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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

Mutual Irrigation Company Caters to New Customers

By Dan MacArthur

Agricultural ditch and reservoir companies increasingly threatened by urban encroachment may find new direction by supplying water for a whole different crop of water users.

Soon, a pioneering program will take shape in Northern Colorado demonstrating how irrigation companies can adapt and prosper by providing water to both agricultural and residential customers. Mutual irrigation companies are private, non-profit organizations formed to distribute water to their member owners. There are hundreds of these companies across the state that historically have supplied irrigation water for agricultural operations.

Dual-use—or secondary—systems will enable irrigation water providers to deliver untreated water for suburban gardens and green spaces by updating their existing canals and headgates to accommodate new residential irrigation systems.

‘It's a win-win for everybody. There's no downside,’ declares Stephen Smith, chairman and vice president of the Fort Collins-based Aqua Engineering Inc. A globally recognized authority on irrigation design, Smith is a clear advocate for putting traditional agricultural irrigation water delivery systems to dual purposes.

Don Magnuson, manager of the Lake Canal Company—a small agricultural water provider that serves the eastern edge of Fort Collins southeast to the burgeoning communities of Timnath and Windsor—also thought these systems might work in his area.

More than three years ago, Dr. John Wilkins-Wells, an assistant professor and senior research scientist at the Colorado State University Sociology Water Lab, began researching the application of dual-use systems in other western states. He sponsored workshops and hosted field trips to spread the word about the potential of these innovative systems. After one of those trips, Smith and Magnuson were hooked.

With the support of Lake Canal's board of directors, they prepared a feasibility study evaluating the 7,000 acres served by the company. Although largely still an agricultural area, soon these same acres are slated to bear crops of thousands of new homes. A separate regional feasibility study was also completed in the fall of 2003 examining the success of dual-use supply systems in Utah and Idaho. It concluded that these alternative systems could offer similar benefits in Colorado.

Work on the first prototype system is expected to begin no later than next year. It calls for installing a network of pipes, ponds and pumps necessary to transfer water out of the traditional large uncovered canals, into the piped systems used to irrigate lawns and gardens. Estimated to cost up to $12 million, primary funding for the project will be provided by a loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Intended strictly for landscape irrigation, the secondary system will be totally separate and distinct from the primary canal system, and will also be separate from the treated drinking water system provided by the local municipal water suppliers.

‘We see a daisy chain of economic benefits,’ says Wilkins-Wells, who served as principal investigator of the regional feasibility study.

First, dual-use systems reduce the costs of providing water to residential developments. Developers are required by law to provide sufficient water to meet the basic water needs of every new home. For developers in the Lake Canal service area that usually means one share of Colorado-Big Thompson (CB-T) water for each home. Each of those shares currently costs from $12,500 to $14,000. But with more than 50 percent of domestic water in the summer months typically consumed by landscape irrigation, finding a cheaper source of irrigation water (such as that provided by a local ditch company) can reduce a developer's water supply costs dramatically. Even after taking into account the added expense of constructing a dual-use system, developers can save $1,000 to $1,500 per home.

In addition, project proponents claim that by reducing demands for treated water, the limited amount of water available in the CB-T system can go to additional uses. Homeowners also benefit from bargain-basement water prices—potentially keeping their yards green for less than $225 a year.

Farmers serve to benefit as well. ‘Infusions of cash from residential customers can help the irrigation company keep its annual [rates] for agricultural water to a minimum,’ says Smith, ‘which can be quite helpful in keeping agriculture viable in this area.’

New income can also help irrigation companies finance system improvements, such as upgrades to delivery facilities, lining of canals, and pressurizing systems for easier deliveries.

‘If one thinks about it, mutual company involvement makes a lot of sense’ notes Wilkins-Wells. ‘The company represents an established organization dedicated to the business of managing water rights, delivering water to users and maintaining a delivery infrastructure. The future can be bright for the ditch company with a simple repackaging of the irrigation company's historic commodity.’ ❑

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