Respecting property rights a focus in water speculation task force meeting — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel #COleg

Water from an aquifer that lies below Colorado’s San Luis Valley flows through a center-pivot irrigation system, one of some 14,000 that draw water from below. Photo credit:Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday held the first meeting of the Anti-Speculation Law Work Group. The task force was established as a result of passage of a bill this year to consider ways to strengthen the current anti-speculation law and recommend any changes to a legislative committee by Aug. 15 [2021].

The bill was sponsored by state Reps. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon and Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, and Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and Don Coram, R-Montrose. It was inspired by a growing number purchases of agricultural land and associated water rights by investment firms, including wide-scale purchases in the Grand Valley by Water Asset Management, which is based in New York.

Current state law prohibits water speculation by requiring water to be used for a beneficial purpose. An 18-member work group made up of state agency staff, water lawyers and others will be considering how the law might be tightened.

None of the bill sponsors participated in Wednesday’s meeting. But Scott Steinbrecher, an assistant deputy attorney general co-chairing the task force, said a clear purpose of the bill is to examine how the law should be strengthened to prevent situations where water rights are bought and leased back to farmers though the intent is to use the water like an investment.

Alex Funk, a task force member who is an agricultural water resource specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency, voiced concern about approaches that might limit the value of assets to agricultural producers.

“There is certainly a tension here where land and water assets are extremely valuable to producers. In some cases these are sort of their only asset,” he said…Task force member Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River District, which has been watching some of the area water-related acquisitions by investment firms with concern, said agricultural producers looking to sell their assets are entitled to do that.

“I assume we don’t want to prevent that from happening,” he said.

He said what’s important under even the current law is the intent of the buyer of water rights. He said they can profit from the water’s use but their end goal in buying rights can’t be the pure value of the water, and he’s interested in looking at ways to determine intent.

Daris Jutten, a rancher in the Uncompahgre Valley, said his interest in serving on the task force is considering impacts on property rights.

“I want to keep the land value prices where they are but I also don’t want to see buy and dry,” he said.

He was referring to situations in which transactions result in water no longer being used to irrigate agricultural land and instead going for other uses such as by municipal utilities.

Task force member Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, said the district sees entities buying up water there with the intent to dry up land in the future.

“In addition to that we do have those who want to sell, so water is a property right. … It’s a dilemma, but we don’t want to impact people’s property rights,” he said.

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