Farmers along the Bessemer Ditch are fighting gravel mine

Arkansas Valley organic farmer Dan Hobbs photo via the Pueblo Chieftain
Arkansas Valley organic farmer Dan Hobbs photo via the Pueblo Chieftain

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

…some garlic and chili farmers of the Arkansas River Valley are battling a proposed state-backed gravel mine east of Pueblo that threatens to drive them away.

The farmers for 16 years have defended their fields against the mine on adjacent state-owned land up the hill. They contend gravel mining would destroy prairie needed to sustain pollinators, disrupt production with dust from noisy trucks, and foul their 1874 Bessemer Ditch with sediment that clogs irrigation sprinklers. They asked Gov. John Hickenlooper to intervene.

But last week, Colorado’s land board and the state mining board rejected the farmers’ appeals.

The conflict shows how, despite wide political support for the idea of saving farming amid a Front Range development boom, state agencies cannot easily make that happen. The State Land Board is required to lease state land to maximize revenue for schools. The mining board has limited discretion in granting permits for extraction of minerals, including gravel needed for urban expansion.

“This is the best farmland in the state of Colorado. We’ve already had deterioration of our agricultural base in the area due to water rights sales. We need to protect as much as we have left for future generations,” said Dan Hobbs, a Rocky Mountain Farmers Union organizer who has been growing crops on a 30-acre farm in Avondale for 17 years.

He grows high-value niche crops, including garlic and the chilis for which Pueblo is famous, and develops drought-resistant seeds. If the gravel mine is approved, with a planned road 41 feet from his property, Hobbs said he might have to leave.

“I’d be looking at some really hard decisions as to whether I could stay in that community, “ he said.

“We’d like the governor to protect our food-shed,” Hobbs said. “People in Colorado value food produced in Colorado and we want to continue producing it for them. This gravel mine would be too close to our irrigation systems and land.”

The battle over Cañon City-based Fremont Paving and Redi Mix’s proposal to mine gravel has intensified. Some farmers along the Bessemer Ditch, upstream from where the gravel mining would be done, have sold easements giving Fremont access across their land.

Mining would mean digging in and scooping out rock from under the Badger Hills, rolling prairie “uplands” above the river that serve as habitat for bees, birds, foxes and other wildlife.

Pueblo County authorities, who in 2001 and 2012 rejected the mine because of incompatibility in that agricultural area, must decide again — now that state agencies have signed off. County planners have scheduled a meeting April 5.

This time, the commissioners haven’t taken a position, spokeswoman Paris Carmichael said. “Agriculture is a huge part of our economy. It is vital to the Pueblo County economy and culture. We also encourage economic development and businesses being able to grow.”

The State Land Board is “an asset leasing agency that is responsible for stewarding state trust land on behalf of trust beneficiaries,” board spokeswoman Kristin Kemp said. Gravel mining would pay the board an estimated $1.8 million over 15 years, money that would help fund education.

Colorado’s six-member Mined Land Reclamation Board in January granted Fremont a permit. The board has issued permits for 1,290 construction materials mines around the state — mostly sand and gravel mines — state natural resources spokesman Todd Hartman said…

Beyond the prairie, the push to mine gravel is fragmenting longstanding farming communities.

“That’s the biggest tragedy, dividing the community, dividing the ditch company,” said Jay Winner, director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, which tries to protect water for agriculture as cities assert claims.

At recent packed meetings, tensions boiled over and county officials ordered a timeout for a landowner to consider a compromise. A police report has been filed alleging company trespassing to deploy drones for measuring the landscape.

“Neighbor against neighbor is a bad thing. You have school districts involved. Everybody and their brother is involved in this thing. People are taking sides,” Winner said. “There will be wounds because of this that will not heal for 100 years.”

“This gravel pit issue is about the future. It is about fairness,” he said. “And it is about whether farmers can continue to farm.”

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