From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):
Conservation easements have figured prominently in the Arkansas River Basin as a way to offer landowners incentives to retain water rights rather than selling them off the land.
They also underpin Colorado’s Water Plan, mainly through statements in several of the basin implementation plans which fed into the final product.
Conservation, as a term in the water plan, is often described as reducing water demand, either for urban or agricultural use, in order to protect stream flows.
But the continued use of water on farms is an important element of the water plan in maintaining the environmental and recreational landscape that makes the state so attractive. Preserving agricultural water requires incentives to prevent it from being sold for uses that, on the surface, appear more lucrative. That’s how conservation easements fit in.
The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, formed in 2002 to protect water in the Arkansas River basin, considers conservation easements one of its most valuable tools in preventing water from permanently leaving the land.
But it’s taken a while for groups that promote conservation easements to come to the roundtables.
The Pueblo Chieftain asked Ben Lenth, executive director of the San Isabel Land Trust, and Matt Heimerich, conservation director for the Palmer Land Trust’s Lower Arkansas Valley programs, to reflect on how their organizations will connect with Colorado’s Water Plan.
How do we fill the gap in the Arkansas River Basin within the Colorado Water Plan and Basin Implementation Plan?
1. Financially incentivize temporary and intermittent water sharing and leasing agreements for landowners with water rights.
2. Incentivize efficiency improvements for irrigation without penalizing the water rights holder.
3. Prioritize water projects that have multiuse functions to benefit as many water users as possible.
4. Continue to incentivize and/or regulate water conservation measures by municipalities and industry.
It is important to consider that the Colorado Water Plan recognizes the importance of balancing the water needs of municipalities, agricultural and non-consumptive uses, such as recreation, and watershed health.
As a regional organization, Palmer Land Trust is committed to preserving open spaces, outdoor recreation, and working farms and ranches. Our goals as a land trust are well-aligned with the working tenets of the Colorado Water Plan.
Past solutions to solving water supply problems at the expense of working farms and ranches and the environment are no longer acceptable. As the state’s largest basin, it is imperative that the identified water supply gap in the Arkansas not create winners and losers over the equitable distribution of this precious resource.
What projects do you plan to fill the gap?
1. Planning and implementing land and water conservation projects to have maximum flexibility for leasing/ sharing water over time.
2. Water reallocation projects which benefit agriculture, municipalities, recreation and wildlife habitat.
After an in-depth study, Palmer Land Trust made the decision to open an office in Rocky Ford with the purpose of exploring economic-based alternatives to large-scale water transfers from irrigated agricultural to municipalities. Palmer’s conservation easements use language that, in addition to tying the water rights to the land in perpetuity, allow for short-term leasing opportunities when an extended drought threatens the viability of municipal water providers.
Palmer Land Trust is also an active participant in a coalition of farmers, water providers, locally elected officials and research institutions examining strategies on how to ensure the long-term sustainability of farming under the Bessemer Ditch as farmers face increasing competition for land and water in eastern Pueblo County.
How do we keep the gaps for agriculture and municipalities from becoming bigger?
Integrate landuse planning and water planning. Do not allow subdivisions to be permitted without proven sources of water.
Palmer believes that one of the ways to avert conflicts between municipalities and agriculture is to engage the urban/suburban citizen in a dialogue regarding the importance of irrigated farming to the region’s economy and cultural identity. The demand for locally-grown foods is increasing at a rapid pace.
Drying up farms along the Arkansas River is counterproductive on many levels. Our visibility in the greater Pikes Peak Region affords Palmer a unique opportunity to help close this gap between agriculture and municipalities.