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Fall 2017: Alternative Transfers

Cover HW Fall 2017

Water sharing and banking, coined "alternative transfer methods" or ATMs, could provide flexibility for stretched water supplies—but not without marked changes. Read about ATMs, water banking and more in the Fall 2017 issue of Headwaters magazine. 
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A Deposit in Our Colorado River Account

 

 MG 4470webA water banking experiment grows on the Western Slope

By Nelson Harvey

Western Colorado’s Grand Valley is known for its agriculture, from the peach orchards and grape vineyards at the foot of the Colorado Plateau to the verdant waves of alfalfa near the Utah border. Yet this past summer, a handful of Grand Valley farmers were paid to grow nothing at all.

Read more: A Deposit in Our Colorado River Account

Investing in the Future of Farming

By Lacey Williams

The trends are clear—fewer people are going into farming. In 2012, there were 20 percent fewer beginning farmers in Colorado than there were five years earlier. But it’s not just the declining number that’s concerning, it‘s also the age of those tilling the soil, as farmers older than 55 outnumber those younger than 35 by 12 to 1, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture. As if these demographic challenges weren’t enough, cost and availability of water and land also hinder new farmers. Getting started in farming is an expensive endeavor.

Read more: Investing in the Future of Farming

On Fallowed Ground

IMG 6274webMeasuring the on-farm effects of water-sharing programs

By Nelson Harvey

Weighing whether to participate in a water-sharing arrangement like water banking, rotational fallowing, or deficit irrigation is a complex decision for any farmer. Aside from declines in crop revenue during the season when irrigation is reduced, farmers must also consider the long-term potential for reduced yields, lower-crop quality, and increased weed pressure once operations return to normal. 

“Once a farmer gets involved in one of these programs, they are concerned that they’re unleashing a cascade of effects that could affect their production for a long time going forward,” says Dr. Perry Cabot, research and extension leader at Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center.

Read more: On Fallowed Ground

Flex Time For Colorado Water

The stakes are high as Colorado Attempts new methods for sharing and moving water

By Allen Best

Ordway Orientation 38 blurweb
The sandy bottom of a former irrigation ditch in Crowley County lies dry, overgrown with tumbleweeds. The water here was sold to municipalities in the 1970s and 80s, no longer diverted for agriculture—the classic tale of buy and dry. Photo by Brian Devine.

Ghost towns with names like Padroni, Snyder and Hillrose can be found across pockets of Colorado’s farming country.  People still live there, and while other rural towns thrive, these have become shells of their former selves, some unable to support a single business. Vacant storefronts testify to the struggles of rural economies. The causes are many. Capital-intensive technology has replaced human labor on farms and commerce has consolidated around larger towns and cities, especially along the Front Range.

But the loss has been more precipitous in places that have sold their water. Crowley County is one of those places of lost water, dried soil, and tumbled economies. The Colorado Canal arrived in 1891, relatively late among irrigation conveyances. It delivered Arkansas River water to more than 50,000 acres around Ordway, the county seat, located 55 miles east of Pueblo. A few miles away, a factory at Sugar City shredded beets, but the factory closed in 1967, unable to compete with cane sugar. Farmers had other challenges, too. One by one, then in droves, they began selling water rights to Front Range water providers. When the selling ended, just 2,500 acres along the Colorado Canal remained irrigated. Dust storms followed, invasive weeds proliferated, and the natural precipitation of 11 to 12 inches a year was insufficient to sustain strong dryland agriculture. By the 1990s, Crowley County had become Colorado’s poster child for what happens when a place loses it water. As one anthropologist put it, Crowley County was the last to bloom and the first to wilt.

Can Colorado’s other rural communities be prevented from wilting? The question is urgent because Colorado continues to grow, adding 100,000 residents annually, the equivalent of one new City of Longmont a year. Most new residents live along the Front Range, home to 84 percent of Coloradans in 2015, according to state Department of Local Affairs estimates. It’s all premised on water. Fields from Middle Park to the Arkansas Valley have dried, the result of cities buying farms for their water rights, a practice called buy and dry.

Read more: Flex Time For Colorado Water

Jesse Kruthaupt

VOICES FROM THE FIELD: Kruthaupt Ranch and Trout Unlimited

By Jerd Smith

Jessie Kruthaupt, 37, grew up in Gunnison. When he was in high school, his parents bought a 500-acre cow-calf operation east of town. He moved with them to the ranch and began to learn the intricacies of water rights, irrigation and hay meadows.

Twenty years later, Kruthaupt works as a project manager for Trout Unlimited and he helped craft the first environmental water lease on Tomichi Creek using his family’s 1890s water rights. Approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) two years ago, the agreement specifies that in three out of 10 years, if his family opts to participate, they will fallow 100 acres of hay meadows. The water freed up by that fallowing will remain in Tomichi Creek to help bolster the state’s instream flow right in a nine-mile reach of the stream. The lease is only valid in years when the state’s instream flow right, which has a 1983 appropriation date, is short of water. That hasn’t happened yet. The past two years have provided plenty of water for the Kruthaupt family and for the creek.

Kruthaupt, who has three young children, initiated the talks with the CWCB and the Colorado Water Trust because he believed a temporary lease, which did not require water court approval, was a way to help generate income for his family’s farm and provide an environmental benefit. Key to the deal was his family’s ability to opt in or out. “That was a no-brainer for us,” he says.

Still, Kruthaupt has moved forward cautiously because of concern in the valley over the precedents that use of such a new water management tool could set. Some 40 other families ranch on Tomichi Creek. While none expressed outright opposition to the lease, many are quietly concerned, Kruthaupt said. And no other ranchers have come forward seeking to make a similar arrangement with the CWCB.

Under this agreement, the Kruthaupt family is paid only in years when it fallows ground. Based on engineering studies, the lease should keep about 100 acre-feet of water in the stream for environmental purposes. In exchange, the Kruthaupt family will be paid $15,000 to $20,000 each year the lease is activated, Kruthaupt said, with funding for the lease provided by Trout Unlimited. The agreement to use this water for an instream flow had to be approved by the Colorado Division of Water Resources as well as the CWCB.

“It’s a good deal for us and it gives us the flexibility we need,” he says. “But I’m still a little concerned about how it will play out when it is finally implemented.” He sees the next several years as a learning period for his family, the CWCB and the other ranchers on the creek.

“I’m sure we’re going to learn some things once this is implemented,” he says. “I believe these types of tools are important to helping preserve ag. But being the first one, I don’t want to give it a bad spin, and I don’t want to upset my neighbors.”

Gene Manuello

VOICES FROM THE FIELD: Manuello Farms, Sterling Irrigation Company and Colorado Ag Water Alliance

By Jerd Smith

Gene Manuello, 72, has been running his family’s farm and feedlot operation on Colorado’s Northeastern Plains for decades. Manuello’s grandfather emigrated from Italy when he was nine years old, and in 1928 bought the farm that would form the basis of Manuello’s agriculture operation.

In this far-flung piece of the state, there is little faith that even widespread use of water leases and fallowing programs will do anything to protect the state’s rich agriculture economy or its water.

Manuello serves as president of the Sterling Irrigation Company and also serves on the board of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance.

The alliance supports ATM policy that is beneficial to ag as a means of minimizing the movement toward permanent dry up of irrigated lands. However, it believes that the use of ATMs results in the loss of agriculture to some degree, whether temporary or permanent.

“Ag water to me is to produce corn and alfalfa, to produce crops and feed our country,” Manuello says. “I don’t have a problem with transfers themselves, but I do have a problem with promoting them as if they are going to solve our water problems.”

The Sterling Irrigation Company is one of the oldest and largest operating on the South Platte and has water rights that date back to 1874. None of the farmers with shares in the ditch company is willing to participate in a transfer program. “As a whole our ditch board would not promote it. We would fight it,” he says.

“There are people who believe we don’t have a water problem because we can just take it from ag. I believe that is the wrong approach. The correct approach is storage. But I don’t believe we look at it strong enough and push hard enough to get these [storage] projects done. “

Last year, as part of his work with the Ag Water Alliance, Manuello traveled the state visiting with members of the alliance and asking about their views on alternative transfer methods. Most of the producers interviewed opposed ATMs, Manuello says. Producers don’t trust that ATMs can be done with enough volume to alleviate the coming water shortage, and they don’t believe the transfers, regardless of how they are structured, will ultimately protect farmers and their water rights.

“In surveys, initially 70 percent to 80 percent of farmers say they are interested, but when it comes down to actually doing it, they are not.”

Manuello says he believes the seeming disconnect lies in farmers’ interest in trying to remain open to new ideas. But that interest isn’t enough to convince them to engage in transfers that, at least initially, don’t have enough data behind them to demonstrate conclusively that they won’t harm individual ag water rights.

Manuello says he’s also troubled that the well-funded leasing programs are making it more profitable to lease water to cities than to farm the land.

“If a person leases a bit of his water, especially if he is struggling, and some are and some aren’t, that’s why it is appealing. But what will that do 100 years from now to society? We do have a growing population. We have a growing thirst for water, but aren’t we also going to have a growing appetite for food?”

Glenn Hirakata

VOICES FROM THE FIELD: Hirakata Farms

By Jerd Smith

Glenn Hirakata, 53, is a fourth-generation farmer in the Arkansas River Valley. In a region with traditions that go way back, Hirakata is embracing something decidedly modern, a program in which the region’s scarce water is being shared with cities.

“It’s such a new concept,” he says. “It’s a learning process.” The 10-year lease fallow program on the Catlin Ditch involves six farms and 902 acres of irrigated land. The water is exchanged through Pueblo Reservoir and then delivered to Fountain and the Security Water District. The town of Fowler also participates, using the water to augment its well pumping.

Read more: Glenn Hirakata

Bill Lauck

VOICES FROM THE FIELD: Lauck Farms and the Fort Morgan Ditch Company

By Jerd Smith

Bill Lauck was 49 in 1993 when he and his fellow farmers in the Fort Morgan Ditch Company, entered into what, back then and even now, was a groundbreaking 40-year agreement to lease 2,500 acre-feet of water it owns in the South Platte River to Xcel Energy. When the agreement was finalized, more than 70 percent of the ditch company’s farmers agreed to participate.

Lauck is a third-generation farmer. His grandfather bought the Fort Morgan ranch in 1949 after emigrating from Russia. Now the family owns about 800 acres and leases an additional 160 acres for a large corn operation.

Read more: Bill Lauck

Publication of Headwaters magazine is made possible by the generous support of sponsors and advertisers. We extend our appreciation and thanks to the following sponsors for contributing to this issue:

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