#COWaterPlan: “Stopping buy-and-dry, that’s going to take agility or flexibility” — James Eklund

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs
Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

An agricultural impact statement for water transfers might become a state tool as the result of a state water plan that’s expected to be finished later this year.

“When I’ve talked about it with the agricultural community, they see it like NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and more red tape,” said James Eklund, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “But really, it’s just making sure all information about impact is disseminated.”

Eklund and John Stulp, the governor’s water policy adviser, visited with The Pueblo Chieftain editorial board Thursday.

Eklund threw out the idea of an ag impact statement as one way to evaluate how taking water from a community could change it down the road. Like many other parts of the water plan, however, it remains more of a suggestion than a directive.

The CWCB is writing the water plan on orders from Gov. John Hickenlooper, and it is due by Dec. 10. Nearly two years and dozens of meetings and hearings have gone into the document. More than 26,000 comments have been received in a process that Eklund called “unprecedented” for including public comment.

An ag impact statement would help ensure that taking water permanently out of agriculture is a last resort, but there is no way the state can ban the practice, Eklund said.

“If how development occurs becomes a Colorado question, it takes us out of being a local control state,” he said.
Instead, the water plan provides a wealth of options about alternative transfer methods that do not permanently dry up agriculture.

“Where agriculture will keep water, it will buy time,” Stulp said. “If alternative transfers are voluntary, they have options.”

It’s not possible to ban future transfers, because of the nature of water rights in Colorado, Eklund said.

But the flexibility or agility to use water rights in different ways is important. Eklund insisted the water plan does not condone flex water rights that have failed to become law in the last two legislative sessions.

“When we talk to the ag community, you can get nervous looks, and they ask ‘What’s that going to mean to us?’ We can’t say your property right is the subject of our investigation,” Eklund said. “But stopping buy-and-dry, that’s going to take agility or flexibility.” The water plan won’t supersede state water law, but could expand or introduce concepts in much the same way as recent changes like instream flows, recreational in-channel diversions and storage as a beneficial use.

“We’ve done things as pilots like HB1248 (a 2013 bill allowing long-term leasing), and the danger is they become permanent,” Stulp said. “But the purpose is to give generational changes a chance temporarily.”
“We’re looking for that sweet spot where we can keep producers in agriculture,” Eklund added.

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