As growing communities across the state require more water, supplies are becoming increasingly scarce.
This gap can slow the growth of younger communities and has others buying up water rights from areas including Weld County, resulting in the drying of local farms.
All this pressure has the state’s water law system coming under increasing scrutiny. Though some seek to change the system, water officials in the Greeley and Weld County area are hopeful collaboration will lead to innovative ways of managing this increasingly scarce resource inside the existing doctrine…
…farms — which typically own relatively senior water rights — are often targets of “buy and dry” transactions in which a water provider buys a farm to use its water for industrial or municipal purposes.
Preventing buy and dry transactions is one of the major challenges faced by the New Cache La Poudre Irrigating Company, a stockholder company that operates the Greeley No. 2 Ditch, which provides water for about 350 farmers on 32,000 acres of farms. General Manager Dale Trowbridge expects homes and municipal growth to eventually replace some farms in the system, but the biggest unknown is what will happen with the water.
“You can work (agriculture) around some houses and stuff like that, but if a third of the ditch is dry … now what do you deal with?” Trowbridge asked.
If the ditch’s water supply is severely limited by buy and drys in a couple decades, Trowbridge’s concern is the feasibility of operating the ditch when it was built to hold more water.
As things stand, the system is already short on water. Trowbridge said more dense ag operations mean there’s a greater need than there was when they started the system, which was issued its first water right decree in 1870.
To make up for the shortage, New Cache has relied on renting out water rights from cities like Greeley and Fort Collins, which have historically built a strong portfolio of water rights with drought protection to prevent supply issues for city residents. In the last year, though, they were only able to rent about half of what the farmers requested. The impacts of wildfire on water supplies meant cities weren’t able to rent out as much water, in an effort to reduce costs of treating water contaminated by runoff after the fire…
New Cache tries to help farmers acquire water in dry years, but when it comes to a situation like the last year, it’s up to farmers to alter their cropping patterns or not plant.
Agricultural operations aren’t the only ones hurting due to a lack of water supplies. Evans City Manager Jim Becklenberg called water “the biggest challenge to the city’s growth.”
While northern Colorado cities like Loveland, Greeley and Fort Collins — the latter two having set the stage for the state’s formalization of the prior appropriation system in an early water dispute — have been able to strategically buy water over the years, medium- and small-sized cities like Evans haven’t had the same resources for such a strong water planning history, Becklenberg said…
With a less robust water portfolio, Evans requires developers to bring water to the city. The city maintains a list of individuals with vouchers for previously dedicated water rights who could sell to prospective buyers, but there aren’t many left in the city, Becklenberg said.
In Greeley, the city can take cash in place of dedicated water rights, thanks to the city’s extensive water planning. The city’s water portfolio hasn’t stopped growing, either. The city recently purchased about 1,000 acre-feet of water, equivalent to about 1,000 football fields covered in a foot of water — more than it had acquired in the decade prior. The city’s also filed for storage rights for gravel pits, giving the city its youngest water rights, which date to the early 2000s.
To bolster the city’s drought protection, Greeley officials recently closed on an aquifer containing 1.2 million acre-feet of water, also defeating proposed City Charter changes that could have prevented use of the groundwater. For comparison, the city’s current demands average about 25,000 acre-feet per year.
With its robust portfolio of water rights, Greeley officials can facilitate development that would be more difficult for smaller communities. Water is a major cost for developers, and prices have only gone up. Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity Executive Direct Cheri Witt-Brown, also a member of the Greeley Water and Sewer Board, described water as “a very expensive line item” on her budget as a home developer.
Witt-Brown gave an example of a home they built in Milliken where they paid $45,000 for the lot and were set to pay $60,000 for a share of water they had to bring to the lot.
“We were very fortunate,” she said. “We went to a water auction, and it was a big farm being sold off in Frederick. Somehow, toward the end of that, I think there was $22 million traded that day. We walked away with one share of water — ultimately donated by the farming family to Habitat.”
The increasing price of water is impacting housing affordability. Witt-Brown said water resources like those in Greeley help bring security to the local economy…
Working collaboratively to get all needs met
Northern Colorado leaders believe regional collaboration is key to a secure water future for local communities. More than a dozen cities, towns and water districts are collaborating on a project to help secure water for different interests well into the future.
The Northern Integrated Supply Project, spearheaded by Northern Water, is an effort to build two storage reservoirs and lay pipelines for cooperative water exchanges that would help both municipal and agricultural interests. The project is still in the permitting phase, with hopes to get construction started by 2023.
One of the approved permits on the project is under litigation by Save the Poudre and other neighborhood groups. Save the Poudre argues the project would “drain so much water out of the Poudre that the river would resemble a muddy stinking ditch in Fort Collins.”
Northern Water notes on its website projects like NISP are subject to strict environmental laws and regulations and that Colorado’s Water Quality Division found “no significant degradation” expected from the project…
Other environmental groups, like Ducks Unlimited, have taken the view that the state’s water laws haven’t presented an obstacle they can’t overcome, according to Greg Kernohan, director of Ducks Unlimited’s conservation programs. Ducks Unlimited works to restore wetlands to support waterfowl populations, often using water decreed for irrigation use. Kernohan said acquiring water is “brutal.” Water can cost about half a million dollars for a single project, he said, not including water court costs.
With water only becoming more expensive, the nonprofit has been working with the New Cache La Poudre Irrigating Company to determine an equitable way to lease water short term. Greeley officials have also been in discussion with the irrigating company for its water marketing program.
To prevent buy and dry while helping everyone get their water needs met, New Cache has been working to develop an alternative transfer method to tie the water rights to farmland. In return for giving up the ability to sell their water rights to other interests, the farmer would be paid.
But those other interests would still need water too. To get them the water they need, they would be able to lease water a few years every decade. Though the farm would go dry in drought years when another user, like a city, needs to lease the water, the water remains with the farm in the long term.
There are a few roadblocks remaining for the project. The growing value of water can make it a difficult sell for a farmer to tie up the water rights with the land. And for some, taking a year off farming every now and then doesn’t sound like the best lifestyle. They would be paid, Trowbridge said, but it leaves some wondering, “What am I going to do when the water is being leased?”
For NISP’s water exchange system to work, agricultural water needs to remain in northern Colorado — despite continuing efforts by growing Denver metro communities to buy water and deliver it south. As part of the project, Northern Water is working to tie water rights to the agricultural land in the area…
Though prior appropriation makes for a competitive system, those who have found success through collaborative projects like this worry a different system would introduce uncertainty.
“I don’t know how we can operate without the certainty of the water,” Trowbridge said. “It’d be unsustainable around here if the prior appropriation system was changed.
Greeley Water and Sewer Board Chairman Harold Evans shares Trowbridge’s concern, noting everybody there are set rules of the game under prior appropriation. Though water shortages may increase political pressure to change the system, it gives water providers better certainty about what to expect.