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West’s main water source getting drier

Marketplace Staff Apr 30, 2008

West’s main water source getting drier

Marketplace Staff Apr 30, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: Those earnings reports today, from some of the big consumer products companies that Alisa Roth was telling us about, are great examples of how ripples in the supply chain eventually wind up whacking consumers in the wallet. In this case, it was rising commodity prices that did it, oil and especially grains, but it’s not as if farmers are raising prices just because they can. Often they have to, because their crops depend on the supply of a different commodity.

From Wyoming Public Radio, Peter O’Dowd reports.

PETER O’DOWD: Ten thousand feet up, in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest, Dr. Chris Hiemstra is knee-deep in snow.

CHRIS HIEMSTRA: You know, it’s like sugar. It doesn’t hold together well.

Hiemstra is a researcher at Colorado State University. He and Wyoming’s state climatologist, Steve Gray, skied into these mountains to measure snowfall. Gray says the job of measuring and weighing the snow is vital.

STEVE GRAY: The kind of work that Chris does becomes extremely important for predicting when and how that water is going to come off of this snowpack reservoir, and then be available for us to use down in the low-country.

So, repeat these measurements year after year, and you have a pretty good idea how much water is building up in these mountains. As Gray takes me across to the next pit, he says snow is melting earlier across the entire Western United States.

GRAY: We’ve seen the ground being snow-free on the order of three to four weeks earlier than we would have expected from historical averages.

Gray says less snow in the mountains means less water for everyone, from homeowners in Phoenix who want to fill their swimming pools, to farmers who want to irrigate their fields in Nebraska.

GRAY: We’re really at this crossroads right now, where we’re going to have to make some hard decisions about the way that we live and make a living.

Three-hundred miles and a time zone away, those decisions are already being made. Nebraska farmer Joe Whalgren used to grow corn on this patch of land, but less water from the Platte River means he’s had to change that.

JOE WHALGREN: Our second choice was to choose a crop that didn’t require additional irrigation water.

That crop turns out to be alfalfa hay, which brings about $200 an acre in profit.

WHALGREN: If I could grow corn right now, I’m looking at a net profit of $600 or $700 an acre.

Whalgren and his neighbor Dean Edson are just two of hundreds of farmers and landowners facing similar issues. They compete for water from the Platte River with farms, businesses and residents, not just in Nebraska, but in Wyoming and Colorado, too. Nebraska only recently thrashed out a water rights agreement with its neighbors. Edson says, under that agreement, his state has to retire 75,000 acres of irrigated land.

DEAN EDSON: That’s how important water is to this whole economy, but something’s going to have to go.

Like the canal, that runs from his land to the Platte six miles away, in good times, when there’s lots of water, this kind of traditional irrigation method makes perfect sense, but as water supplies have become unpredictable, farmers have begun to use water drawn from beneath the ground. Once a subterranean extraction system is in place, Whalgren says, the water supply is cheaper, more reliable and more efficient.

WHALGREN: Well, no sense in betting the farm on the good times lasting forever. You prepare yourself to experience the good and the bad. You can’t say that the good or the bad will be here forever.

Whalgren’s not willing to write off traditional irrigation techniques entirely. He says snowfall is cyclical, and this year he looks like a smart guy. The Rockies were buried under heavy snows this spring, pushing snowpack levels well above average, and raising the hopes of water users downstream.

HIEMSTRA It’s minus six.

GRAY: So that’s maybe about 17, 18 degrees farenheit, something in that neighborhood there.

Up on the hill, scientists Chris Hiemstra and Stephen Gray agree it has been a bumper year for snow, but, they say, it’ll take more than one good winter to reverse what looks like a long-term trend.

In Laramie, Wyoming, I’m Peter O’Dowd for Marketplace.

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