When large tracts of land are disturbed, it takes more than good intentions to return it to something approaching a natural state.
The recipe includes water, seeds, know-how and — most importantly — time.
Those lessons have been learned in the most painful way over time in the Arkansas Valley as farmland has been taken out of production, sacrificed for pipelines, scorched by drought or ravaged by fire.
Fears that those lessons have not been learned well enough have surfaced this month as a patchwork plan for farm dryups was revealed by Arkansas River Farms. The company plans to dry up about 6,700 acres of the 14,400 acres it owns on the Fort Lyon Canal, using it to support wells on farm ground elsewhere.
The most painful lesson came for Ordway in 2008, when a fire ripped through dried-up farms in Crowley County that were no longer the responsibility of those who took the water off the land. The fire, started by a controlled burn fanned by winds, claimed two lives, 16 homes and 9,000 acres of mostly former farmland.
Water was first taken off farms in Crowley County in the 1980s, when water owned by a cattle feeding operation was sold to Colorado Springs, and most remaining Colorado Canal shares were snapped up by Aurora. By that time Colorado Springs and Pueblo had bought Twin Lakes shares that had provided supplemental water for Crowley County farms for decades.
Water courts insisted on revegetation plans when the Colorado Canal shares were converted in the late 1980s, as well as for the dry-up of farms on the Rocky Ford Ditch by Aurora. Those plans appeared to be complete, only to fall apart.
Shortly after the 2008 fire, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District sighted in on the dry-up as an important contributing factor.
Not long after, the district was successful in obtaining tougher court provisions for the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association purchase of nearly half of the Amity Canal. Annual reports on all dry-ups, temporary or permanent were required in perpetuity. It has been successful in applying it in other water cases since then.
And this year, Aurora returned to lands dried up in its 1999 purchase of Rocky Ford Ditch shares even after revegetation was certified by a panel of experts. The drought had damaged some of the vegetation, so Aurora used some of its water to try to reestablish the grasses.
Aurora in 2000 had to come back to Rocky Ford land that was improperly revegetated from its first purchase.
All of which feeds into continued concern about the announced dry-ups on the Fort Lyon.
“Who’s going to have long-term responsibility to make sure this gets done?” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Ark district. “We are looking at assuring revegetation in perpetuity, and it should be the responsibility of those who are moving the water.”
Winner pointed to contracts when water was sold to the Lower Arkansas Water Management Authority that required landowners who had sold their water to protect the land. That led to large dust storms blowing across the landscape – even across highways — during the recent drought. “When you see that — people have died from that — you realize that it should be the responsibility forever of those who are using the water,” Winner said.
One of the questions posed to Karl Nyquist, a partner in Arkansas River Farms, last week was whether water could return to lands that were dried up. The answer was uncertain.
Two conservation districts in Bent and Prowers counties are proposing a plan to monitor revegetation efforts in the Arkansas River Farms dry-up.
It’s modeled after Aurora’s most recent efforts, trying to incorporate all of the lessons which have been learned so far. They have pitched it to county commissioners before an application to change the use of water has been filed.
“What I told them was to not be in such a hurry,” said Bill Long, Bent County commissioner.
Fort Lyon Canal’s shareholders will have a hearing about the Arkansas River Farms plan on Jan. 28-29. But Long said the issues should be hashed out in water court, rather than predetermined.
On revegetation, Winner agrees.
“I believe the water court needs to be the policeman,” Winner said.