More ag water protection needed as Northern Colorado keeps booming: expert panel — The Boulder Daily Camera

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

From The Boulder Daily Camera (Sam Lounsberry):

With concerns looming large over two expensive proposals to divert one of the Front Range’s most beloved rivers, the Cache la Poudre, to store supply for 15 Northern Colorado water providers and another to transport water out of the basin to Thornton via pipeline, more planning to keep water rights in the region for agricultural use is economically essential.

That is, unless Front Range residents approve of the disappearance of local farms and the volume of business, environmental benefit and cultural impact provided by the ag sector, panelists at a BizWest-sponsored discussion on water and energy policy said Thursday at the Larimer County Fairgrounds.

Northern Water is still working through the permitting process for the two reservoirs with hopes of filling them by 2028, while Thornton is suing Larimer County over a land use denial for the pipeline…

The construction boom across the Front Range has greatly expanded the markets for water shares, especially Colorado-Big Thompson units representing flow brought from the wet Western Slope to the dry Front Range through the Northern Water-managed Colorado-Big Thompson system. Those units can be transferred from farmers to municipalities without the hassle of water court…

As a result, market pressure has fallen on native basin water owners, whose values also are ticking upward.

“The level of scarcity has really come to bear since the last economic upturn,” Greeley Water and Sewer Director Sean Chambers said. “Water leaving northern Colorado is an export of our ability to grow now and in the future in a sustainable way. Denver metro economies can still find value even in this hyper-inflated (water) marketplace.”

[…]

Regulations or legislation to restrict water resources from being transported outside the boundaries of their local basins, though, are likely not a fair solution to farmers, former Northern Water manager Eric Wilkinson contends.

Because water rights in the state are considered property, agriculturalists should have the option to take advantage of selling them for fair market value, Wilkinson said. New public entities might need to be conceived or old ones redesigned to compete for water rights with the mission of preserving them for local use, he said.

But building political will for such efforts has been a challenge.While Boulder County taxpayers have funded aggressive open space programs that have resulted in the purchase and protection of vast swaths of farmland, voters in neighboring areas with conservative roots have been more cautious.

Yet there is urgency to gain the political capital needed to invest in the preservation of farmland through open space programs or otherwise before the land and water become too valuable, and thus tempting for owners to sell. Maps of the growth management areas of the municipalities north and east of Longmont show they have collectively targeted practically all undeveloped land along the Interstate 25 corridor to the Wyoming border.

“The Greeley City Council is thinking about trying to establish an open space tax of some kind,” Greeley City Manager Roy Otto said in an interview. “But I think to make this work, Weld County as a whole will have to do something like that, as well.”

Otto added praise for open space programs in Boulder and Larimer counties as a means of protecting land and ag, but said an “honest” education effort about peripheral consequences of limiting the development of municipal boundaries through dedicated open space has to occur with Longmont’s eastern neighbors.

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