

“Any institution that we come up with is tricky because you want to have reliability built into the system so that if I’m a city or a group of cities … I know what my rights are to certain amounts of water,” Goemans said. “But at the same time, we also want fluidity, no pun intended, in the system because as conditions change, whether on the demand or the supply, we want the system to be adaptable to those conditions.”

You can’t really do this without doing interdisciplinary work. We don’t model hydrology, but somebody on this project will, and that’ll help us create the supply side of our economic model.” Dale Manning, agricultural and resource economics professor at CSU

In order to compensate for potential economic loss, agricultural businesses can sell some of their water rights to municipal and industrial areas through a process called “buy and dry.” If a farmer has a loss in profit from something like climate change, in order to make up for the loss in profit, the farmer can sell some of their water rights, Goemans said.

“Historically, what they’ve done, is if I sold my water right, to make sure that I didn’t sell my water right and secretly still divert water, they would require me to permanently dry up the land,” Goemans said. “They do that in part because that protects other water rights holders from me using more than what I really should.”

The negative side effect comes when land is permanently dried up, Goemans said. A decline in economic activity usually follows after permanently drying up land in areas that rely upon agriculture unless a new economic activity offsets that.

This is the issue that Eastern Colorado is currently facing, according to The Colorado Sun.

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Goemans said, with Eastern Colorado being more rural and agricultural, if water resources become so scarce that it is no longer economically profitable to farm, economic activity will follow the water resources to the cities. This economic shift could then have a detrimental effect on agriculture in the area.

There are two main sides to this economic model that need to be researched, Manning said: the supply of water and the demand for it. As climate change causes snow cap melt patterns to differ and rainfall patterns to change, the supply of the water becomes more unpredictable.

“I think the key thing is that, because we have a fixed amount of water, we get what mother nature gives us for the most part, we have to make choices,” Manning said. “There’s no silver bullet, and every kind of approach that we take has both positives and negatives.”

But at the same time, we also want fluidity, no pun intended, in the system because as conditions change, whether on the demand or the supply, we want the system to be adaptable to those conditions.” – Christopher Goemans, agricultural and resource economics professor at CSU

The demand for water changes in relation to population changes in an area. Manning said through potential options like conservation and reservoirs, the research team is looking into how in the future the amount of water needed can be best maintained.

“Having those different options is actually good, we aren’t limited to one thing to adapt,” Goemans said. “It’s not only building infrastructure, it’s not only telling people to use less, but it’s a combination of all that.”

The side of demand not only involves economic thought, but also social sciences and hydrology engineers. This is where the importance of interdisciplinary work comes in, Manning said. 

“You can’t really do this without doing interdisciplinary work,” Manning said. “We don’t model hydrology, but somebody on this project will, and that’ll help us create the supply side of our economic model.”

The research group aims to make a long-lasting impact on how water resources are allocated in the future. With the increased uncertainty of the supply of water, they want to create a reliable yet fluid system for the balance between agricultural, municipal and industrial water needs.

“It’s not just academics and it’s not just one state,” Goemans said. “There’s this huge outreach component. We’re working with local water authorities and each of the states to try to make sure (the research) is as useful for them as possible.”

Collegian reporter Julia Trowbridge can be reached at news@collegian.com or on twitter @chapin_jules.