Agriculture in the Gunnison Basin
Agriculture in the Gunnison Basin is a big deal.
In short, agriculture drives the state’s economy, culture, and is a leading facet of conservation.
Water use plays a key role in agriculture in the Basin as well; the Colorado Water Plan credited agriculture as the Gunnison Basin’s top form of water consumption, representing 97% of the area’s total water demand.
Benefits of Agriculture in Colorado
Agricultural production in Colorado plays a significant role in the state’s economy and is an economic backbone of many rural communities. It’s a primary monetary driver in both the Gunnison Basin and in the state of Colorado.
According to the Colorado Water Plan, updated in 2023, ranchers and farmers across the state are the lifeblood of Colorado’s $47 billion agricultural economy.
Agriculture also supports important environmental attributes, strengthens Colorado’s food security, and upholds our state’s cultural identity. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust attributes that “more than 80% of Colorado’s private lands are owned by farming and ranching families who are committed to stewardship and conservation,” which is a major factor in preserving wild land within the state.
Agriculture in the Gunnison Basin
The Gunnison Basin spans across more than 8,000 square miles of western Colorado, extending from the Continental Divide to the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers near Grand Junction.
Across the territory, nearly 52 percent of the lands are forested. About 5.5 percent of the basin is either planted or cultivated lands. These areas are namely located in the Uncompahgre River Valley between Montrose and Delta, with pockets near Gunnison and Hotchkiss.
The types of agricultural use in the basin are varied and diverse. They include the production of: field and sweet corn, hops, beans, peppers, onions, broccoli, potatoes, squash, vegetable seed, melons, grapes, peaches, apples, pears, cherries, apricots, alfalfa and grass hay, pasture forages, wheat, barley, and oats. Livestock operations include cow/calf, beef and dairy cattle, sheep, hogs, horses, chickens, and elk. More than 250,000 acres in the Gunnison Basin are irrigated. The irrigation waters pastures, orchards, wine grapes, commodity grains, forage crops, and vegetables.
The lower elevation lands with warmer temperatures, located in the Lower Gunnison Basin, provide conditions to grow a variety of fruits, corn grain, and root crops on more than 185,000 acres of the total 234,000 irrigated acres in the basin. Agriculture in the Upper Gunnison Basin above Blue Mesa Reservoir is dominated by large cattle ranches, where ranchers generally rely on flood irrigation to fill the alluvial aquifer during the runoff season.
A primary example of water consumption use is irrigation supply. Two of the basin’s reservoirs, Taylor Park and Ridgway, store water for supplemental irrigation water supply and release for fish flows. Other reservoirs, including Paonia, Crawford, Silverjack, Gould, Overland, and Fruitgrowers, are primarily used for irrigation. Blue Mesa is the largest reservoir in the state of Colorado. It’s home to the largest lake trout and Kokanee salmon fishery in the state, plus four dams that contribute to flood control, water storage, and the generation of hydroelectric power.
Livestock production is an important element of agriculture in the Gunnison Basin, and a critical economic catalyst. Numerous cow and calf operations use irrigated lands as a base of operations. The Colorado Water Plan credits beef production for more than $110 million in yearly economic output for the Gunnison Basin.
With the significant presence of agriculture in the Gunnison Basin comes multiple water resource challenges. Primary issues include agricultural water shortages due to drought and climate change, and the potential for increasing supply gaps.
Unlike the lower basin states, the Gunnison Basin doesn’t have a large reservoir at the top of the system to draw from, like Lake Mead. Instead, water users rely on the year’s hydrology.
In a hotter and drier climate, there will be more pressure on water users. Water supply will be reduced and the growing season will increase, widening the supply-demand gap.
In recent years much focus has been on the creation and/or updating of planning documents with prioritization schemes, funding strategies and related implementation guidance for the improvement and modernization of irrigation infrastructure in the Gunnison Basin.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board has increased efforts to address challenges through Colorado Water Plan Grants. The grant funding can address storage and supply issues, such as the repair of piping and canals, plus technical assistance to agricultural projects.
Additionally, scientists are doing further research into experimental alternative crops with higher drought tolerance, such as kernza, sainfoin, sillflower, and camelina.
The Gunnison Basin Roundtable developed a strategic vision that outlines specific goals moving forward, as a roadmap to meet agricultural goals within the basin. These include:
- Implement projects that will have a direct impact on water supply
- Leverage funding opportunities
- Expand weather modification programs
- Improve infrastructure
- Protect environmental and recreational values
- Prepare for climate change