Engage Agricultural Water Users
Having agriculture at the table actively participating in an integrated water management planning process is a success in itself.
In addition to holding some of the most senior water rights in the state, agriculture is the social, political and cultural driver in many rural areas. Their involvement in water management planning is central to identifying projects and implementing actions. Agricultural water users have a number of compelling reasons to participate in local SMP efforts. The key to understanding these benefits is to ask individual producers what their needs are.
Involving agricultural stakeholders can be challenging. Watershed-wide planning efforts involve numerous agricultural water users with varied knowledge of water management and its jargon, and hyper-local interests and needs. Producers are not paid to attend meetings or participate in broad-scale planning efforts. Participation will always be secondary to their livelihood, limiting their time availability to slow seasons and evenings. The lack of a centralized leadership body to adequately represent the agricultural community as a whole also makes involving agricultural interests difficult. Finally, producers may be skeptical when approached by representatives from the environmental community due to a history of environmental efforts interfering with their farming practices.
Successful outreach efforts begin early and are hands-on. Organizers need to be patient, consider producers’ seasonal work schedules and reluctance to work with environmental organizations. Like any group of people, producers vary in their willingness to work with efforts such as SMPs or IWMPs. The majority, however, understand that Colorado is growing and times are changing, and will be willing to consider concepts of water planning and how involvement could benefit them.
Examples of Successful Strategies for Agricultural Water User Engagement
Identify representatives who are well respected in their communities, but also have a strong understanding of watershed issues. Engage with Resource Conservation Districts, Water Conservancy Districts, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and local/regional producer organizations. In some areas, Resource Conservation Districts can be powerful allies, but they range from well-funded and highly involved in landowner assistance and watershed protection, to existing only on paper and without the capacity to engage, lead, or provide funding to SMPs. Additionally, these organizations can help SMPs incorporate language to more closely mirror NRCS language, which producers are familiar with and may leverage Farm Bill funding for implementation.
Find ways to help producers feel comfortable. If the budget allows, hire a representative or advocate to attend stakeholder meetings help communicate water rights holders interests and concerns.
Include agricultural water users’ goals and desired outcomes in the SMP. Spend time surveying or interviewing or inviting presentations from agricultural water users to understand where they are coming from. If you plan to conduct a diversion assessment, share its results and how resources available through the SMP process can reduce the time a producer spends irrigating pastures or crops, or otherwise makes their life easier. Host a presentation on how SMPs and subsequent implementation can benefit local economies, appealing to the agricultural producers’ sense of community and desire to preserve their way of life by diversifying local economy.
Make a special effort/conduct one-on-one outreach. Consider hiring an agriculture outreach specialist or using local representatives from sub-basins to represent the specific needs of the community that can spend time focusing on relationship building, education and information gathering in those specific areas.
Be considerate. Schedule meetings at times that are convenient for agricultural producers to engage (non-growing season or in the evenings). When possible meet agricultural participants at their farms, ranches, homes or places convenient for them, instead of asking them to travel long distances.
Become familiar with their operations. To increase understanding of agricultural irrigation, consider working with an agreeable producer or two to schedule a “field trip” to their operation. Understanding a fellow stakeholder’s world will be both educational and trust-building.