Writers on the Range: Can leasing irrigation water keep Colorado farms alive?

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters
Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

From The Denver Post (Joshua Zaffos):

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,” [John 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.”

More Arkansas Valley Super Ditch coverage here.

Landowner challenges state’s interpretation of old decree — The Pueblo Chieftain

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A Fountain Creek landowner has filed a complaint in Pueblo water court saying he has a right to the Fountain Creek underflow, as well as surface water.

Ralph “Wil” Williams, trustee of the Greenview Trust, filed the complaint in June, saying the state has incorrectly administered the water right to the 313-acre farm as solely surface water.

The property, located 8 miles north of Pueblo on Fountain Creek is emblematic of man’s interaction with Fountain Creek throughout recorded history. It was first settled by “Uncle Dick” Wooten in 1862 and has always been in farmland.

In the 1990s, it began to experience severe erosion from growth upstream, particularly the development in Colorado Springs.

Problems with the ditch came to a head after the 1999 flood, leading the owners to sue Colorado Springs for dumping more water in the creek, only to be locked out when the Legislature granted governmental immunity for flood damages.

In the most recent floods of the past five years, the Greenview has continued to lose land, including about 10 acres of trees to the storms in May and June.

“We’re trying to conserve the farm,” Williams said. Pueblo County, through a program in conjunction with the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, is interested in purchasing the property as a restoration project.

The water rights are crucial to determining land value, Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart said.

“We weren’t successful in a Great Outdoors Colorado grant this cycle, and one of the things we have to do is shore up the land and water value,” Hart said.

Williams contends that past owners always intended to use the underflow of Fountain Creek as an alternate source to irrigate 315 acres of the property. Fountain Creek had intermittent flows, so the underflow would have been used during dry times when surface water could not be diverted, he claims.

Other water users employed the strategy in the early 1900s, when well technology was more limited. Most famously, the Ball brothers — who found success in the canning jar and aerospace industries — used the underflow of Fountain Creek to fill reservoirs in hopes of selling the water to Puebloans. The quality was unsuitable for drinking, however.

In preparing for the water court case, Williams collected old plats that show the location of underflow structures, basically horizontal wells that draw water by gravity.

The Colorado Division of Water Resources does not recognize the dual water right, and says Greenview Trust needs a substitute water supply plan if it plans to irrigate with wells.

“It’s based on an old statement that was not picked up in the decree itself,” said Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte. “It appears to us that there never was the intention to have a well.”

Williams disagrees, saying he spent two years collecting information in state files that he was initially told did not exist. “For me to have to spend two years researching the archives is ridiculous,” Williams said. “We are decreed against the source and the underflow. It’s one natural stream.”

More Fountain Creek coverage here.

The Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District meeting recap

Fountain Creek erosion via The Pueblo Chieftain
Fountain Creek erosion via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

It may be time to pass the hat again for the district trying to fix Fountain Creek.

The Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District Friday looked again at a dismal funding picture or a model for government austerity, depending on point of view.

The discussion came up as Cole Emmons, El Paso County’s assistant attorney, reviewed the formation and operation of the district for new board members. One key point was the district’s reliance on member governments to get things done. For example, Emmons’ time are legal fees donated by El Paso County.

But even in this administrative barter system, real cash is sometimes needed.

In 2013, a plan to collect $50,000 by Executive Director Larry Small worked fairly well. The largest members of the district — El Paso and Pueblo counties, Colorado Springs and Pueblo — each contributed $10,000. Fountain, a mid-sized city, chipped in $5,000. Four smaller incorporated communities in El Paso County contributed $1,400 of the $5,000 expected from them.

Prior to that, the district had been on life support under a master corridor agreement jointly funded by Colorado Springs and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

“These are anemic funds for the work we have to do,” Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart said.

The district is waiting for $50 million from Colorado Springs Utilities to begin arriving once the Southern Delivery System is turned on. But Hart pointed out that money is required to be spent on flood control projects that exclusively benefit Pueblo County.

“The real focus is taking on projects that are larger than the $50 million can fund,” Hart said. “We are in the sixth year, and we are doing the best we can. Sometimes we discount the work we’ve done. It’s been spectacular.”

The district has channeled $1.5 million in grants into Fountain Creek projects in the past two years, as well as cooperating with its members to line up other projects since being formed in 2009. But it has backed off its role in commenting on land-use decisions because it lacks qualified staff to review applications, Small said.

In its first year, the district held hearings on projects that could impact the flood plain of Fountain Creek. Small now reviews applications filed in either county, although most come from El Paso County.
The district could do more.

It has the authority to levy up to 5 mills in property taxes on all residents in El Paso and Pueblo counties, if voters approve the tax. Discussions on a strategy to obtain approval were shelved in 2012 as El Paso County moved toward an unsuccessful attempt to form a regional stormwater authority last year.

“At the last two meetings, we got an earful from landowners on Fountain Creek,” Hart said. “I’d like to take a realistic look at what we should be doing.”

More Fountain Creek coverage here.

Browns Canyon National Monument celebration


From The Chaffee County Times (Mason Miller) via The Leadville Herald:

After an effort spanning several decades, a commemorative ceremony was held for Browns Canyon Saturday to celebrate its national monument status.

The event was held at Buena Vista High School gym after rain and wind relocated the ceremony from the Buena Vista River Park.

Browns Canyon was officially designated a national monument in February by President Obama.

Speakers included Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, as well as other state, federal and local representatives.

“We did it,” Jewell proclaimed to the crowd of more than 700 supporters, summarizing the theme of many of the speeches made.

“I feel like the guy who kicked the field goal at the end of the game,” Executive Director for Friends of Browns Canyon Keith Baker said. “There were so many people involved throughout the years. This wouldn’t be possible without all of them.”

Jewell, a former CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., a retail company for sporting goods and outdoor recreation gear, said the economic impact that national monuments like Browns Canyon have on local economies should not be underestimated.

“In Browns Canyon alone, as I understand it, it’s nearly a $60 million dollar business per year in the rafting industry,” Jewell said.

“When you think about the impact on the community that having a national monument has, there is no question that specially protected landscapes like this are very good for local economies.”
Buena Vista Mayor Joel Benson expressed similar sentiments.

“I’ve talked with many people at my own business and so many of them tell me they’ve come all the way to our community just to visit Browns Canyon.”

Both Hickenlooper and Bennet spoke about the divisiveness the declaration of national monuments creates politically, but in spite of these differences citizens and government officials have to persevere to protect these places for generations to come.

“We have to make sure these wilderness areas are accessible for our children and their children,” Hickenlooper said.

“Keep doing what you’re doing, because it’s working,” Bennet exclaimed during his speech. “It’s no surprise that D.C. is gridlocked when it comes to issues like this, but you see what’s possible when we come together to work with all of the stakeholders.”

Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, talked about what’s next for Browns Canyon.

“We have three years to develop a land management plan,” he said. “It’s important to take our time. We’ll have to work closely with the Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to see this plan through to the end.”

Tidwell said the management plan will involve surveying the area to see what additional recreational facilities might be needed. Additionally, his staff will work closely with organizations like Friends of Browns Canyon to finish the plan in a timely manner.

Many of the speakers gave a special thanks to former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall for his tireless efforts as a supporter of both national monuments throughout the nation and of Browns Canyon. Udall was not in attendance.

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.

Pueblo Board of Water Works approves participation in #ColoradoRiver conservation pilot program

Alan Ward stands at the Ewing Ditch headgate,
Alan Ward stands at the Ewing Ditch headgate,

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A pilot program that would leave some of Pueblo’s water on the Western Slope — for a fee — was approved by the Pueblo Board of Water Works Tuesday.

The program would pay Pueblo Water about $400,000 over the next two years to leave 600 acre-feet (195 million gallons) in the Colorado River basin. It’s part of an $11 million pilot project to test tools that could be part of a Colorado River drought conservancy plan.

The program is sponsored by the Upper Colorado River Commission, Bureau of Reclamation, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Denver Water, Central Arizona Water Conservation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

About $2.75 million is set aside for conservation programs in the Upper Colorado states, which are Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Pueblo would contribute the water in a fairly painless way by shutting down the diversion of the Ewing Ditch, which brings water into the Arkansas River basin from Piney Gulch in the Eagle River basin.

The diversion is one of the oldest in the state, constructed in 1880 at Tennessee Pass.

The diversion ditch originally was dug by the Otero Canal and was purchased in 1954 by Pueblo Water. It delivers an average of about 920 acre-feet, but in wet years like this one, not all of the water is taken.

Pueblo’s storage accounts are full this year, with 52,174 acre-feet in storage, equivalent to two years of potable water use in the city. Pueblo’s total water use annually, including raw water leases and other obligations, is usually 70,000-80,000 acre-feet.

Typically, about 14,700 acre-feet would be brought across the Continental Divide, but this year, only about 5,760 acre-feet has arrived from all transmountain sources.

“There’s no place to put it,” Water Resources Manager Alan Ward told the water board this week. “It’s close to as much as we’ve ever had in storage.”

The Ewing Ditch contribution is about 37 percent of average this year, similar to Twin Lakes, which was shut down when the reservoir near Leadville reached capacity in May. Pueblo Water brought over 71 percent of its Busk-Ivanhoe water even though it was trying not to take any, Ward said.

Browns Canyon Dedicated as a National Monument — KRCC.org

From KRCC.org (Andrea Chalfin):

The nearly 22,000-acres of public land that stretches from Buena Vista to Salida in Chaffee County along the Arkansas River is well known for its recreation and wildlife…

Comments during the nearly 90-minute ceremony centered on thanking those involved for cooperation and dedication during the decade-plus long process, everyone from local residents to government officials, past and present.

It’s a sentiment that strikes a chord with Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

“The significance of this is an example of what can be done when communities come together and deal with differences, address each other’s concerns, but do it in a way where they really value those differences,” says Tidwell…

“It’s a great form of rural economic development, to get more tourists to come into the state,” says Hickenlooper. “They come into Denver or Colorado Springs or Fort Collins, they’ll spend a couple of days there, and then they’ll go off and come to these amazing places. And having Browns Canyon be a National Monument, I think will significantly increase tourism, the number of people coming through Colorado Springs.”

National Monuments can be created by an act of Congress, but legislation there stalled. President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate the land as a National Monument earlier this year.

It’s a move criticized by some, including Republican Representative Doug Lamborn, whose district includes Chaffee County. Lamborn issued a statement Friday, calling the designation an abuse of executive power and a land grab.

But U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell dismisses those concerns, and in her prepared remarks during the dedication ceremony, she called the country’s public lands a gift.

“And as we grow and we urbanize and we diversify as a nation, and we get more and more disconnected from the outdoors and nature, it is more important today to protect these special places than ever before,” said Jewell.

Management of the area will remain with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Historic uses, including cattle grazing, hunting, and fishing will continue, and a management plan to come will include input from the local and state levels, as well as tribal concerns.

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.

“There is not consistent political leadership in Colorado Springs” — Jay Winner

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

In order to ensure stormwater control in Colorado Springs in the future, Colorado Springs Utilities needs to take over the job, or the city will face further legal action over the issue.

“Everything’s in place to do this,” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. “If this were an enterprise of Utilities, the work would be brought up to speed immediately.” Utilities controls water, sewer, gas and electricity in Colorado Springs.

Winner is suggesting adding stormwater as a fifth utility. The idea has been discussed, but has not had a champion until now.

Attorneys for the Lower Ark are wrapping up the final draft for a federal district court complaint over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act by Colorado Springs. The lawsuit has been contemplated for two years, based on Colorado Springs’ inability to find a permanent stormwater funding source. A filing is expected within 60 days.

Making stormwater a fixture within Utilities might be a way of avoiding the lawsuit, Winner said.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and City Council President Merv Bennett on July 6 gave assurances to Pueblo City Council that the city would find ways to fund $18 million in stormwater control activities annually from its general fund.

Winner, who attended that meeting, was not convinced.

“They’re constantly telling us how they are doing these wonderful things,” Winner said. “But their political leaders can be recalled or choose not to run again. There is not consistent political leadership in Colorado Springs. One of the things Utilities is good at is leadership.”

Bennett also has made appeals to the Lower Ark board to hold off on the lawsuit while Colorado Springs gets its house in order. But Winner said there are no actions to back up the rhetoric.

“Merv Bennett turned it over to Colorado Springs staff. I’ve had no meaningful conversations with them in the last six months,” Winner said.

Colorado Springs voters last November turned down a regional stormwater fee concept that sprung from two years of political meetings in El Paso County.

Colorado Springs City Council eliminated its stormwater fee following a 2009 vote on a proposal launched by Doug Bruce, a tax activist who became an El Paso County commissioner and state lawmaker before he was convicted for tax evasion.

Funds totaling about $29.6 million for six Colorado Springs enterprises, and transfers from Utilities to the general fund, were to be phased out over eight years under Issue 300 on the 2009 Colorado Springs ballot. Before the election, council members had talked about making about $3.7 million in cuts annually until the total was reached. After the election, council has opted only to eliminate the stormwater enterprise, which would have generated about $15.4 million in 2010.

“Springs City Council made the wrong decision,” Winner said. “If there’s one thing that Utilities knows how to do, it’s make good decisions.

They would not have made that decision to eliminate the stormwater enterprise.”

Council in August 2010 made the determination that Colorado Springs could keep “surplus payments” from Utilities without violating Issue 300. Those payments have totaled more than $30 million annually since that time, according to a 2014 bond rating statement filed by Utilities.

“Seems like there would already be some funding available for stormwater,” Winner said. “Plus, Utilities has the engineering, equipment and experience to do the sorts of projects that need to be done.”

While council oversees Utilities, future members would be less likely to arbitrarily end stormwater funding, any more than they would remove water, sewer, gas or electric service, he added.

More Fountain Creek coverage here and here.