Can leasing irrigation water keep Colorado farms alive?
High Country News
John Schweizer has spent most of his life raising corn, alfalfa and other crops and about 200 cattle in Otero County, along southeastern Colorado’s Lower Arkansas River. It’s never been easy, but the last 15 years have been particularly tough on the nearly 81-year-old Schweizer and his neighbors. Their corner of the state is drier now than it was during the Dust Bowl. Meanwhile, growing Front Range cities are buying out farms and shifting their irrigation water to residential use — a process called “buy and dry.”
Cities have siphoned more than 100,000 acre-feet of ag water — enough for about 200,000 Colorado homes — from the Arkansas River Basin alone since the 1970s. In neighboring Crowley County, farming has vanished, school-class sizes are half what they were 50 years ago, and tumbleweeds from dried-up fields pile up along fences and block roads. “That’s what they’re stuck with, because there’s no more water,” Schweizer says. “It’s gone forever.”
Schweizer is president of the 35-mile-long Catlin Canal, which irrigates about 18,000 acres of farms. He’s hoping that the trial run of something called the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch will save the basin’s remaining communities and farms. The initiative is not actually a big ditch, but rather a scheme that allows six of the valley’s irrigation canals to pool their water rights and temporarily lease them to cities. Starting in March, five Catlin irrigators “leased” a total of 500 acre-feet of water, which would normally supply their fields, to nearby Fowler and the cities of Fountain and Security, 80 miles away. Under the agreement, communities can use the farm water to supply homes and recharge wells for up to three years out of every decade. During those years, the irrigators will have to fallow, or rest, some fields, yet will still be able to earn money from the water itself and farm the rest of their land.
Supporters believe the Super Ditch could eventually enable farms and cities to share up to 10,000 acre-feet of water. “We look at leasing water just like raising a crop,” says Schweizer, who is avoiding any potential conflict of interest by keeping his own farm out of the pilot. “It is a source of income, and anybody who’s doing that can have the water next year if they want to farm with it. And they are still in the valley, so the community stays viable.”
Statewide, cities have acquired at least 191,000 acre-feet of agricultural water, eliminating farming and ranching on millions of acres. Water managers estimate Colorado could lose up to 700,000 more acres by 2050. Like Schweizer, officials consider water leasing, also called lease-fallowing or rotational fallowing, a promising way to slow that loss while satisfying urban thirst, particularly since alternatives like new dams and other big water-development projects face regulatory hurdles and environmentalist opposition. Colorado’s draft water plan suggests the state could meet up to 50,000 acre-feet of its future water needs — and avoid more buy-and-dry — through such water-sharing deals.
But it wasn’t easy to get anyone to commit to even a trial run of the Super Ditch. Farmers worry that leasing is just the first step toward selling out, and cities are leery of year-by-year arrangements. With the pilot finally in motion, supporters hope it will build enough trust to attract more participants and inspire similar efforts elsewhere. Farmers and cities are watching, says Schweizer, “without a doubt.”
Other Western states already tap into lease-fallowing. California has had a major long-term program since 2004, designed to meet urban needs without drying up farms in the Palo Verde and Imperial valleys, while Arizona began its own pilot project in 2014. The combination of drought and urban growth in the early 2000s spurred on Colorado’s discussions. In 2004 and 2005, the city of Aurora, facing severe shortages, was able to lease water from farmers along the High Line Canal, another Arkansas Valley ditch. In 2007, the Legislature created a $4 million grant program to study and support leasing and other ways to avoid buy-and-dry, leading to the establishment of the Super Ditch Company in 2008.
Previous Super Ditch pilot projects, however, failed to launch. Cities, rural power providers and some farmers and ranchers formally complained in Colorado water court that the project could “injure,” or deplete, their own water rights and supplies, or take more water than allowed. Irrigators have also gotten “cold feet,” says Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, which backs the project. In several years, project farmers feared they wouldn’t have enough water to both lease and raise crops, due to drought.
Agricultural water users also worry that temporary transfers will diminish their legal water rights. Under state law, an irrigator who wants to lease water typically has to legally repurpose his water rights in water court to enable municipal or industrial use. Theoretically, a water court could then re-measure and reduce those rights — although that isn’t the intent.
Some farmers believe that the deals threaten agriculture, rather than protect it, says MaryLou Smith, policy specialist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute. But Smith says that if they don’t become more common, “agricultural water will be bought up and converted to urban use. (Farmers) are going to get run over.”
Cities have also balked at leasing, saying it’s easier and cheaper to just acquire farmers’ water rights and build a “firm” supply than to invest in water that may or may not be available, depending on snowpack and farmers’ needs. Some urban water providers argue that having access to water only in relatively wet years, when farmers are more willing to share, isn’t that useful, because urban supplies are also plentiful then.
State lawmakers have eased some worries with a number of new laws, though. One 2013 bill, backed by Lower Arkansas water managers and others, clarified the rules for long-term water leases, helping to keep irrigators out of water court. Another allowed the Colorado Water Conservation Board to authorize up to 10 pilot projects, giving the state an oversight role. The measures helped finally launch the Super Ditch this spring.
But other projects are still running into opposition — including from some Super Ditch supporters. In northern Colorado, the Colorado Corn Growers Association, Aurora Water and Ducks Unlimited tried to develop a “flex market,” where farmers could have their water rights amended to allow them to be used for other purposes. Then they could auction them off in years when they weren’t planning to use them, and cities, industry or conservation groups could bid for the flows. But the Lower Arkansas Conservancy and others helped defeat a bill that would have authorized the market this spring. Winner says the setup looked like an illegal “speculation” scheme that could allow water to be auctioned off for non-agricultural uses every year — thus actually accelerating buy-and-dry and water diversions from one river system to another.
Andy Jones, a Johnstown, Colorado, water attorney who was involved with the legislation, responds that the flex market is a “narrow, intentional exception” to the state’s anti-speculation rule. But the opposition hasn’t surprised him, considering the water plundering that’s occurred in the Lower Arkansas. “I think the novelty is a concern to them,” Jones says, “but I don’t think it’s justified in the sense that we’re really all on the same page, trying to create incentives for water to stay in agriculture.”
Other approaches to water sharing for agriculture — and the environment — are having more luck. This spring, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust and state Water Conservation Board established the state’s first permanent split-season water right, another legal water-sharing option. It allows water from a ranch, recently purchased by the Western Rivers Conservancy to prevent subdivision, to be used for irrigation during the early summer. After that, it will be returned to a once-dry stretch of the Little Cimarron River the rest of the year to benefit fish and improve water quality. “This project shows the environment can have a place, and it’s not a zero-sum game where you take water from one use and it never goes back again,” says Colorado Water Trust attorney Zach Smith.
And following the flex-market setback, a new working group in northern Colorado is discussing a sort of land-and-water bank, where farmers ready to call it quits could sell their resources. The “bank” would then broker conservation easements and land sales, allowing only a limited portion of water to be sold to cities. The rest would go back to farms. “It has gotten people excited,” MaryLou Smith says.
The long-awaited Super Ditch pilot project and other efforts are hopeful signs. But as demand grows and water supplies dwindle, preserving farms in Colorado and much of the West will require more than gradual, piecemeal progress. The clock is ticking: This spring, just as Catlin Canal irrigators finally began sending off Super Ditch flows, a developer announced plans to buy 14,600 farmland acres and connected water rights from the nearby Fort Lyon Canal for $53 million, the latest massive selloff to rock southeastern Colorado.
“Once it’s sold, it will never, ever come back,” says Schweizer. “We’ve had plenty of opportunities to throw our hands up and say, ‘To hell with it,’ but if I’d have done that, I wouldn’t have been farming for the last 50 years either. If what you think you’re doing is the right thing to do, then you work for it.”
This story is part of an ongoing series by High Country News that looks at the people and ideas helping the West better understand and use its water.
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