Groundwater Fees Prompt Farmers to Slash Water Use by a Third

by | Jun 22, 2017

When it comes to drought and the farming community, it seems a self-imposed fee on groundwater could work better than government regulations, according to a new study from the University of Colorado Boulder. The study suggests that self-imposed well-pumping fees can play an important role, incentivizing farmers to slash use by a third, plant less thirsty crops and water more efficiently.

The study centered around an initiative in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where several hundred farmers voted to self-impose a fee on groundwater – which is typically free and largely unregulated – beginning in 2011. The move came after a historic drought in 2002 and subsequent drier-than-average years left the region’s aquifer depleted and some farmers worried that the state might begin shutting down wells, as it had in other areas.

Historically, farmers have relied primarily on surface water from streams and runoff, but as population growth and climate change have strained supplies, agriculture has grown increasingly reliant on water pumped from underground.

The new fee, now at $75 per acre foot of water, is among the first in the nation. About 700 farmers who manage 170,000 acres are subject to the fee. Proceeds are used to help local irrigators buy supplemental surface water or to pay them to let their acreage go fallow, or unused, in dry years.

The study drew upon five years of data from farmers inside and outside the fee district before and after it was implemented. It found that farmers subjected to the fee pumped 32% less water per year on average. Some switched to less water-intensive crops. Others upgraded to more water-efficient irrigation equipment. Notably, some did not reduce their water use at all and instead opted to pay extra.

“This is because a fee does not prescribe what one can and cannot do; it just forces the irrigator to consider the cost of the water itself,” notes lead author Steven Smith, who did the research as a doctoral student at CU Boulder and who is now an assistant professor of economics at Colorado School of Mines.

The authors stress that while the study confirms that irrigators are using less water and changing their farming practices, more research is necessary to determine how the fee has impacted them financially and whether the fee has caused the aquifer to recharge.

Despite wetter weather in the past year, the participating irrigators intend to keep the fee in place, and other nearby districts are moving to implement a similar one, said Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which helps facilitate the fee.

In other water-related farming news, MightyVine’s 15-acre climate-controlled “glasshouse” is growing tomatoes using 90% less water than field-grown tomatoes.

The hydroponic operation, built using special diffused glass and radiated heat 80 miles west of Chicago, is growing more than 500,000 pounds of premium non-GMO tomatoes a month, year-round, the company announced. MightyVine said the operation conserved 9 million gallons of water in 2016 (its first full year of operation) by collecting and reusing rainwater from its roof.

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