Water once destined to be exported to feed growth on the Front Range could fuel economic growth in the Lower Arkansas Valley, but Bent County officials are wary of unforeseen consequences.
“Where is the water going to move to?” asked Bent County Commissioner Lynden Gill after Monday’s presentation by Arkansas River Farms at the Fort Lyon Canal’s annual meeting. “Are they going to double up water on sprinklers near Las Animas or move it somewhere else? I had assumed the water would be staying in Bent County.”
Arkansas River Farms outlined its plans to dry up 6,700 acres on the Fort Lyon while improving another 5,700 acres with surface-fed sprinklers, rather than flood irrigation. The company owns 18,400 shares of Fort Lyon water, about one-fifth of the total.
The water was purchased by High Plains A& M 15 years ago with grand plans to market it statewide. Those were shot down, first in water court and then by the state Supreme Court.
C&A Companies, one of the Arkansas River Farms partners also unveiled its plan to pipe Lamar Canal water to the Front Range in 2011.
But now, the plan is to use the water to open up new farming opportunities in Bent and Prowers counties, said Karl Nyquist, one of the principals in C&A.
“We could be the biggest job creators in this area,” Nyquist said at Monday’s Fort Lyon meeting.
And what about those pipeline plans?
“You haven’t heard me talk about it lately, have you?” Nyquist answered, adding the company will be more open as plans progress.
Bill Grasmick, the largest farmer on the Lamar Canal and a board member of the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association, said wells that have not been used in several years would be operated thanks to the water taken off the Fort Lyon.
They have talked to Bent and Prowers counties about building dairies, feed lots or vegetable farms that would provide an additional boost to the local agricultural economy. But the plans are not specific.
The water from the Fort Lyon would be used in LAWMA well-augmentation plans, which are not limited to historic boundaries for use. “About 22 percent of our local economy comes from agriculture, so any reduction will have a negative impact,” said Bill Long, another Bent County commissioner.
But looking at map of Arkansas River Farms plans, most of the improved farms are located near Las Animas, while dry-ups largely are further east, where farmers are just as likely to trade in Lamar as Las Animas, he said.
“Ultimately, there’s a chance it could be very beneficial,” Long said.
Of more concern to Long is the upcoming water court change case. That would quantify the consumptive use of the Fort Lyon shares and open them up for other uses.
“That’s one step closer to getting it in a pipeline,” said Long, who is president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which took the lead role in the legal battle to stop High Plains.
There are too many unanswered questions to pass judgment, Gill said. Tuesday, the commissioners met with conservancy districts that want to supervise revegetation. And the Fort Lyon shareholders have set aside Jan. 28-29 to question the company about its impacts on the canal itself. Primary concerns so far are the revegetation question and the proposal to leave some water behind to cover losses on shared laterals.
Gill, who is also chairman of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, is alarmed that dry-up could begin next year under a substitute water supply plan concurrent to a water court filing.
Long pointed out that in previous cases where revegetation was insufficient and caused problems later with weeds and blowing dust. If the Fort Lyon water is used outside Bent County, 1041 regulations also could be applied, Long said.
“We’re going to do everything we can to protect the ag economy in Bent County, and make sure if anything is done, it is beneficial to the county,” Long said.