Alternative Agriculture: Confronting Colorado’s Water Crisis

There are countless problems with our nation’s agricultural system. Today, the majority of commercial agriculture is controlled by corporate monopolies and the agro-economy is artificially buoyed by U.S. subsidies of crops, especially corn. Commercial crops subsidized by the U.S. are water and pesticide intensive and require the use of genetically modified organisms patented by corporations such as Monsanto.

The commercial agriculture process homogenizes produce, depletes crop nutritional value, drains water sources, indebts farmers, and furthers a neoliberal agenda through the construction of exploitive trade agreements based on the production of said crops. The system is unsustainable and unethical.

While the consequences of U.S. agriculture are felt worldwide, one repercussion is acutely felt in Colorado: lack of water. If you have ever spent a block break zipping in a speed boat around the environmental atrocity that is Lake Powell, or leisurely floating down the Colorado River, you may have noticed the distinct lines on the rock walls of the reservoir and canyon—indicators of previous years’ water levels. These lines show a concerning trend: Colorado is losing water rapidly due to a warming climate, decreasing snowpack, overconsumption, and overallocation to agriculture.

In the 1920s—a golden age of mass consumption—the water of the Colorado River was divvyed up between Western states with little thought of sustainability. Today, over 80 percent of the river’s water is used to irrigate six million acres of Colorado Basin farmland from Utah to Mexico. Because of the overallocation and agricultural overconsumption, the system is currently functioning at a massive deficit. As a result, Lake Powell is about half as full as it was in 1998 and sections of the Colorado River have been reduced to a mere dribble.

Colorado has a long history of water laws and resultant water injustices—there are approximately 177,000 adjudicated water rights decreed by the state. Westward homesteaders claimed individual rights to the Colorado River in accordance with the doctrine of “manifest destiny,” used to justify the privatization and commodification of land and resources. These rights have since been sold and resold—now the rights to every gallon of the Colorado River are claimed.

Because Colorado water law is predicated and individual use and right, it is in the best interests of farmers to use all of their entitled water to avoid the risk of losing it. This capitalistic “use it or lose it” sentiment breeds overconsumption and lack of collective cooperation. However, even if Colorado’s 16-year drought ended today, we would still be dealing with continuously worsening, massive water shortages. Because of the reality of global warming and decreasing snowpack—it has to be acknowledged that Colorado’s water problems are here to stay. It also should be acknowledged that agricultural systems based on over-consumption are problematic in a time of water scarcity.

Therefore, there is need for a new sustainable mode of agriculture. One such method of agriculture is known as “permaculture.” Permaculture aims to intentionally use all the natural resources of the land in conjunction in a way that minimizes environmental impact. One of the founders of permaculture, Bill Mollison, defines his philosophy as, “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems, which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems.”

Permaculture farms often look very different than traditional commercial farms. Instead of flat, straight rows, crops are often planted in bean-shaped raised plots called “berms” that follow the contour lines of the farmland. Between the berms are “swales.” Swales are shallow depressions in the ground designed to accumulate rain and hold it for a few hours or days to let it seep into the berm soil and water the crops.

Permaculture could be particularly well suited for arid Colorado soil, because it holds water in the ground without letting excess go to waste. Permaculture also promotes growing crops that are well suited to the climate and planting “guilds”—groups of plants that ecologically benefit each other. For example, a plant guild traditional in the Southwest is “the three sisters.” The Three Sisters are corn, beans, and squash: the beans, via symbiotic bacteria that feed off of corn-root sugars, fix nitrogen from the air into a form usable by the plants; the dense squash leaves prevent weed growth and keep the soil moist; and the cornstalk acts like a trellis that supports bean vine growth—a perfect example of ingenious natural engineering.

Although permaculture is not yet widely used in Colorado, it has potential to be a radical break from the system of exploitive commercial agriculture. If you are interested in learning more about alternative methods of agriculture and the potential of permaculture, I strongly recommend reading Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.” 

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