The latest E-Waternews is hot off the presses from @Northern_Water

Looking east toward the Chimney Hollow Reservoir site, which is just this side of the red ridge. On the other side is Carter Lake Reservoir and beyond that, the Loveland area.

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

New website offers better access to Windy Gap Firming Project info

Northern Water and the Municipal Subdistrict have launched a revamped website to provide easy-to-find data regarding the Windy Gap Firming Project and its chief component, Chimney Hollow Reservoir.

The site, http://chimneyhollow.org, offers answers to frequently asked questions, information for potential contractors and download-ready fact sheets. In addition, it offers a video from Gov. John Hickenlooper that discusses his endorsement of the project as well as its place in the the Colorado Water Plan.

As the project moves forward, the site will also present information related to the construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir as well as the mitigation and enhancement efforts being conducted by Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict.

The project also has a presence on Facebook, found here.

A look at “Buy and Dry”

Photo credit: Allen Best

From KUNC (luke Runyon, Matt Bloom & Esther Honig):

“Buy and dry” describes a class of water transactions that typically involve a municipality or other local government paying the owner of a farm for some or all of their available water rights.

It’s a slow, mostly invisible flow of water from the region’s heritage industry — agriculture — to a new powerhouse: real estate development and urban growth.

The transactions go back decades, with plenty of cautionary tales to guide both farmers and government officials, casting various Front Range cities and Eastern Plains farming communities as both villains and victims.

Concern about the practice has reached a fever pitch. The state’s water plan, adopted in 2015, frowns at buy and dry tactics. Water prices continue to rise. Some alternative methods for leasing water are slowly being implemented, at the same time multi-million dollar checks are passed from developers and city planners to farm families.

Urban growth is a driver

The practice of buy and dry is primarily driven by the growth of water-short cities – of all sizes – along the Front Range. According to Colorado’s State Demography Office, communities along the I-25 corridor in Weld and Larimer counties are the fastest growing. Populations there are increasing at a rate twice as fast as the state as a whole…

Windsor, like many fast-growing Front Range communities, sees agricultural water as a viable source to supplement future growth. As recently as May, Windsor purchased water rights from at least two different farming families, according to allotment contracts from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

One purchase was of units of water within the Colorado-Big Thompson Project from the John Ernest Lucken Revocable Trust. The other with the Andrew H. Blase Family Trust.

In both cases Wagner says he doesn’t know whether the town’s purchases led to farms “drying up.”

“I’m not sure of what’s happened to those farms,” he said. “Whether they still have enough water rights to irrigate or whether they’ve reduced the farming acreage.”

Wagner added that Windsor, unlike other cities, has not specifically purchased farms to own them and take the water off them. When asked about the likelihood of the town doing that, Wagner said it very well could…

Water rights worth millions

For farmers in the West, access to water is a key part of making agriculture possible in an arid region. Without irrigation farmers are significantly limited on the range of crops they can grow and in the profitability of the land they own.

With commodity crop and milk prices at low points, selling water rights can help make a farm operation whole.

That’s the case for Colorado dairy farmer Timothy Bernhardt, just down the road from Windsor in Milliken. The Bernhardt family has farmed there since the 1920s. Access to water to quench the thirst of his 900 dairy cows is essential, Bernhardt says.

“Cattle drink a lot of water, so about 50 to 100 gallons of water a day,” he says. “So it’s critical for milk production because milk is made up mostly of water.”

In May Bernhardt and his brother made the choice to sell 175 units of water within the Colorado-Big Thompson Project — about 57 million gallons — to the city of Milliken for nearly $5 million.

That money will be used to pay off debt, Bernhardt says. Like many businesses, farms rely on loans and credit to operate and the brothers wanted to pay it off because they’re each older than 60 and looking at retirement. Their children aren’t interested in running a dairy farm, so when they retire, the business ends with them…

Cautionary tales

There’s no arm-twisting in buy and dry, cities are often quick to say. These transactions involve willing buyers and sellers. Cities get what they need — new water supplies — and farm families get an opportunity to pay off debt, make on-farm upgrades or retire.

But on a regional-scale, water managers and government officials are troubled. Water flowing from farms to the Front Range means a movement of power and economic activity, from rural areas to cities. Take the Colorado-Big Thompson Project as an example.

When the vast network of reservoirs was originally built in the 1930s to transport water from the state’s wetter Western Slope to the east, agriculture was the majority user of its stored water. Today, 70% of the project’s water is used by municipalities and industry…

Conversations about buy and dry often turn to the Arkansas River valley and the communities of Crowley, Ordway and Sugar City. Water managers don’t really have to imagine what a future of rampant buy and dry could look like. It has already happened there…

Cronin and a handful of other water managers in the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group recently started a conversation about what it would take to allow Front Range cities to keep growing, without draining farms in the process. It looked like at least three — maybe four — new reservoirs positioned along the South Platte River to the stateline with Nebraska to supplement water supplies for cities and farmers.

Cronin cautions that these are preliminary discussions.

He calls the discussion of new reservoirs a “generational” one — if the idea gains enough supporters for it to happen at all. Large-scale water projects often take decades in planning, permitting and litigation before a shovel hits the ground. This one would likely follow a similar timeline, Cronin says. Questions still linger about how much it would cost, another big hurdle to bringing it to fruition.

Greeley to allow developers to pay cash-in-lieu of water

Greeley in 1870 via Denver Public Library

From The Greeley Tribune (Tyler Silvy):

In Greeley, developers have historically been required to bring water to the table for any proposed development.

Often, that water is associated with whatever piece of land the developer bought, so it’s an easy transfer.

But when the land has already been dried up, developers are forced to hit the open market, competing with other developers to buy water at increasingly higher prices.

“The way it is now, it’s kind of driving water prices up,” said Martin Lind, a major Front Range developer. “You’ve got 50 developers looking for small (portions) of water here and there.”

In Greeley, there are fewer pieces of land with water rights still attached than ever before, and if Greeley wants to continue to grow — and city leaders say it must — officials say they’ve got to do something.

Greeley’s solution, in the works since at least 2003, exchanges buckets of water for buckets of cash, as city leaders contemplate a transition to a system that allows developers to pay cash-in-lieu of water, a system officials say would be less burdensome on developers.

That plan, based both on a dwindling supply of water and upon Greeley’s ability to potentially strike better deals, likely wouldn’t be approved until August.

For Harold Evans, chairman of the Greeley Water and Sewer Board and a man who has experience in Colorado real estate, the plan would be good for everyone.

“It gives (developers more options),” Evans said. “I think it will be a positive for the development community.”

SMART WATER

Greeley’s water planning goes out to 2065, and the city has been engaged in an aggressive, multi-phase water buying plan during the past several years.

The city owns most of the water in its projected growth area — the areas not yet within city limits but expected to be one day, areas like the ones between Weld County roads 17 and 13, north of U.S. 34.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why there are fewer water resources available for developers.

Take Journey Homes, which is building a 400-home development at the southwest corner of 83rd Avenue and 10th Street in west Greeley.

Journey Homes Principal Larry Buckendorf said water comes first in almost everything Journey does.

“For Journey, it’s water,” Buckendorf said. “That is the first consideration that we look into — what are the municipalities’ raw water requirements and what kind of water is attached to the land? It’s item No. 1.”

Journey followed probably the simplest process available. It bought the land and the water that came with the land and deeded it to the city.

But what happens when there’s no water attached to the land? That’s literally a growing problem as agriculture users sell their water rights to growing municipalities across the Front Range.

The answer, for Greeley, is to let developers pay cash for water they don’t have. Buckendorf said it’s always good to have more options, and he said he has always enjoyed working with Greeley.

Today, Greeley allows developers to pay cash-in-lieu of water for just 8 acre-feet of water.

To give some perspective, Journey Homes’ development sits on 166 acres. Greeley requires 3 acre-feet of water for every acre of land. That means the city required 498 acre-feet of water from Journey, and Journey could bring cash to the table for just 8 of those.

Switching fully to cash-in-lieu wouldn’t necessarily reduce developers’ costs, as Greeley will factor in not just the cost of water but the relative costs of storage expansion projects and system upkeep. But it would reduce the headache of buying water on the open market.

“We see that we need to start to do a transition to support development,” Water and Sewer Director Burt Knight said. “If I don’t do a transition, and you don’t have water tied to the property, I’m forcing you into the market to buy C-BT (Colorado-Big Thompson). That’s a very difficult market, and it’s expensive.”

A nice, round, roughly accurate number is $30,000 per acre-foot. If Journey paid cash, it would be out $14.9 million just in water — before selling a single home.

To recoup those costs, Journey would need to take out about $40,000 from each of the 400 homes it’s building in west Greeley. That helps explain why housing affordability is so difficult to attain, officials say.

“Before you’ve moved any dirt, before you’ve bought the land, before you’ve done anything, you have to calculate about $100,000 per each acre just for the water,” Greeley Community Development Director Brad Mueller said.

It’s possible more housing stock would help drive prices lower, and Greeley does have room to grow. Today, Mueller said the city has more jobs than houses, and that’s an imbalance — although not the worst version of such an imbalance — city officials hope to fix at least in part by switching to the cash-in-lieu system.

DIFFERENT STROKES

Brian Werner is the spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which manages a number of projects, including the Colorado-Big Thompson project.

That project diverts water across the continental divide to the Front Range. Talk to anyone who knows water and they’ll say it’s the best water. Why? Well, first, it comes from high in the Rocky Mountains, fed by snowmelt.

Second, unlike almost any other water source in Colorado, it can be used for anything in the South Platte River Basin, all the way to Julesberg and Nebraska, without a decade-long water court battle to change its use. To clarify, if a city buys water that has historically been used to water crops, it must go to court and get approval to use the water for residential development.

Because there are no such requirements for CBT water, though, it’s costly. Werner said an auction earlier this year featured $30,000-per-unit prices.

In 1957, the first year the CBT project was in operation, units sold for $1.50 apiece, Werner said. If CBT water shares simply followed inflation, they would cost $13.47 per share today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.

And back then, 85 percent of the units were owned by agriculture producers. Today, that’s 30 percent.

Werner said that won’t get much lower, as there are a few large farming operations that might not ever sell.

All of that, combined with developers needing the water to help Front Range cities grow, leads to price increases.

It’s another reason Greeley is looking to switch to a cash-based system.

But the same problem leads to different solutions.

Many smaller water districts and municipalities are actually taking an opposite approach to the problem, forcing developers to bring water to the table so those water districts don’t have to deal with the open market.

Werner said there’s no way to say either system represents a smarter approach to water policy, as a variety of factors affect any given water district. And he certainly wouldn’t criticize Greeley, a city he uses as an example of proper water planning.

“They’ve done one of the best jobs in northern Colorado of building a water portfolio,” Werner said. “They’ve been doing it for 150 years, so they’ve got a better starting position than some of these newer communities.”

GROWING PROBLEM

Knight said without the impending change to the way Greeley manages water, it would be difficult if not impossible for new development to move forward.

It begs a question, though: Is there pressure to grow at the expense of smart water policy?

Even if Knight and Mueller said they’ve never felt that pressure, there’s enough at stake that Greeley regularly studies its neighbor municipalities when it comes to water and development policy.

Every five years, the city looks at prices and trends and compares itself with others. The most recent study, completed in July 2015 by BBC Research and Consulting, cost $41,876.27, and the study looked at the 21 fastest-growing municipalities across the Front Range.

That study showed Greeley’s costs, including the amount of water required to be deeded to the city, impact fees and tap fees, were above average among those municipalities, and called the high cost of water significant for developers and new homebuyers.

The prices have only gone up since July 2015, but even then, Greeley’s costs were $36,271 per home — $8,000 higher than average. With CBT shares going for $5,000 more today than before, the costs are closer to $40,000 per home today.

Some of the other municipalities were similar, including Johnstown, which was higher in 2015 at $35,000 per home, and Windsor ($28,500 per home).

Others were far lower, including $11,375 in Evans and $10,000 for the Central Weld Water District, which covers a vast swath of rural Weld County from Evans and Kersey down to Firestone. Longmont and Lafayette were below $10,000.

“There are some communities that we kind of shake our head,” Knight said, refusing to name names. “It looks either low or high. The ones that are low make us wonder, ‘Are they making themselves vulnerable in the future?’ ”

So how does Greeley compete for new development with costs like that?

Buckendorf said the costs tend to shake out in the end.

“Land sellers are very astute,” Buckendorf said. “They know if the raw water requirement is less, they’ll ask for more for their land.”

Knight said Greeley sets its rates in such a way as to ensure the city recoups the necessary costs, and typically that leaves Greeley somewhere in the middle of the city’s Front Range neighbors.

“It’s important for Greeley residents to appreciate that we have a current water board and history of water board members who have been very serious stewards of the water for the community,” Mueller said.

Brad Wind named @NorthernWater general manager #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Brad Wind. Photo credit: Northern Water

Here’s the release from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Jeff Stahla):

Colorado native Brad Wind has been chosen to lead Northern Water as the organization’s sixth general manager in its 81-year history.

Wind, who most recently had served as the assistant general manager, Administration Division, was formally named to the position April 6 by the Northern Water Board of Directors.

Wind joined Northern Water in 1994 as an engineer and previously served as the organization’s assistant general manager, Operations Division. Wind holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Colorado State University, a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from University of California at Davis and bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering and agricultural engineering from Colorado State University.

Wind grew up in Northeastern Colorado, the area served by Northern Water. He was raised on a farm in Washington County and graduated from Brush High School.

“Brad Wind has 25 years of experience built on the Northern Water tradition of teamwork and continual improvement,” said Board President Mike Applegate.

“The Board is confident he will provide excellent leadership and vision as we move forward in service to the region,” he added.

Wind takes over for previous General Manager Eric Wilkinson, who retired in April. Wilkinson will continue to work on a part-time role as a policy adviser for Northern Water.

“I am thrilled to be named Northern Water’s next general manager, and I appreciate the legacy Eric has left us all,” Wind said.

“We have a lot on our plate and our staff is up to the challenges of maintaining a reliable water supply and pursuing additional storage for northeastern Colorado,” he added.

Windsor town board planning for future water needs

Windsor Lake/Mummy Range

From Windsor Now (Emily Wenger):

At the April 16 Windsor Town Board work session, Dennis Wagner, director of engineering for Winds or, said the town has several options as it considers how best to meet the water needs of current and future residents.

Right now, the town is reliant on other sources to treat its water, so it has to pay the city of Greeley and the Fort Collins-Loveland and North Weld County water districts.

But some town board members want to give Windsor a way to avoid those price tags, even if that doesn’t happen for many years.

The regional water treatment plant also would serve Severance, Eaton and the Fort Collins-Loveland Water District.

Eaton is also feeling the pressures of providing for future growth, said Gary Carsten, town administrator for Eaton, so being part of the regional project would help prepare the town to serve future residents.

In 2017, the partners hired Black and Veatch Engineering to study the possibility. That plant would be east of Interstate 25 and just north of Colo. 14. The challenge with that plant, Wagner said, will be finding enough water to treat to justify the cost at $25 million for Windsor’s portion.

At its April 9 meeting, the Windsor Town Board also approved a plan to continue discussions with Broe Infrastructure about another water treatment plant at Great West Industrial Park.

That plant, which the town would eventually buy, would pull about 1,300 acre-feet of water per year from the ground and treat it.

If all goes according to plan, Windsor Town Attorney Ian McCargar said construction on that water treatment plant would start in 2019 and be finished by 2021.

Windsor is hoping much of that water will come from Northern Integrated Supply Project, of which Eaton is also a part. The project, which would create two new reservoirs to supply the region, has been in the works for about 18 years, said Mayor Kristie Melendez.

Windsor gets its water rights from the Colorado Big Thompson project, which brings water across the Continental Divide from the upper Colorado River and North Poudre Irrigation Co. It’s enough for now, but town officials are concerned it won’t stretch as the town grows and everyone in northern Colorado is trying to provide enough water to serve their residents.

Buying into NISP, Windsor officials said, could ensure that water is available.

The town is expected to spend $86.6 million on the project before it’s completed, including a $2 million payment next year.

Wagner said the project cost keeps going up as the project keeps getting put off and construction costs rise.

Melendez said some partners are skeptical about NISP ever being completed, because the project is taking so long. Currently, it’s expected to be built from 2021-25, if the planning and approval process continues without any issues, but Melendez said she’s not convinced that will happen, because of continual postponements.

@NorthernWater board sets #Colorado-Big Thompson quota = 80%

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

Here’s the release from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (Jeff Stahla):

Strong regional water storage coupled with below-average precipitation prompted the Northern Water Board of Directors to increase its 2018 quota allocation for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project to 80 percent.

The Board unanimously approved the allocation at its meeting Thursday at Northern Water’s Berthoud headquarters.

Sarah Smith, a water resources engineer at Northern Water, said total storage in the region was above average for the fifth-straight year. While Colorado precipitation has been below average this winter, recent storms boosted the snowpack in the northern portion of the state.

“The Poudre basin did benefit quite a bit from those storms,” she said.

Water Resources Manager Andy Pineda recommended the 80 percent quota to the Board based on the existing snowpack totals, runoff projections, regional water storage and input from water users.

The 80 percent quota increases available C-BT Project water supplies by 93,000 acre-feet from the initial 50 percent quota made available in November.

Water from the C-BT Project supplements other sources for 33 cities and towns, 120 agricultural irrigation companies, various industries and other water users within Northern Water’s 1.6 million-acre service area. According to recent Census figures, 960,000 residents now live inside Northern Water’s boundaries.

To learn more about Northern Water and the C-BT quota, visit http://www.northernwater.org.

From The Greeley Tribune (Tyler Silvy):

While much of the state is facing drastic water shortages, shareholders in the Colorado Big Thompson project will see better than average return on their investment this year, according to a Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District news release…

The quota this year is 80 percent, up from the average of 70 percent, a jump that represents 93,000 extra acre feet for the year.

Greeley is one of 33 cities that uses Colorado Big Thompson water, and Greeley Water and Sewer Board Chairman Harold Evans said the quota looks good for Greeley…

Northern Water got a bump thanks to a fifth-straight year of above-average reservoir storage, as well as recent storms that have boosted snowpack in the state’s northern regions. Reservoir storage this year is 25 percent higher than normal, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service snowpack report released this past week.

Colorado Big Thompson water is used by 33 cities and towns, as well as 120 agricultural irrigation companies, various industries and other water users, according to the release. Nearly one million residents live within Northern Water’s service area.

The announcement will help farmers and municipalities plan water use for the year. About 70 percent of the contracts for Colorado Big Thompson water are owned by municipalities, but the usage is about 50 percent for farmers versus municipalities, as farmers often lease some water from municipalities, including Greeley.

Burt Knight, Greeley’s Water and Sewer director, said the higher quota will allow Greeley to lease some water to some of its agriculture partners.

The Greeley Water and Sewer Board will meet next week for its annual declaration regarding the snowpack and how it impacts Greeley.

#Snowpack news: @NorthernWater to set C-BT quota on April 12th

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map March 17, 2018 via the NRCS.

From The Fence Post (Nikki Work):

As of March 14, the state sits at about 67 percent of the average snowpack, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Things are looking slightly better in northern Colorado, with the two basins that impact Weld County — the Upper Colorado and the South Platte — at 77 percent and 81 percent of the average year, respectively…

Eric Brown, spokesperson for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said the dry weather is on Northern Water’s radar, just like it’s on farmers’, but there may be one saving grace — a healthy amount of water in reservoir storage.

Northern Water’s reservoirs are at one of their highest ever levels, with storage at 121 percent of average. Across Colorado, reservoir storage is at about 117 percent of the historic average. While Brown said the water district is optimistic that, in true Colorado fashion, there’s a big spring storm a’comin’, its prepared to use some of its reserves to combat an abnormally dry year.

“In general, farmers who have access to some sort of water in storage should be okay for 2018, as Northern Water’s C-BT Project and reservoirs across the South Platte Basin are sitting at solid levels for the most part,” Brown said. “But for the farmers who don’t have access to water that’s in storage, they really need snow and/or spring rains in the near future.”

But for everyone, use of the water in storage this year creates uncertainties down the road, as some of the current surplus will be used up. Plus, a good, wet snow would bring some much-needed moisture to the plains and help with soil quality, which plays an important role in crop health.

The Northern Water Board will set its quota for C-BT deliveries for the remainder of the 2018 water delivery season at its April 12 board meeting. Both snowpack and C-BT and local non-C-BT reservoir levels will factor into this decision. The board sets a quota each year to balance how much water can be used and how much water needs to stay in storage, and the historic average for the quota is 70 percent.

Colorado-Big Thompson Project Map via Northern Water