HB16-1228 Agriculture Protection Water Right Transfer Mechanism meeting recap

Flood irrigation — photo via the CSU Water Center

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

The Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Division of Water Resources is holding a series information and input meetings on the new Agricultural Water Protection Water Right law. A handful of local farmers and other interested parties attended the session on Wednesday at the Sterling Public Library.

The new law, which was sponsored by both Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, and Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, installs safeguards in the event that irrigators want to change part of their water right to a new beneficial use.

Deputy State Engineer Kevin Rein conducted the session, first walking through the process of writing rules and regulations to put the new law into effect, and then encouraging questions and discussion of the new rules.

Much of the discussion centered around whether the new program was even feasible for individual irrigators or would be a better fit for irrigation districts and ditch companies. It was generally agreed that, because of costs and the intricacies of water law, the larger the entity managing the lease, the better the plan would work. Individual irrigators could pledge a certain number of their water shares toward the ditch company’s AWPWR program and let the company worry about return flows, legal fees, and other details based on the total amount of water leased.

Don Ament, who represents Colorado in the South Platte Recovery Program, said he wants to follow up to see whether irrigators in the South Platte River Basin would, by virtue of being part of the SPRP, be automatically part of a conservation program, as required by the new law. He was told during the meeting that “Title 38” of Colorado Revised Statutes might prohibit that. It’s possible the wrong CRS was cited, since Title 38 has to do with tenant and landlord rights, while Title 37 is about water and irrigation. Ament said he would have to look into the law…

There also was significant discussion of just how much water a farmer could lease. The new law limits the amount of water an irrigator can lease out to half of his consumptive use right. That’s to help make sure most of the irrigation water still goes to irrigate crops.

Early in the discussion, Rein displayed a graphic that showed a water right that allowed 10 cubic feet per second of water flow through an irrigator’s head gate. If his historic return flow was four CFS, that meant his consumptive use is six CFS. He would then be allowed to lease half of the six CFS, or three CFS, under the AWPWR program. That would leave him a total of seven CFS of ditch flow to irrigate with. Because he would be running less water on his land, his return flow would naturally diminish. That’s why the law requires a substitute water supply plan; it would show how the irrigator would maintain his historic return flow of 4 CFS.

But that, it turns out, is the simple part. To complicate matters, irrigators don’t actually measure their water rights in a ditch company in cubic feet per second, but in shares. And farmers typically wouldn’t want to lease half of their total shares as part of an alternative transfer, even temporarily.

If, for instance, a farmer owns 100 shares in a ditch company, he may want to commit half of that, or 50 shares, to the AWPWR program. Because he would have only 50 shares in the program, he could lease only half of those 50 shares. But return flow still needs to be calculated, and return flow is measured in acre feet of water per year or in cubic feet per second. The irrigator (or his ditch company) would have to show how that return flow would be maintained.

To further complicate matters, shares don’t necessarily mean a specific amount of water. The amount of water a farmer’s 50 shares contains depends on how much water is available, who else is taking water with a higher, or older, priority, and other factors.

Rein said all of those factors would be up to the state engineer’s office to determine…

While discussion moved into the more esoteric realm of hypothetical legal matters, John Stulp, who serves as Gov. John Hickenlooper’s special policy advisor for water, reminded the group of the purpose of the new law.

“Keep in mind that the spirit of the law was to protect agriculture, and to give farmers the chance to participate in some of those revenue opportunities that are available through ATMs,” he said. “You need to be getting ready; it may not be your generation (that participates) but you need to do the groundwork for being flexible with your water right.”

Joe Frank, manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, is known to be skeptical of ATMs because there is rarely any mention of how the water is to be stored for transfer and what kind of infrastructure will be needed to transfer it. He said after the meeting that, while he thinks flexibility in determining the end user on an ATM is a good thing, the new law still doesn’t address some of his concerns.

“There are still the inherent question marks about ATMs,” Frank said. “This just gives somebody who’s thinking about ATMs the ability to go to court once, change their water right, and be able to be flexible in who they lease the water to.

“But ATMs in general still have the issues that I brought up; you need a place to store it, you need a way to get it to the end user, you need a way of bringing multiple users together, so there are still those inherent issues.”

Frank said ATMs still represent a “drying up” of some farmland because the water is being diverted from irrigation to other consumptive uses.

“My alternative to ‘buy and dry’ is new supply,” he said. “We need to capture unappropriated water and store it, and maybe plug in ATMs. In my perfect world the best way to plug in an ATM is as part of a new project that takes advantage of available water supplies.”

Here’s the summary from the Colorado General Assembly website:

The act authorizes an owner of an absolute decreed irrigation water right in water division 1 or 2 that is used for agricultural purposes to seek a change-in-use decree in water court to obtain an agricultural water protection water right.

Under the changed water right available in water division 1 or 2, the water right owner may apply for a renewable one-year substitute water supply plan through which the water right owner may lease, loan, or trade up to 50% of the historical consumptive use portion of the water subject to the water right without designating the specific beneficial use for the leased, loaned, or traded water. The one-year substitute water supply plan authorizing the lease, loan, or trade of water may be renewed twice without reapplying if the terms and conditions of the plan remain unchanged. A new application is required every 3 years to maintain the substitute water supply plan.

Pursuant to rules developed by the state engineer and reviewed by the water judge for water division 1, the state engineer may approve a one-year renewable substitute water supply plan authorizing the lease, loan, or trade of water subject to an agricultural water protection water right in water division 1 or 2 if the following conditions are met:

  • The remaining portion of the water subject to the water right must continue to be used for agricultural purposes;
  • The water right must be protected by the owner’s participation in an agricultural water protection water program, for which the Colorado water conservation board will establish minimum criteria and guidelines;
  • The owner shall not lease, loan, or trade water subject to the water right outside of the water division with jurisdiction over the location of historical consumptive use; and
  • The transferable portion of the water subject to the water right must be delivered to a point of diversion that is subject to an existing water court decree.
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