News Feature | December 8, 2014

Farming In America Shifts As Cities Buy Up Rural Water Rights

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Water challenges may be shifting the landscape of U.S. agriculture.

"As we continue to push Western water supplies beyond their limits, growing cities are gradually idling farmland to meet their own water needs. It’s leaving a patchwork of permanently fallowed fields that can stretch for miles in either direction," according to the Environmental Defense Fund's Jennifer Pitt.

The trend goes like this: Cities in the West seek more water sources due to pressures including drought. They buy water rights from farmers, while the farmers keep the land. The land often becomes unusable for crops because rainfall is not sufficient to sustain plant life. The practice is called "buy and dry."

Colorado is emblematic of the "buy and dry" problem.

"In Colorado, water rights are like property rights, so they can be bought and sold. When water rights are sold, agriculture often stops on the land. It’s a practice [officially] called Agricultural Water Transfer," KUNC reported.

"With buy and dry, the land loses value beyond its agricultural outputs. Neighboring farms can be affected by changes to ditch operations, invasive weeds, and even by the loss of farm services as the loss of farmland adds up," Pitt said.

Environmental repercussions are one of Pitt's major concerns with this practice. "Lost are valuable ecosystem services that benefit wildlife – not to mention the culture and traditions of farmers and cattlemen," she said.

"Buy and dry" is nothing new. 

"In the 1970s a run of dry years and the closure of the sugar processing plant had a lot of farmers in a financial squeeze.  And that’s when a group of cities came...looking for water," Colorado Public Radio reported.

Pitt pointed to a handful of alternatives to "buy and dry."

"Ambitious urban water conservation programs and more investment in agricultural efficiency and infrastructure to reduce water use can have a huge impact. Water banks and markets that pay irrigators a fair price, while avoiding permanent fallowing practices, should also be part of a portfolio of solutions to Western water woes," she said.

Check out Water Online's Water Scarcity Solution Center.