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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Just One Chance

By Lori Ozzello

People in the Lower Arkansas Valley have known for years that Front Range cities and water districts would like to buy up their water.

But it was a 2002 event in the midst of drought that prompted a change and sparked the formation of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

Almost three years ago, the young district began promoting the idea of an innovative water management and land fallowing project. The Super Ditch—someone came up with the name during a meeting and it stuck, says the district's attorney Peter Nichols—to lease water, fallow a fraction of the valley's irrigated farmland and infuse much needed cash into the region.

LAVWCD, says general manager Jay Winner, now has its ‘fingers in a lot of pies.’

Approved by voters in November 2002, LAVWCD serves Pueblo, Otero, Bent, Prowers and Crowley counties. Its focus is the protection of water rights along the lower Arkansas River where an estimated 80 percent of the water irrigates 300,000 acres of land.

Winner and Nichols, the Lower Ark's attorney, talk in tandem about their involvement in the projects, studies and state efforts. But the top priority is evident: convincing farmers, ditch companies and leaders of fading rural towns to see and support the Super Ditch. If implemented, the Lower Ark would facilitate joint operations of seven ditch companies and 50 different water rights to lease.

‘The beauty is the lessor and the lessee will never know where the water comes from,’ says John Singletary, who chairs the LAVWCD's board of directors. ‘The Super Ditch takes the competition out of it.’

The plan could fallow up to 25 percent of the participants' land. Nichols is certain most observers won't notice. If two-thirds of the region's irrigators participate and fallow a quarter of the overall land under the ditches, the physical change won't be apparent, he says.

In the valley, water rights date back to 1861. During the 2002 drought, priority dates newer than 1865 didn't produce, says Nichols. Even so, the region yielded 100,000 acre feet of water for irrigated farms and a combined population of about 50,000. Compare that to the Colorado-Big Thompson, where a 70 percent quota in 2002 yielded 217,000 acre feet for eight counties and an estimated 750,000 people.

No wonder Front Range cities have long eyed the eastern plains' supplies, says Winner. Plus, ‘it'd be easy to build a pipeline’ across the plains to water-strapped communities in Douglas and northern El Paso counties.

But that's not generally what the Lower Ark wants. It wants a turnaround.

‘If we keep doing business the way we have,’ says Singletary, ‘we won't survive.’

Subtle changes in the area's agriculture-based economy began to emerge as far back as 1950s, says Nichols. When Sugar City's beet processing plant shut down in 1967, speculators descended to cherry pick the best water rights, then sold them. The trend quietly continued, gaining momentum with each economic downturn.

Water sales in the 1970s essentially dried up Crowley County's irrigated farms, sending their Twin Lakes Canal water to the Front Range corridor. The 5,500-resident county's current population includes nearly 2,000 prisoners housed at an Olney Springs facility. Nearly a fifth of county residents are below the poverty line, and between 2000 and 2006, Crowley County's population dropped 2.4 percent.

Transfers had dried up an estimated 78,000 acres, says the Lower Ark.

Then in 2002, an investment group, High Plains A&M, snapped up Fort Lyon Canal shares in the hopes of gaining a majority, changing the bylaws and use, and piping water out of the valley. Objectors filed suit, arguing the proposed changes violated the state's anti-speculation doctrine. The water court agreed, denying the investors' case. On appeal, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the water court's findings and dismissed the High Plains application.

The case was a wake-up call. LAVWCD formed, then joined studies on Colorado Springs' proposed Southern Delivery System and Fountain Creek, and began to establish conservation easements.

Then came the idea for a Super Ditch.

Besides keeping water in the lower Arkansas, proponents say the Super Ditch could restore prosperity to the communities and farms on the southeastern plains.

Singletary says water sales to the Front Range dried up about 60,000 acres in the valley.

‘A lot of people forget Crowley County, the Rocky Ford Ditch,’ he says, and what those sales cost the rest of the valley. ‘The theory behind (the sales) is that a few people get a little money and it's gone or they are.

‘It doesn't take anyone particularly bright to drive up and down Highway 50 and see the financial conditions of our towns.’

Winner, Nichols and Singletary say that if the water is leased instead of sold, ditch companies and irrigators will have a reliable income stream from the leases.

‘What the Super Ditch can do,’ says Winner, ‘is put $15- to $20 million into the economy. That's a big number. If farmers have steady income, they can take that to the bank when they go in for loans.…We want to make sure rural towns stay alive. Look at the economics, follow the big water projects. Where they are, there's money and growth.’
Winner and Nichols tick off more benefits:

  • With more money in the valley, it may be possible to keep educated young people there. Rocky Ford's high school used to number about 140 graduates each year. Now, says Winner, senior classes are down to 50 and the kids who go away to college generally don't return.
  • The Super Ditch will create opportunities for small communities to survive and thrive. The district is working with Colorado State agriculture economists to accurately forecast the economic impact.
  • Water rights will be preserved.
  • State organizations, such as the Division of Wildlife, can lease water, guaranteeing a supply for fish, migratory birds and other animals.

In the midst of promoting the Super Ditch, Winner, Nichols and Singletary know they don't have much time.

‘We've been working on this for 2 ½ years,’ says Winner. Some long-time valley residents are resistant to the idea, so the three devote a lot of time to talks with area leaders.

‘This is new and different’ to the valley farmers, Nichols says. Participants will have to overcome historical baggage and territorial issues to make it work.

‘There's a 100-year history of the (seven) canals fighting each other,’ says Dale Mauch, a Lamar area farmer and former Fort Lyon Ditch president. ‘It's almost like countries that have battled for years and then try to form a peace treaty. It's seven who have sued each other, fought with each other.

‘If everyone keeps in mind that we're so powerful together, we can do it. The biggest part of that is getting a value on the water. ’

And to convince the farmers, they'll have to have information. ‘Farmers want numbers,’ says Nichols.

The district has compiled water supply data and carefully studied the concept.

‘We've done a lot of research,’ Singletary says, ticking off information about fallowing, statistics, dry year averages and long-term contracts. ‘We'll go through the reappraisal process so the value of the leases follows market prices. It also gives the (farmers) a documented income stream. They can take it to the bank.’
Mauch says they all know what happens if it doesn't work.

‘We all know the end of the book,’ he says. ‘Water's going to go where the money is. It's just a matter of getting there. If we can make it work it will be a win-win situation for everyone involved. The farmers will have something they can lease every year and cities get guaranteed water supplies.’

The idea isn't new. California water districts experimented with it during a drought in the early 1990s, says Nichols, and it first popped up in academia long before then. In July 2001, farmers in the Palo Verde Irrigation District in southern California inked a deal with the Metropolitan Water District. In exchange for fallowing 7 to 29 percent of their land, the participating farmers each received a signing bonus and will be paid $550 per acre per year for land taken out of production. In exchange, Metropolitan Water District receives between 25,000 and 111,000 acre feet annually.

What is new is the idea of combining the resources of seven ditch companies, including the state's largest, the 140-mile-long Fort Lyon.

Says Winner, ‘The project is too big for a ditch company here to take on by itself. We're facilitating it.’

The Super Ditch will require a series of change cases. The necessary engineering has already been conducted.
‘What protects us is a decree in court saying what this water can be used for,’ says Singletary. ‘That'll take several years because it's a little off the norm.’

Nichols and Winner said a lot of details are still to be hammered out. For instance, the Super Ditch participants envision a durable right of refusal, giving them the first option to buy valley water that's up for sale. They'd also like to set it up so that a designated amount of revenue stays in the Super Ditch to acquire more water rights.
How does a group guarantee, say, a 30-year contract with a city?

‘The contract is an interest in real property,’ Nichols says. ‘The lease transfers with the property’ in the event a farm is sold or inherited.

Nichols says the region has a ‘window of opportunity to put in an alternative.’

Winner is emphatic, stressing the project has to be successful to keep southern Colorado alive.

‘The people who say it won't work are the ones who don't like to see change,’ Mauch says. ‘It may not work, but it's something we really have to try. We only have one chance.’

He reiterates that there is still a lot to do, and only one chance.

Quips Singletary: ‘Stay tuned. We don't know what we'll be doing tomorrow.’

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