In a farmer’s perfect world, the nearly 1,000 miles of irrigation ditches that sprawl across Weld County would be lined and sealed to prevent any water loss to ground seepage, and each agricultural water provider could expand its reservoirs or build new ones at will to capture every excess drop of snowmelt that trickles down from the mountains.
“In reality, though, the kind of money needed to do all of that just doesn’t exist,” said Russ Leffler, an Eaton area farmer who serves as president of the Larimer Weld Reservoir and Windsor Reservoir companies. Instead, Leffler and decision makers with other water suppliers are focused simply on upgrading and repairing existing infrastructure as a more economically feasible way to make their systems more efficient. Still, just keeping up with those expenses as needed is nearly impossible, they say.
Many of the hundreds of spillways, inlets and diversion structures along the region’s rivers and canals are approaching 100 years old, if they haven’t already reached the century mark, and the upgrades can easily reach millions of dollars on each project. That’s why many in Weld — a top 10 agriculture producer nationally — say they’re relieved by the introduction of The Water and Agriculture Technology Economic Revitalization Act. That bill, if signed into law, would give mutual ditch companies more funds to pay for their much needed — and, in many cases, longoverdue — improvements.
As it stands, mutual ditch and irrigation companies must receive 85 percent of their income from shareholder investments to maintain their nonprofit status. However, as Leffler and others explained, reservoir and ditch companies have sources of revenue aside from the assessments paid by their shareholders. For example, Leffler said all seven of the reservoirs under his two companies’ systems have recreational leases with private companies, and that additional revenue has caused them to exceed their 85 percent threshold in recent years.
However, the bill — introduced by Rep. Cory Gardner, R Colo. — would allow those companies to receive that extra income and still maintain their nonprofit status, meaning that what dollars the Larimer Weld Reservoir and Windsor Reservoir companies and others have spent on taxes in recent years, due to surpassing the 85 percent threshold, would instead be kept in house and used for necessary improvements. “To make the most of our water, we need to be doing a lot of work to our systems,” Leffler said. “And anything that can help us get the dollars we need to do those repairs as soon as possible is a huge boost.
“At a time that we’re seeing huge growth in the region and water supplies are being stretched, we need to make sure we’re being as efficient as we can be … but we need money to do that.”
Just in recent years, the Larimer Weld Reservoir and Windsor Reservoir companies — two of several that operate in Weld County, and deliver water to about 70,000 acres of farmground — spent about $1.5 million on repairing one of its spillways and another $1.5 million on an inlet, and there’s much more to do, Leffler said. The companies are also looking to install better monitoring devices throughout their systems.
Leffler, along with Lynn Fagerberg, a fellow Eatonarea farmer, and other producers in the region, had met with Gardner in recent months, helping the congressman as he pieced together the legislation.
“We really hope this will go through,” Fagerberg said. “The lifespan on a lot of the infrastructure in this region is running out … and we need the dollars to make the improvements.” Gardner said he is confident the bill will pass.
“Right now we’re seeing a lot of bipartisan support for it,” he said. “Ideally we could get this passed this year — if not, hopefully next year.
“Irrigated agriculture is so huge to our area, and these ditch companies need this as soon as possible.”
The U.S. Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the legislation would take away about $31 million in tax revenue from the federal government between 2012 and 2021 — “definitely worth it,” as Gardner said, noting how important irrigated agriculture is to the economy and to the nation’s food security. To Leffler, Gardner’s bill represents more than just potentially leaving more dollars in the hands of mutual ditch companies to do needed upgrades. “It represents dedication to agriculture,” Leffler said Monday, watching his son — the fourth generation of the Leffler family to farm in Weld County — harvest sugar beets in a field near Eaton under a warm, latemorning sun. “That’s something you always like to see.
“We greatly appreciate Gardner’s efforts in this, and appreciate anyone else who backs it up.”