Arkansas River Basin Water Forum recap

Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth
Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth

Pressures on Colorado’s water supply are leading to innovative approaches that reduce the risk to cities, farms and the environment, and good examples can be found in the Arkansas River basin.

The Arkansas River basin has felt the pinch from growth along the Front Range for decades, and like a sponge being squeezed, new ideas are emerging.

There’s no better illustration than the way Pueblo Water is approaching its newest purchase on the Bessemer Ditch. In the past, the Board of Water Works practiced buy-and-dry, where water-rich farms were dried up permanently to supply the city, said Alan Ward, water resources manager. The attitude has changed.

“Pueblo Water would like to see agriculture continue,” Ward told the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum this week. “It’s an important part of our heritage.”

The water board bought about 28 percent of the shares on Bessemer Ditch from 2009-11, and agreed to allow irrigation to continue for at least 20 years under all of its contracts.

The purchase and lease-back method is not new. Other cities, and Pueblo itself, have used it before. The farmers get large upfront payments, which in the short-term increase local economic benefits. But eventually, past sales of water have led to dry-ups.

Pueblo Water now is looking at ways to ensure water would still be available to irrigate the farms on the Bessemer Ditch, with the city using the water when it’s needed.

“Pueblo Water wants to add a municipal use to the agricultural use,” Ward said of the current court process, which will take years to complete. “But we want to move it back and forth and continue leases to farmers.”

The same dynamics are at work with the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, but the difference is that farmers would keep control.

“This project is trying to incorporate a number of existing components, so we can have a viable lease-fallowing program,” said Leah Martinsson, an attorney for the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District and Super Ditch.

She explained that state laws over the past 15 years have not been used much, because the traditional market forces that drive agricultural sellers and municipal buyers are easier for both sides. Some require storage, while others lead to long-term changes in water court that could reduce the amount of water under a water right.

But that’s changing.

In 2013, House Bill 1248 created a new process on a trial basis that would allow water to be leased from farms to cities (or other farms) under an administrative process. The water rights themselves would not change, as required under other laws, and farms would not be dried up.

Water could only be leased for three years in 10 for the same parcel of farmland, or only 30 percent of a farmer’s ground could be included in any given year, assuring availability of water throughout the 10-year period of the pilot program.

The new law was first used last year when six farms on the Catlin Canal were enrolled in a lease agreement with Fountain, Security and Fowler.

“It’s voluntary, but all of the farmers wanted to participate again,” Martinsson said. “They said they wished they’d included more land.”

The forum also looked at the possibility that less water would be available for imports from the Colorado River basin in the future. Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, there is not enough water in average annual flows to meet all of the appropriations, said Aaron Derwingson of the Nature Conservancy.

Some initial programs, funded by cities outside the basin that export water, are looking at ways to keep more water in the basin, reducing the risk that supplies would be curtailed, he said.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Water Trust is working to preserve in-stream flows by brokering deals between high-country irrigators and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said Amy Beatie, executive director.

Gary Barber, project coordinator for the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, said all of the ideas tie into the Colorado Water Plan and the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, which both work to balance all of the state’s water needs.

“The idea is to have a cycle where we’re getting projects completed as we’re planning,” Barber said.

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters
Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

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