Agricultural water sharing via Colorado Springs Utilities:
Sharing water with farmers in our native Arkansas River Basin is one of the ways we are meeting our water needs for the future. This innovative program provides water for Colorado Springs customers while protecting rural communities and the agricultural economy in our region.
Agricultural water sharing is an Alternative Transfer Mechansim, or ATM, and it’s one way we are diversifying our water supply portfolio. Our sustainable water plan – the Integrated Water Resource Plan (IWRP) – outlines our future needs over a 50-years planning horizon, including the need to add 15,000-25,000 acre-feet of water supply through agricultural water sharing and other ATMs.
In the past, water transfers between agriculture and municipalities primarily involved purchasing farms and transferring the associated water rights to the city. Today, balancing municipal needs with farmers’ needs involves a partnership to share the water. These partnerships range from storage cooperation to the development of perpetual 3-in-10-year lease/fallowing programs. Sometimes water becomes available when the farmer transitions to more efficient irrigation methods and needs less water to produce the same amount of crops. The farmer’s productivity per acre is preserved, while the city receives the unused water.
In essence, water sharing agreements help us and farmers manage water supplies while keeping water in agriculture and sustaining economic growth in the Arkansas Basin region.
We continue to build on the successes of our first water sharing agreements, started in 2015. In 2018. we established the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association (LAWMA) project, which provides water for Colorado Springs municipal use in five of every 10 years, while farmers in the Las Animas and Lamar areas take additional water during the other five years. We also supported LAWMA’s development of storage to help them manage the program and their supplies.
Why does water sharing work?
It emphasizes collaboration rather than competition for water. Both partners benefit. It provides multiple ways to create stability for municipal supplies and agriculture. It reduces large scale transfers and permanent removal of water from agriculture. When working with an augmentation entity, water sharing supports the use of more efficient irrgation technology resulting in more efficient use of water.
From KRCC (Shanna Lewis):
Two Bent County farmers will shift away from flood irrigation to more efficient agricultural sprinklers that circle around a center pivot. Colorado Springs will acquire the rights to use the water saved by this change…
The total cost for this acquisition is about $2 million. Additionally, the farmers will rotationally fallow their fields three years out of every ten and Colorado Springs Utilities will lease that water.
In all, it’s a small amount of water, but Benyamin said it’s the first of a series of similar deals the utility is working on as it diversifies its water supply portfolio.
Growing Front Range municipalities have, in the past, purchased water rights using what’s known as “buy and dry,” meaning that land in rural areas was often left barren and unfarmable.
Councilmember Wayne Williams, who chairs the utilities board, said that “buy and dry” has far-reaching negative effects on rural communities that results in a declining population in Colorado’s Eastern Plains…
Colorado Springs City Council approved the agreement [February 1, 2022]. Next, the city will complete the purchase and submit the permanent water transfer request to the state.
That process can take years to go through water court, but Colorado Springs Utilities staff said there’s an administrative approval process to allow the water to be immediately available for municipal use.