Colorado farmers still own more than 80% of water flowing in the state, but control is rapidly passing from them as growing suburbs move to secure supplies for the future.

The scramble is intensifying as aging farmers offer their valuable water rights to thirsty cities, drying up ag land so quickly that state overseers are worried about the life span of Colorado's agricultural economy.

"The status quo has been going to agriculture (interests) and buying and drying. That's not good," says John Stulp, a cattle rancher and former state agriculture commissioner who is Gov. John Hickenlooper's special policy adviser on water. "We need to do it in a smarter way."

Since 1987, Colorado farmers and ranchers have sold at least 191,000 acre-ft. of water to suburbs, according to a review of water transactional data. (That's enough water to fill Chatfield Reservoir nine times— and enough to sustain 382,000 families of four for a year.)

The shift has been especially abrupt north of Denver, where farmers sold water to suburbs at a rate of 2-5% of available water each year, according to the Northern Water Conservancy District.

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