Arkansas Valley Ag Water Alliance tour recap

Photo of Crowley County by Jennifer Goodland

From The La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Candace Krebs):

The Arkansas Valley is a leader in finding innovative methods for sharing water between thirsty municipalities miles away and local farms heavily dependent on waterways that flow through the sparsely populated plains, according to the host of a recent agricultural water tour.

In the shadow of Crowley County, where most of the irrigation water was sold out from under productive farmland decades ago, farmers here have been more willing to look at alternatives than in some of Colorado’s other basins, according to Greg Peterson, executive director of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance.

The alliance, along with partner organizations National Young Farmers Coalition, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, recently hosted an educational tour to show how irrigation water is being managed and conserved at several sites between Avondale and Rocky Ford.

Peterson told the tour group that relinquishing claims on the water through alternative transfer methods remains a touchy subject…

Water that once flowed out of the mountains to replenish the prairies increasingly reverses course and heads back upstream through a series of pipelines, pump stations and reservoirs to accommodate surging metropolitan growth.

What happened in Crowley County, in particular, has been the source of hard feelings that still linger.

“There are less than a dozen of us still farming along our ditch,” said Matt Heimerich, who farms near Ordway and serves as the Lower Arkansas Valley Conservation Director for the Palmer Land Trust.

Farmers sold water to put their kids through college or in some cases simply to buy modern appliances they’d done without over a lifetime of backbreaking work, he said. By no means was the choice an easy one…

The Palmer Land Trust is working to develop programs that make it possible to move water around on a temporary basis without permanently drying up farmland. Another goal is to create incentives to dry up marginal ground first rather than forfeit what is most productive.

Remembering back to his experiences during the harsh droughts of the early 2000s, Heimerich said leasing water and fallowing land during drought years might be the most logical solution for everyone involved…

Lease-sharing of water is a relatively new invention, and farmers are approaching it cautiously, in some cases dipping a toe in to test the water, so to speak.

During a tour of the packing shed at Hirakata Farms, where cardboard bins were filled with watermelons and bright orange pumpkins, owners and cousins Glenn and Michael Hirakata explained why they decided to participate in the Catlin Canal lease-fallow pilot program in 2015 along with five other farmers.

“We wanted to get in on this from the ground floor,” Glenn Hirakata said. “Since it’s a pilot program, we’re not locked into it.”

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