Springs Utilities Seeks Deal to Buy Water Rights From Arkansas Valley Farmers | New
Caleb and Mark Wertz want ensure the success of their farm in the Arkansas Valley while using water responsibly at a time when drought and other factors have sapped resources across the West.
Part of this goal led the brothers to enter into an agreement to sell some of their water rights to Colorado Springs Utilities, which must acquire additional water to serve a growing population.
This deal could be duplicated multiple times if Bent County signs an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that would allow utilities to enter into agreements to secure access to 15,000 acre feet of water held annually by others. owners of water rights in the county over a period of 10 years. moving average.
The IGA is described as a way for urban and rural water users to work together to ensure an adequate supply for growing crops and for city dwellers.
The IGA, which will be considered by Bent County commissioners in a public hearing on July 12, would allow utilities to purchase water rights from farmers without going through the cumbersome 1041 process. can be costly and unpredictable — named after a state law enacted decades ago that allows county officials to approve or disapprove of multi-county, statewide projects.
“The first water-sharing project to be processed under the IGA, if approved, would be Wertz’s actions,” Utilities spokeswoman Jennifer Jordan said. “However, the Wertz deal is not contingent on IGA approval. These actions would go through the 1041 clearance process … if the IGA is not approved.
If the IGA is approved, the Wertz deal would be the first project approved under it and would allow Colorado Springs Utilities to bypass the 1041 process in future water-sharing agreements in Bent County. too, she said.
In its agreement with the Wertz brothers, Utilities has already taken steps, such as providing funds that allowed the brothers to acquire land and water-efficient center pivot irrigation systems.
“What we’re doing is trying to keep the farms in production,” said Scott Lorenz, senior utility project manager. India in an interview. “There has always been the threat of having large-scale buying and drying operations devastating the local economy. The water contained in the Wertz Farm Agreement will still be there in 100 years.
Caleb Wertz says the deal with Utilities gives him and his brother confidence that their farm can pull through financially.
“Buying land is quite expensive,” he says. “It creates relief for my brother and I, being young farmers.”
Buy-and-dry refers to the acquisition water rights that allow the purchaser to transport water off the land in question for other purposes, essentially drying up the land forever.
The town of Aurora acquired water rights to some 5,000 acres in Otero County in 2003, which drained farmland in “one of the best agricultural areas in the valley,” says Bill Long , a former Bent County commissioner who helped the county negotiate the IGA. with utilities.
“There’s no more water, and that’s what’s devastating,” he says, noting that earlier water sales in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to this drying up factor.
But because water is considered a property right in Colorado, the owner is free to do whatever they want with those rights. So some farmers and valley officials fear that a hedge fund or other wealthy entity will make offers that are hard to refuse, and that the drying up territory will become wasteland.
Enter Utilities, which wants to share water, not capture water rights for exclusive city use.
The deal, worth millions of dollars to landowners and the county itself, would pay $1,600 per acre-foot to Bent County when water rights are enacted to utilities through of the water tribunal as a single payment. Utilities would then pay an additional $45 per acre-foot when the water is delivered, resulting in potential annual payments to Bent County of $675,000 for 15,000 acre-feet of water.
These payments are in addition to the amount paid to water rights holders. Part of the money given to the county is to be used to hire a manager who would monitor compliance with the IGA.
These 15,000 acres will go a long way toward Utilities’ goal of acquiring 25,000 acres of water from agriculture. Beyond the 25,000 acre feet, Utilities would still need an additional 11,000 acre feet of water by 2072 to serve its customers, Lorenz says.
Utilities currently owns 95,000 acre feet of water and customers currently use approximately 75,000 acre feet annually.
An acre-foot of water equals the amount needed to cover 1 acre of land with one foot of water, an amount that typically serves two to three households per year.
The state water plan provides for the conversion of some of the water used for agriculture for domestic purposes, reducing agriculture’s share of the state’s supply from 86 percent to 80 %.
“It’s all these discussions, how are you going to do this and without devastating a local economy? said Lorenz.
One way is to help farmers convert to flood irrigation, which literally floods cultivated fields with water from a network of ditches.
Lorenz says Utilities hopes to strike similar deals in other counties. “We have a general interest in all counties in the Arkansas River Basin,” he says. “We see more and more that we are connected by water. The fact that we are the largest city in the Arkansas Basin brings a certain responsibility.
Of course, there is also the issue of the Arkansas River Compact between Colorado and Kansas which requires Kansas to receive a certain amount of water from the Arkansas River.
Whether water agreements, including increased center pivots, will impact Colorado’s obligation to Kansas will be determined by the Division of Water Resources and the Water Court, Lorenz said.
“There will be requirements for how we make replacements not just for Kansas, but for all downstream users,” Lorenz says.
Valley Irrigation Company reports on its website that flood irrigation results in only about 50% uptake while the other half is lost through evaporation, runoff, seepage from uncultivated areas, and transpiration through weed leaves. Absorption rates for center pivot irrigation can be as high as 90%.
This means that less water can be used to achieve the same results in crop growth.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that a study of alfalfa production in Montana showed yields almost doubled from 1955 to 2005 after the introduction of center pivots, replacing flood irrigation. .
The USDA also reports that sprinklers can increase the number of acres in production and lengthen the irrigation season.
Disadvantages include less water returned to underground aquifers, lower stream flows in the later part of growing seasons, and higher electricity costs. It’s also possible that the introduction of center pivots, which can irrigate fields that are not level, will result in greater water use as more land is converted to irrigation, according to the USDA.
But the center pivots leave the corners of the fields unirrigated. This is the land for which Utilities would acquire the water rights.
Caleb Wertz, who turned 21 on June 28, and Mark, 26, farm 240 acres of alfalfa and corn 8 km east of Las Animas. Caleb says they will get higher production with fewer acres under center pivots than with flood irrigation.
“Thanks to the agreement with Colorado Springs, this allows the diversification of our agricultural operation and represents many financial difficulties to start farming. This allows for more efficient irrigation,” says Caleb, referring to the conversion to center pivots.
Growing up in a farming family, the brothers wanted their own land, and the utility deal helped them buy those 240 acres. Other family lands are cultivated by their father and two other brothers.
From Bent County’s perspective, “This partnership allows the county to work with a new water user who will essentially be in perpetuity [Springs Utilities]which will be much better than a New York hedge fund, or someone who wants to buy and drain the ground and doesn’t care about the impacts that might hit the county in a negative way,” said Long, chairman of the board of administration of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy. District, which oversees the Fryingpan-Arkansas Transmountain Diversion Project which provides water via the Pueblo Reservoir.
“It’s a way to sell or rent water to someone who will be there forever.”
Long says the IGA would cap the acres that can be dewatered by utility water purchases at 3,125 acres, limiting the acreage that would be claimed by utility water sales.
“It’s a way for the city and [Bent] county to share water in a way that benefits both parties,” he said. “We hate to see water leave where it’s currently used, but it’s part of a property right in Colorado. This [the IGA] creates financial incentives for farmers to use their water more efficiently.
It also puts money in the hands of county commissioners, who can use it for economic development or to update record keeping by converting the county’s land management system to GIS. Lorenz says Bent County is one of the few counties in the state without GIS land management, which may impact how the county not only maintains land records but also monitors septic and drip permits. other functions authorized by the county.
The IGA also requires utilities to revegetate reclaimed acres with low-moisture and native plants and “maintain revegetation when complete,” says the IGA.
“After revegetation is certified as established,” the IGA says, these areas must be prohibited from “tillage, plowing or other mechanical means to break up the soil,” and any grazing program must comply with accountability measures.
Weed control is also necessary.
Long does not expect commissioners to vote on July 12, but instead listen to citizen feedback on the IGA. He is not aware of any organized opposition to the IGA, he says.
“Colorado Springs Utilities thought about how they put this together,” Long says. “The reality is in Colorado, it’s a private property right. There could be much worse offers.
Lorenz says Utilities is aware of the high cost of acquiring farmland water. “For us to use our clients’ hard-earned funds, we have to make sure there’s a benefit for us,” he says. “A lot of time has been spent talking to farmers about how you balance these very real needs: a need for water and a need for food.”