Click the link to read the release on the Colorado Law website:
“It is an incredible honor to accept the award on behalf of the hundreds of students, dozens of supervising attorneys, and many community partners who have advanced environmental justice for Colorado’s acequias over the past decade,” remarked Gregor MacGregor, faculty fellow at the University of Colorado Law School and director of the Acequia Assistance Project. “My special thanks to Professor Sarah Krakoff, Peter Nichols ’01, and Sarah Parmar for launching the Project. A further thank-you to alumnus Don Brown ’89 and the University’s Outreach Office, whose generous funding allows us to support Colorado’s acequias and the professional growth of our students. And finally, my sincerest gratitude goes out to the acequia members who continue to invite us to work and learn in their beautiful community. The Deputy Directors and I are honored to continue the Project’s work on behalf of our community partners and students. Thank you.”
The Acequia Assistance Project is an environmental justice program at the University of Colorado Law School that provides pro bono legal services to southern Colorado’s Hispanic agricultural community. For the last ten years, law students, faculty, and pro bono attorneys have helped these irrigation ditches, acequias, to realize their water rights after the Acequia Recognition Act remedied 120 years of exclusion from Colorado’s water law regime.
Acequia is an Arabic word that means “water bearer.” An acequia is a physical irrigation system but the term “acequia” in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado also describes a philosophy about water and community– that water is so essential to life that it is a communal resource, one which must be shared. Acequias are found along the southernmost part of Colorado – including four of the state’s poorest counties: Costilla, Conejos, Huerfano, and Las Animas. While water is wealth throughout the arid West, to the small-scale farmer in these traditional communities the acequia culture represents even more: Acequias are how you support your family and how you participate in your community.
Founded as a passion project by Professor Sarah Krakoff, Colorado Law alumnus water attorney Peter Nichols ‘01, and Colorado Open Lands’ Sarah Parmar, the Project provides Hispanic farmers with a full suite of legal services related to their water rights, including: representation in Colorado’s Water Courts; researching legal issues pertinent to the community as a whole; title research; bylaws drafting and amending; mediation; incorporation; water rights historic use collection; and drafting water rights purchase and sale agreements.
For the 2021-2022 school year, the Project included 42 students, 5 pro bono attorneys, and 15 cases. In 2019, the last full year pre-COVID, the Project provided nearly $300,000 of legal services with an operating budget of only $8,000 from the University’s Outreach funding. Funding covers the costs of student travel, filing fees, and other incidental costs. All attorney and student participation is entirely voluntary.
“I could not be more proud to see the Acequia Project’s many years of dedicated efforts recognized in such a profound way,” commented dean of the law school Lolita Buckner Inniss. “The students, alumni, faculty, and community partners’ dedication to promoting these communities’ access to the courts and effective management of resources is inspiring. Its role in instilling a commitment to environmental justice in hundreds of Colorado’s best and brightest future attorneys is truly invaluable.”
Interested in supporting the Acequia Project? Head to the CU Foundation’s Giving Site to make your contribution to the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment.
On December 15th, 2022, the Senate voted to pass the National Defense Authorization Act in which the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 (WRDA 2022) is included. It was passed by a vote of 83-11. Last week, the House passed the bill on December 8th with an overwhelming majority of 350-80. It will now go to President Biden’s desk for signing into law.
This is the largest Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) in history and comes in at a time when our nation needs it most. The bill provides authorization for the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out water resources infrastructure projects to address flooding, waterway transportation, and ecosystem restoration. Importantly, this bill includes provisions to support Tribal and underserved communities, and address climate change.
American Rivers has worked with Congress to include provisions to protect and restore our nation’s rivers and floodplains. Below are some of the key provisions that we are most excited about.
Sections 8111. Tribal Partnership Program; 8112. Tribal Liaison; 8113. Tribal Assistance; 8114. Cost sharing provisions for the territories and Indian Tribes; and 8115. Tribal and Economically Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Committee are valuable provisions. We support these efforts to improve outreach to, and engagement with, these communities and give them a seat at the table. We are also pleased to see the initiative to build out the Corps of Engineers workforce through outreach in schools, colleges, and universities with a prioritization of recruiting from economically disadvantaged communities. We believe these steps will serve both the Corps and the communities well.
With climate change impacting the nation, promoting nature-based approaches on a project and watershed level scale is imperative to adapt to increasing floods and water scarcity. WRDA 2022 includes several provisions that will help promote the use of nature-based approaches and better serve and protect our communities while promoting ecosystem resilience through more responsible levee management and floodplain restoration.
Section 8103 – Shoreline and riverbank protection and restoration mission calls for restoring the natural functions and values of rivers and shorelines throughout the United States. Section 8121– Assessment of Corps of Engineers levees, will assess for opportunities for modification of levees, including for restoring connections with adjacent floodplains. American Rivers also worked to include language for the Corps to identify floodplain reconnection opportunities on federal lands. While this provision was not included in the final bill, we will work with the Corps to support sections 8103 and 8121, while continuing to work on getting additional federal levees assessed.
American Rivers worked diligently with our partners at American Whitewater and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to include section 8122- National Low-Head Dam Inventory. This inventory will contribute significantly to public safety as low-head dams are known public safety hazards, and yet not inventoried nationally, and making this information publicly available will help river users identify life-threatening low-head dams. We also hope that this inventory will help the public identify obsolete structures that continue to pose a safety hazard and would be suitable for removal. In areas where dam removal is not an option, we support additional funding to go towards grants for signage and public education about low-head dams
Section 8123– Expediting hydropower at Corps of Engineers facilities, allows for retrofitting Corps dams with hydropower. We support this provision with the understanding that the structures in question are already serving their legislatively authorized purpose and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Recognizing that retrofitting a non-powered Corps dam with hydropower is not always feasible, we will continue to advocate for the diligent assessment of these projects and their use to determine if they would better serve the taxpayers, community, and local ecosystem by being disposed of instead of extending their life solely for non-power purposes.
The consideration of reforestation in section 8137 is an exciting and forward-thinking provision that encourages measures to restore swamps and other wetland forests in studies for water resources development projects. This is another important step towards focusing on ecosystem restoration. The benefits of flood control and water quality improvements that come from healthy swamps and wetlands are incalculable.
There are several provisions related to river restoration and protection and better river management, including section 8144 – Chattahoochee River Program, section 8145 – Lower Mississippi River Basin demonstration program, and section 8219 – Hydraulic evaluation of Upper Mississippi River and Illinois River. The Chattahoochee River program will provide assistance to non-federal interests for water-related resource protection and restoration projects affecting the Chattahoochee River Basin. The Lower Mississippi program will provide assistance to non-federal interests for projects focused on flood or coastal storm risk management or aquatic ecosystem restoration. The hydraulic evaluation of the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois River basins will provide studies on the flows for rivers in the upper basin, which we hope will contribute to more effective management and restoration plans.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) studies authorized in section 8236 are encouraging, especially the review of mitigation projects and the evaluation of their performance. These studies will require a report on the results of projects and activities to mitigate fish and wildlife losses that occurred as a result of a water resources development project. Within this section, we also support the study on the integration of information into the national levee database as this information is essential to the management and improvement of our nation’s levees.
We are pleased to see section 8140 – Policy and technical standards directing the Secretary to update the agency standards. With this update, the Corps will have to include climate change and nature-based solutions in their practices. We look forward to the report on the Corps of Engineers reservoirs under section 8153 so that Congress may further evaluate the operation, utility, and future of these reservoirs.
Overall, we applaud the safety and environmental provisions in this bill and the passing of this paramount piece of legislation to protect our natural and engineered water infrastructure and the people that rely on it.
This blog was written by Katie Schmidt. Jaime Sigaran, Ted Illston, Brian Graber, and Eileen Shader
Click the link to read the guest column on The New York Times website (Natalie Koch). Here’s an excerpt:
Arizona’s water is running worryingly low. Amid the worst drought in more than a millennium, which has left communities across the state with barren wells, the state is depleting what remains of its precious groundwater. Much of it goes to private companies nearly free, including Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company.
Thanks to fresh scrutiny this year from state politicians, water activists and journalists, the Saudi agricultural giant Almarai has emerged as an unlikely antagonist in the water crisis. The company, through its subsidiary Fondomonte, has been buying and leasing land across western Arizona since 2014. This year The Arizona Republic published a report showing that the Arizona State Land Department has been leasing 3,500 acres of public land to Almarai for a suspiciously low price. The case has prompted calls for an investigation into how a foreign company wound up taking the state’s dwindling water supplies for a fee that might be as low as one-sixth the market rate. But the focus on the Saudi scheme obscures a more fundamental problem: pumping groundwater in Arizona remains largely unregulated. It’s this legal failing that, in part, allows the Saudi company to draw unlimited amounts of water to grow an alfalfa crop that feeds dairy cows 8,000 miles away. Even if Fondomonte leaves the state, it will be only a matter of time before Arizona sucks its aquifers dry. While a 1980 state law regulates groundwater use in a handful of urban areas, water overuse is common even in these places. The situation is worse in the roughly 80 percent of Arizona’s territory that falls outside these regulations. In most of rural Arizona, whoever has the money to drill a well can continue to pump till the very last drop…
Many more agricultural operations are drawing down the state’s underground water reserves for free. And most of them are U.S.-owned. Minnesota’s Riverview Dairy company, for example, has a farm near Sunizona, Ariz., that has drained so much of the aquifer that local residents have seen their wells dry up. Meanwhile, some California-based farms, facing tougher groundwater regulations at home, are looking to relocate to neighboring Arizona for cheap water. These companies and other megafarms can afford to drill deep wells, chasing the rapidly sinking water table.
And it’s not just farming operations. Other sectors like mining and the military, which have a huge presence in the state, also benefit from Arizona’s lax water laws. It’s difficult to know how much water is being used up by one of the state’s largest employers, Raytheon Missiles and Defense, which, like Almarai, has a footprint in Arizona and Saudi Arabia. But manufacturing missiles has a water cost, too. And like Fondomonte’s alfalfa, Raytheon’s product is being shipped to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi farm scandal may have helped to spotlight the severity of Arizona’s water crisis, but the state will have to go further to address the root cause. Arizona needs to apply groundwater pumping regulations across the entire state, not just in its metropolitan areas. It won’t be easy. This year special interest groups scuttled a far more modest effort that would have allowed rural communities to opt in to groundwater enforcement. In all likelihood, when these groups have to pay fair prices for water, they will have to give up on growing water-hungry crops like alfalfa in the desert. This kind of race-to-the-bottom approach to water in Arizona is insupportable today, if it ever was.
Click the link to read the white paper on the Family Farm Alliance website (Dan Keppen and Mike Wade). Here’s an excerpt:
Alfalfa is often the target of journalists and some critics of irrigated agriculture who frequently rely upon simplistic explanations to heap scorn upon growing a forage crop in the West, particularly in times of drought. The attack on alfalfa has intensified in the wake of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton’s June 14, 2022 appearance before a Senate committee, where she called on water users across the Colorado River Basin to take actions to prevent Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production.
When the states failed to meet the mid-August deadline set by Commissioner Touton for them to propose 15% to 30% cuts to their water use, critics of irrigated agriculture ramped up their focus on the perceived easy “fix” to the complicated challenges facing the Colorado River: stop growing crops that they believe use lots of water….like alfalfa.
The “shot across the bow” against alfalfa production was fired by the witness who testified immediately after Commissioner Touton at the June 14th Senate hearing. The general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), whose member agencies serve more than 2.2 million residents in Southern Nevada, summarized the impressive urban efforts to reduce per-capita water use and further suggested that farmers reconsider growing crops like alfalfa. The solution, he said, is working toward “a degree of demand management previously considered unattainable.”
He also noted that SNWA is planning to serve a population that will swell to 3.8 million by 2072.
In August, SNWA followed up with a strongly worded letter to the Biden administration, demanding action on several fronts, including creating “beneficial use criteria for Lower Basin water users, eliminating wasteful and antiquated water use practices and uses of water no longer appropriate for this Basin’s limited resources”.
In the following weeks, a steady stream of media coverage, including a 1,600-word essay in High Country News, have carried a similar message: Growing less hay is the only way to keep the Colorado River’s water system from collapsing.
Some journalists love going after crops that use lots of water. Almond growers in California’s Central Valley were subjected to a merciless multi-year “one almond uses one gallon of water” campaign during the last “unprecedented” drought that hit the Golden State in the last decade.
Guess what? Years later, Central Valley farmers still grow them because consumers around the globe love almonds and consume them in mass quantities for their great taste and dense nutritional punch.
Simplistic examinations of alfalfa in terms of water demand vs. supply must be enhanced and balanced with discussion of productivity, economic return, food production, and the environment to be truly productive. A former Imperial Irrigation District (IID) board member once said that the definition of a low-value crop is one that’s grown with the water someone else wants.
On behalf of the California Farm Water Coalition and the Family Farm Alliance, we offer this brief bit of continuing education to help you understand the rest of the story about alfalfa production in the Colorado River Basin and other parts of the American West.
Alfalfa 101: The Rest of the Story
The alfalfa sales pitch is a good one, because there’s such a good story behind it. That’s not just a load of hay you see rumbling by on Western highways during summer months. Those hay bales form the foundation of rural agriculture in many Western rural communities. Alfalfa is not only a food source for livestock, it also has important environmental attributes.
Importantly, alfalfa actually has a key role to play in the water-uncertain future of the West due to its high flexibility during times of insufficient or excess water.
Why Do We Grow Alfalfa Today?
Most people understand that Western farmers grow alfalfa as livestock feed for the beef industry. Many people also overlook the fact that alfalfa is the major food source for dairy cows. Dairy cows provide dairy products, another important part of a balanced diet.
Alfalfa hay is essentially dried alfalfa. It is normally cut at a relatively mature stage of growth and left to dry out completely. As a result, the moisture content of hay is very low, but during the drying process some nutrients can be lost.
Alfalfa haylage is alfalfa that has been cut earlier and at a younger stage of growth than hay and left to wilt for a shorter period of time in the field before being baled and wrapped in several layers of plastic or chopped and ensiled.
The difference between haylage and hay is that, while the conservation of hay relies on the removal of moisture, the conservation of haylage relies on the exclusion of oxygen which prevents mold growth.
Tables 1 and 2 (below) summarizes hay and haylage in terms of production and value, respectively, for Western states. Not shown is Wisconsin, the number one producer of alfalfa in the country at over 6.9 billion tons (or 16.4 % of the national total) of dry alfalfa hay and haylage. In terms of dollars, the Badger State generated over $1.2 billion in 2021, or 10.4 % of all the nation’s alfalfa production value. (Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Information).
As you can see from this table, nearly 61% of all the alfalfa production value in the nation derives from Reclamation states. Behind Wisconsin, Idaho is the number two producer of alfalfa in the country. Idaho hay is known for its high-protein content, and is marketable for dairy and horse operations around the world. Idaho’s high elevations and arid climate create ideal drying conditions. Major alfalfa seed companies have facilities in Idaho and develop superior genetics tailored to Idaho’s climate.
California – the third ranking producer of alfalfa in the country – also happens to be the No. 1 dairy state in the nation. California dairies generate 41.8 billion pounds of milk (18.5% of U.S. 2021 total output) from 1.7 million dairy cows. Of that total milk production, 46 percent is used to generate 2.5 billion pounds of cheese. California also leads the nation in the production of butter (534 million pounds), ice cream (528 million pounds), and yogurt (442 million pounds).
Alfalfa is considered to be the “secret ingredient” for the dairy industry; it is essential for higher milk production. Given its protein, calcium and fiber content, alfalfa is universally considered one of the highest-quality forages available for livestock.
Alfalfa also allows dairy producers to blend other crop by-products into their daily feed mix. – things like almond hulls, grape pomace and rice straw -that would otherwise not be utilized. Modern feeding practices now balance multiple feed sources to meet the nutritional needs of dairy cows. As the demand has risen for milk and other dairy products, such as yogurt, cheese, and ice cream, the amount of alfalfa required to meet those needs has remained relatively steady.
Western farmers also grow alfalfa as a seed crop to sell to other farmers around the world. When alfalfa is grown for seed, it flowers. Those alfalfa flowers attract bees and bees produce honey. How sweet it is! More honey is made from alfalfa than any other crop…
Benefits of Alfalfa
Alfalfa fields are the beginning of a food chain for a host of wildlife. The fields attract insects, which attract songbirds. Alfalfa fields also entice gophers, ground squirrels, and other rodents who make their homes there because alfalfa fields are not plowed under each year. All this activity draws the attention of nature’s hunters and predators such as hawks, raptors and foxes looking for prey. Studies have shown several endangered and threatened species use alfalfa habitats. Alfalfa fields are host to beneficial insects that help control harmful pests.
Large wild mammals like deer and elk are drawn to alfalfa for the same reasons dairy cows do. Although they can be annoying to farmers and ranchers at times, deer and elk herds are common sights in rural alfalfa fields in many parts of the West.
Alfalfa promotes healthy soil. It has an extensive root structure that creates channels in the soil and secretes organic acids, which contribute to an improved crumbly soil structure called tilth. Both of these benefits help other types of crops planted later in the same field.
By growing alfalfa as a rotation crop, farmers reduce the need for chemical fertilizers in subsequent crops. Alfalfa is an excellent source of nitrogen, which is an important soil nutrient. Being a legume, alfalfa extracts and “fixes” nitrogen into the soil from the air. For many Western farmers and ranchers, it is the only economic legume crop that can be produced, which makes it a very valuable part of a crop rotation. Not only does alfalfa break pest cycles, it also builds up the soil nutrient levels. This keeps soil sustainable and makes it suitable for organic crop production after the alfalfa is harvested.
Alfalfa roots also protect the soil from erosion in several ways. Since alfalfa fields are not plowed as often as fields growing other crops, the extensive roots hold the soil in place, and the plants provide a canopy that prevents rain from loosening the soil.
Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):
In 2000, Colorado’s largest utility rejected a proposed wind farm near Lamar. Why? A team that included CRES fought back. The result: Colorado Green — followed by others.
The story so far. Triggered by the oil embargoes of the 1970s, Colorado became a forum for explorations of alternative futures for energy. Some of those involved in this conversation were natives, others drawn to the state by creation of the Solar Energy Research Institute, the precursor to NREL. Spurred by a national solar organization, a grassroots organization called the Colorado Renewable Energy Society was created in 1996.
The Public Service Co. of Colorado, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, is a state-regulated investor-owned utility offering electricity and natural gas. In a model created by utility executive Samuel Insull early in the 20th century, Xcel and other investor-owned utilities operate as monopoly service providers but, in exchange, submit to state regulation.
In addition to exercising control over rates, Colorado regulators require the company to file an electric resource plan every three years and to acquire generation resources through competitive bidding. The plan Xcel filed in November 1999 was for new resources to be acquired from 2002 through 2004.
To meet that demand, Xcel planned to go to a familiar tool chest: natural gas. Colorado utilities in the 1990s had been ramping up natural gas generation in ever-larger configurations, a practice that was to continue into the first decade of the 21st century. Altogether, 5,195.5 megawatts of natural gas generating capacity was added in the 20-year period. Coupled with the new natural gas-fired generators, Xcel also planned very modest demand-side management programs. Absent from Xcel’s plans in 1999 was new wind generation.
Colorado from its earliest days of homesteading had windmills to pump water. Some were configured to generate small amounts of electricity. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, wind developers began assessing the state’s wind resources. They found much to exploit.
By the late 1990s, Xcel had also dabbled in wind via a new program called Windsource. Customers had the opportunity, if they chose, to pay extra for “clean” wind energy. Their demand was met in the late 1990s first by Ponnequin Wind Farm, a project located along the Wyoming border north of Greeley, the state’s first commercial-scale wind farm. It had a capacity of 25.3 megawatts. It was followed by the 25-megawatt wind farm on the Peetz Table north of Sterling in 2001.
The program had been instigated as a result of prodding by CRES and other groups that included Environment Colorado, the Sierra Club, and the Roaring Fork Valley’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency, known as CORE.
Plenty more wind was available for development. Colorado’s steadiest, most reliable winds blow in the state’s southeastern corner, near the center of the Dust Bowl havoc of the 1930s. The “quality” of the wind—a word used with the prejudice of electrical production in mind – ranks very high. The state energy office had used U.S. Department of Energy funds and help from NREL to place a meteorology tower near Lamar, atop Signal Hill, to record wind velocities.
With those data in hand, a California-based wind company called Zond Systems created a proposal for a wind farm 22 miles south of Lamar. The company was later sold and became Enron Wind.
Xcel would have nothing to do with the proposal. Too costly, the company said in response to three repeated applications from Enron. The third time, renewable advocates discovered that Xcel had added $61 million to the bid price on the presumption of added costs for transmission and for integrating wind into the company’s electric operations. Those padded costs aside, the bid that Xcel had rejected was for electricity costing 3.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. That was lower in cost than all other of Xcel’s generating sources in Colorado aside from the small hydro plant along Interstate 70 at Georgetown Lake.
Lehr had taken note. Working pro bono on behalf of CRES, he set out to demonstrate why the PUC should order Xcel to properly consider the bid from southeastern Colorado.
One of the experts he tapped was Andrews, the former SERI contractor who had by then been studying energy for more than two decades. Andrews warned the PUC commissioners to be skeptical of Xcel’s predicted low prices for natural gas. Although he did much research before putting on his coat and tie to testify before the PUC commissioners, Andrews remembers being on shaky ground in his projections. In the short term, he was proven correct, though. Natural gas prices skyrocketed to $14.50 per million Btu in 2008. Xcel had predicted $3 or less. Xcel was correct for the longer term as fracking and other advanced drilling techniques produced a flood of cheap natural gas.
The second part of the case against Xcel came from Law and Water Fund of the Rockies, now called Western Resource Advocates. John Nielsen identified flaws in Xcel’s modeling of benefits of wind to Xcel’s generating fleet.
NREL researcher Michael Milligan provided the final evidence for the wind proposal. He testified to the improved skill in predicting wind capacity. That enhanced ability to predict wind made it easier to integrate it into electrical supplies.
The PUC commissioners were persuaded. They ordered Xcel to contract for power from the 108-turbine Colorado Green proposal.
When completed in 2004, Colorado Green was the fifth largest wind farm in the United States, capable of generating 162 megawatts. It was a huge victory for CRES and other clean energy advocates.
Since then it has been repowered with updated technology, enabling it to produce even more electricity. Even so, its production has been dwarfed by that of other, much larger wind projects that have become common in Colorado, including the 600-megawatt Rush Creek Wind Project between Limon and Colorado Springs.
Those wind farms have augmented tax revenues and added some long-term, well-paying jobs to struggling farm communities on Colorado’s eastern plains. Colorado Green, for example, paid $2 million a year in local property taxes upon its completion, and it has since been expanded and joined by other wind farms. In addition, the Emick family, on whose land Colorado Green sits, has been reported to have created a foundation to endow local improvements.
Among the boosters of Colorado Green in Prowers County was John Stulp, then a county commissioner who also grew wheat on a nearby farm. Colorado Green has been what he says he expected.
“It’s been good for the tax base. It’s not a huge employer, but it’s good employment for the 10 or 12 who are on the operations and maintenance crews. They pay their bills. The county has gotten along with them reasonably well. They’re good corporate neighbors, so to speak, and it’s clean energy,” says Stulp, who led the Colorado Department of Agriculture for four years in the administration of Gov. Bill Ritter, then was a special water advisor to Gov. John Hickenlooper for eight years.
Colorado Green, the first major advocacy case for CRES, also opened the door to Amendment 37. It put Colorado on the national renewable map.
Next: Rejected at the Legislature, renewable advocates take their case directly to voters.
What you may have missed in this series: