Water in Colorado Still Going to the Highest Bidder (Hint: It’s Not Your Local Farmer)
By Katherine Boehrer
Back in April, the Associated Press reported on the competition between farmers and the natural gas industry in an auction of unallocated water resources. Even then, climatologists calculated that 98 percent of Colorado was in a drought, as low snowpack and warm temperatures persisted. Water users across the state, including farmers, scrambled to secure adequate resources for the coming summer.
Increasingly, farmers are competing with oil and gas companies as more water intensive drilling practices are used for unconventional drilling and fracking. This year “companies that provide water for hydraulic fracturing at well sites were top bidders on supplies once claimed exclusively by farmers.” Though the industry still uses only a small fraction of the water used for agriculture in the state, many are concerned about a power shift in which drilling companies are more likely to be able to pay for water than farmers. The auction has already seen a rise in average prices, as bidders become more willing to pay extra for the water they need.
Since April, Colorado’s water crisis has only intensified. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows the state as a bright red and purple splotch, signifying extreme and in some places exceptional drought. And still it seems water in the state is going to the highest bidder.
This time, water is not being formally auctioned, but it is still being transferred from farmers to oil and gas companies. In the west, those who were issued water rights first are the most protected from droughts, because they are the last to be cut off [subscription required] in times of water scarcity. That means that farmers actually have the upper hand, since many hold rights that have been in the family for generations. New permit holders, like oil and gas firms, are often the first to go.
But there’s a catch. As E&E News reported on Monday, these farmers have been swept up in a new market that’s been created around water scarcity, not just in Colorado but in other western states as well. Pressed for money, some farmers and ranchers have been temporarily transferring their water rights [subscription required] to fracking operations. That’s hard to reconcile in Colorado, where many farmers are facing huge crop losses. According to one local farmers market, however, the drought is affecting farmers differently, with some hit much harder than others.
In a time like this, absolutely no water should be going to fracking. Much of the water used for fracking is contaminated and is not returned to the water cycle. The industry will require even more water in the next few years. If we allow these market forces to affect Colorado’s water resources, we may not like the results. In this case, giving water to those who can afford to pay the most for it could hurt farmers and enable fracking, a practice that is harmful to the environment, our health, and our communities.
Katherine Boehrer is a Food & Water Watch summer communications intern and a junior at Cornell University.