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Agriculture in the Colorado River Basin States

Challenges and Implications for the Future

Nike Opejin, Faith Sternlieb, and Catherine Van Dyke

December 2023, English

The Babbitt Center report, Agriculture in the Colorado River Basin States: Challenges and Implications for the Future, examines the challenges confronting agricultural producers in the Colorado River Basin and how producers are thinking about the future of agriculture in their region. The study draws from qualitative interviews with 74 producers across multiple states and tribal lands, revealing the severe impact of prolonged drought on water supplies, precipitation, and soil conditions on agriculture producers in the basin. Concerns about future water availability and anti-agriculture water policies contribute to the hardships faced by producers, leading to increased costs of operation.

This report summarizes the key challenges faced by producers in the Colorado River Basin as drought, urbanization, labor, legal policy, and water policy. It also examines past and future support farmers and ranchers are interested in, how they approach decision-making and planning, how they see the future of agriculture in this region, advice for future producers, and their adaptation strategies.

Urbanization is a significant competitor to agriculture, because the rising demand for water encroaches on resources traditionally used by producers. This raises concerns about the sector's future and its implications for national food security. Water policies further compound challenges, with worries over ongoing Colorado River shortages, shifting precipitation patterns, and water quality issues. "Use it or lose it" regulations and water-sharing agreements add complexity to water management.

Producers express diverse views on decision-making and planning, with factors like market access, commodity pricing, labor availability, debt, and regulations shaping their operations. These factors emerge as the most pressing concern for agricultural producers across the Colorado River Basin, rather than water access. While farmers and ranchers in this region are extremely water conscious, water concerns are correlated with labor availability, equipment needs, and cropping decisions. The study highlights varying responses to long-term climate projections, with some emphasizing cyclical weather patterns and short-term weather reports over long-term planning.

The future of agriculture in the basin evokes pessimism among many producers due to diminished water access and difficulties attracting new farmers. Farm succession planning is regarded as a crisis, driven by slim profit margins, rising land costs, and challenges associated with rural life and farming. However, some producers remain optimistic, exploring new agricultural technologies, trying drought tolerant crops, and diversifying income through agritourism.

Overall, the report offers valuable insights into the challenges confronting agricultural producers in the Colorado River Basin, emphasizing the importance of sustainable water management policies, adaptation strategies, and support to bolster the sector's resilience amid ongoing uncertainties.


Economic Development, Environment, Farm Land, Land Use, Natural Resources, Planning, Urban