Arkansas River Basin Water Forum recap

Arkansas River Basin -- Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey
Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Water that farmers have relied on in the past was not available during last year’s drought. While some water was available in the 2012 drought, two years was too much for the Arkansas Valley That should be a wakeup call for the future, Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte told the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum Thursday.

“Obviously, drought reduces the water that’s available for replacement,” Witte said.

Farmers need replacement water in order to pump wells, and now to operate sprinklers fed from surface ponds. That competition is increasing. A study for the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District showed that the replacement water needs will double by 2050, as more farm improvements are needed. Right now, farmers use about 25,000 acre-feet (an acre-foot is 325,851 gallons) to augment wells and sprinklers. That could grow to a need of 50,000 acre-feet by 2050. But Witte presented figures that showed an even greater need already in place. From 2002-13, farmers used 39,000 acrefeet annually. About half of that came from drying up other farms. For the remainder, farmers relied on return flows from the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project or leases from cities, primarily Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Aurora. As the cities grow into their supplies, that water will be less frequently available.

Meanwhile, the Lower Ark district is helping farmers cope with increased water needs, supplying engineering and water resources. In the future, lease fallowing programs like the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch could meet some of the needs. Other strategies include groundwater recharge ponds, finding a way to use state-line credits to Kansas, securing Fry-Ark flows and improving on-farm conservation, Witte said.

“Can this continue?” Witte asked. “Where the water will come from, I don’t know.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Water is critical to the Lower Arkansas Valley and must be protected from threats — economic, meteorological or political. That was the upshot at the final day of the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum Thursday at Otero Junior College.

“We’re continuing to go down a road the valley should be concerned about,” Beulah rancher Reeves Brown said, talking about past raids on valley water by cities. “If we can be a little more responsible about planning for the future, rather than taking what happens, we need to do that.”

The sentiment resonated throughout the room, with most heads nodding in agreement. At times it seemed the group was ready to boil into a march for the cause.

“Just because other areas of the state are exploding, why should they take the resources away from farms?” one woman commented. Others echoed the comments, with some urging more action and less talk.

Mostly, however, the meeting was a recitation of studies and opinions that indicate water will be an ever more precious commodity in the future.

Jay Winner, executive director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, said an upcoming study shows that agriculture is a $695 million business employing more than 4,600 people in the Arkansas River basin. On top of that, agricultural incomes contribute $317 million in spinoff benefits, while the recreation industry realizes $220 million in revenues because of agricultural water flowing in the Arkansas River. It also shows that for every 1 percent of water removed from the valley, there would be an economic hit of about $10 million.

Families also would suffer with the loss of irrigation water, said Michael Hirakata, whose great-grandfather came to Rocky Ford from Japan. Hirakata still runs the family farm, and he plans to turn it over to his children.

“We think we can’t live without our phones, but water is imperative,” Hirakata said. “I owe it to my ancestors to keep farming with my family in the Arkansas Valley.”

Las Animas County rancher Steve Wooten, one of the leaders in the fight against Pinon Canyon expansion by the Army, said political attempts to hamstring farmers also must be stopped.

Outside groups are sponsoring ballot initiatives that purport to encourage humane treatment of animals, but actually interfere with how ranchers make their living, he said.

“The most challenging thing to agriculture is not growth or drought, but political activism,” Wooten said.

From the La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Bette McFarren):

Water officials from all over Colorado gathered Wednesday at Otero Junior College Student Center for the 20th Arkansas River Basin Water Forum. Keynote Speaker was James Eklund, director, Colorado Water Conservation Board. His subject was “Colorado’s Water Plan.” “Basin Perspectives on Colorado’s Water Plan” was a panel moderated by John Stulp, Special Policy Advisor on Water to the Governor.

The Bob Appel Friend of the Arkansas Award went to Greg Policky, a biologist who worked to establish a high-quality fishery on the Upper Arkansas River. “His attention to detail and collection of objective fishery data has provided numerous benefits to the river’s fishery,” said Jean Van Pelt. He works with angling organizations and land resource agencies, but is most rewarded by working with school-age children.
Luncheon speakers Erin Mink and Brian McCain spoke on “Federal Water Rights Bills and Impacts to Colorado’s Water Supply.” Mink is from the office of Senator Mark Udall and McCain is from the office of Congressman Scott Tipton.

The “How Did We Get Here?” panel had some familiar faces for the people of Otero County: Moderator Gary Barber, West Water Research; James Broderick, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District; Jay Winner, manager of Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District; Terry Scanga, Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District; Jeris Danielson, Purgatoire River Water Conservancy District. Broderick will be remembered as the creator of the financial structure which enabled the financing of the Arkansas Valley Conduit. Winner is the spokesperson for the Super Ditch and the Rule 10 Plan, which hold out hope for an alternative to buy and dry for local farmers and a way to adjust augmentation water due to Kansas which allows farmers to use sprinklers and drip irrigation. Scanga is a specialist in the upper Arkansas, where water is brought over from the Western Slope. Danielson is from the Purgatoire basin, about 20 miles south of La Junta.

Scanga urged that all the water districts and entities work together for the common goal of good water for Colorado. Danielson and Winner stressed the importance of water storage and distribution. Broderick emphasized the financial aspect of planning: use the infrastructure you already have as much as possible. The alternative is “sticker shock” in utility bills. “Projects are expensive,” he reiterated. They all considered underground storage a possibility which would mean less loss to evaporation, as well as pipelines.
The next panel, “Where Do We Go Next?” was also moderated by Barber and featured Mark McCluskey, CDM Smith; Mark Shively, Conservation Consultant; Kyle Hamilton, CH2M Hill; and Mark Shea and Brett Gracely of Colorado Springs Utilities. Colorado Springs faces a huge issue in flood control.

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.

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