Members of Congress traveled to northeastern Colorado Monday to hear testimony on managing water to support agriculture on the Front Range.

U.S. Reps. Betsy Markey and John Salazar, both Colorado Democrats, hosted the meeting of the House subcommittee on water and power at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

Two six-person panels — including state and federal water managers, local officials and farmers — discussed techniques used to manage and conserve water in the South Platte River basin.

All panel members agreed that conservation alone is not enough to prevent agricultural land from drying up, if cities in the area grow as predicted. They said more water storage is necessary to support local irrigated agriculture.

"We cannot conserve ourselves out of this," said Douglas Rademacher, a Weld County commissioner.

Don Ament, a farmer and former Colorado agriculture commissioner, said water from the South Platte is used and reused seven times in Colorado before it reaches the state's eastern border.

Irrigation is necessary to sustain the $1.5 billion in agricultural commodities grown annually in Weld County, panel members said.

Populations on the Front Range are growing, though, creating conflict between urban and rural use. Panelists proposed alternatives to the current "buy and dry" water management, which results in farmers selling their water rights to cities.

Longtime Brighton farmer Bob Sakata said farmers can sometimes retire just by selling their water rights, worth about $2,000 to $7,000 per acre-foot. He said farmers cannot compete with cities in buying the water.

Proposals discussed during the congressional field hearing included conservation techniques, but mostly focused on expanding water storage. Sakata pointed to the failed Two Forks Dam proposal as a solution.

The proposed 615-foot-high dam northeast of Deckers was approved by the state in 1989. It was expected to supply water to about 400,000 additional residents, meeting the metro-area's water needs for the next 30 years.

But the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the Two Forks project, citing provisions of the Clean Water Act protecting recreation areas, fisheries and wildlife, and a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging the EPA decision in 1996.

"We wouldn't have to have this meeting today if that Two Forks was successful," said Sakata.

A Northern Colorado water district that delivers water to area farmers and ranchers as well as communities has proposed building a dam on the Cache la Poudre River northwest of Fort Collins to help meet growing demands for water.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.