Keeping water down on the farm — The Pueblo Chieftain

Bessemer Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain
Bessemer Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Palmer Land Trust: Pueblo County, Lower Ark Valley at risk

Keeping farms and ranches productive is more than just a quaint notion for the Palmer Land Trust, which sees agriculture as the thread that holds together the fabric of the Lower Arkansas Valley.

And Pueblo County should be on guard.

“This doesn’t work unless the larger community makes an investment and says, ‘We want to save this,’ ” said Matt Heimerich, coordinator for Palmer’s initiative in the Lower Arkansas Valley.

Heimerich and Executive Director Rebecca Jewett met Wednesday with The Pueblo Chieftain editorial board to discuss progress with a two-pronged program to keep irrigation water on farms and to improve sustainable ranching methods.

“We’re at the front end of our initiative to protect farmland in the Arkansas Valley,” Jewett said. “This is just a starting point.”

Two projects last year moved the effort ahead:

  • Palmer is working with the Nature Conservancy on turning around the 25,000-acre BX Ranch in eastern Pueblo County. A conservation easement and a trial program to better manage grasslands aim at eventually finding a buyer for one of the region’s oldest ranches.
  • Palmer also is helping to preserve farms on the High Line Canal near Rocky Ford in a demonstration project the trust believes can be used as a model for other ditches, including the Bessemer Ditch in Pueblo County.

“The Bessemer is closer to Pueblo and the prices of farms increase dramatically. The water rights and soil are good, and we want to work there before it’s too late,” Jewett said.

It’s not an easy process, mainly because conservation values for water rights typically reflect actual value rather the potential for future sales to cities.

Heimerich knows all too well the potential side of the equation. As a Crowley County farmer and former commissioner, he has seen the devastating effect of dewatering thousands of acres of productive farm ground when the water was sold to Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Aurora.

He’s optimistic that cities won’t be able to practice the same sort of buy-and-dry tactics of the past, but said Pueblo County is not immune and should be doing everything it can to protect agriculture.

“Think of Pueblo Chiles, that’s a great start. There’s no reason Pueblo can’t be thought of in the same way as Sonoma or Bourdeaux,” Heimerich said. “Look at what they did with Rocky Ford melons.”

In addition to branding, Heimerich wants to encourage food-processing industries to locate here in order to increase the value of local products, another area Palmer is pushing communities to act.

Finally, he thinks the newly adopted Colorado Water Plan will provide a barrier for cities to carry out the sorts of water raids which decimated Crowley County.

“Crowley County in the 1960s had the highest percentage of people who claimed agriculture as their primary source of income. I think that’s what got me interested in the land trust,” Heimerich said.

“The municipalities need water, but know that under the state water plan it will be an uphill political fight. The Palmer Land Trust is part of a way to manage water so that farmers can continue to farm.”