Fort Lyon Ditch: Large-scale changes requested by Arkansas River Farms

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

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

In sometimes heated exchanges, Fort Lyon Canal shareholders questioned the impact of large-scale changes of how water moves on the Arkansas Valley’s largest ditch.

Arkansas River Farms is asking the Fort Lyon board of directors to consider changes that would dry up about 6,400 acres and add sprinklers to 6,200 acres, all part of the more than 14,000 acres the partnership purchased for $50 million last year.

For the directors, it means walking a tightrope. While some shareholders are worried, Arkansas River Farms is the largest shareholder on the ditch. All must be treated fairly, the board believes.

In addition, as official representatives of the canal company, the Fort Lyon board will be a party in the eventual water court case to change how the water rights can be used.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve done this,” said Dale Mauch, a Fort Lyon board member who chaired the board in 2003, after High Plains LLC bought the same farms now in question. “High Plains and Colorado Beef also required a ruling from the board, so we have precedents on setting requirements.”

During a hearing this week, shareholders questioned how some of the water could be measured down to tenths of an inch, what would happen to several laterals that ARF will abandon, how drains that carry water back to the Arkansas River would be affected, water quality changes from increased groundwater use and paying for unforeseen future effects.

The chance for any shareholder to ask questions is important. The High Plains hearing, which lasted four days in November 2003, was similar in structure to this week’s hearings. In that case, however, High Plains already had filed an application to change water rights. The board eventually voted to allow High Plains to take water in rotation, a first step in a plan to move it to other destinations around the state.

High Plains’ plan was struck down in water court in 2004 and in state Supreme Court in 2005. The farms it had purchased were sold to Pure Cycle, which sold most of them to ARF last year.
Arkansas River Farms insists it is only interested in improving the farms it owns, and no longer plans to move water to other parts of the state, although some are skeptical.

Another difference with this week’s hearings is that they are being held in the middle of summer, when farmers are busiest out in the field.

“If the weather’s good, they’ll be putting up hay,” one farmer said.

Still, about 75 people, mostly farmers, showed up for the first day of hearings.

The hearings originally were set for January, but postponed to allow the board to hire an outside attorney and engineer in response to conflict-of-interest charges.

The board isn’t likely to make a decision soon on eight requests of approval in changes of ditch operations and 10 terms or conditions suggested by ARF. Also under consideration are the revegetation plan for acres that would be dried up and the method by which the farming partnership’s shares would be managed by the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association.
Board members each have a thick notebook of information about the proposal to read through as well as two days of testimony — so far.

“We’ll rely heavily on counsel,” said Josh Weimer, president of the Fort Lyon board. He added that the board’s outside attorney, David Hallford of Glenwood Springs, has years of experience in cases involving Arkansas Valley water changes. “I think what this really does is set precedence for the water court case, and will give the judge our opener.”

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