Alternative Transfer Methods: “For 10 years we’ve talked about how a (water leasing) program would work” — Pat Wells

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

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Colorado Springs Utilities wants to be Super Ditch’s “dance partner.”

“For 10 years we’ve talked about how a (water leasing) program would work,” said Pat Wells, water resources supervisor for Utilities. “Super Ditch has always seemed lik e a logical fit. . . . If you’re interested in another dance partner, it’s a natural fit for Colorado Springs.”

A formal letter suggesting a partnership was sent to the Super Ditch and Lower Ark district in October. It outlined the conditions under which Utilities would be willing to participate.

Wells made the offer again to the combined boards of the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch and Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District last week. They were reviewing the success of the first year of a pilot program that delivered 409 acre-feet of water from farmers on the Catlin Canal to Fountain, Security and Fowler.

While the pilot program aims to provide a sustained yield to the cities under varying hydrological conditions, Colorado Springs is interested mainly in topping off its supplies in drought recovery years.

One of the provisions of the 2013 HB1248 legislation would allow for leasing water from farms in three years out of 10. That scenario is most appealing to Utilities because it usually has enough water from other sources.

The Colorado Springs system can hold 252,000 acre-feet of water in storage, but small amounts are useful.

“In a recovery year, 2,000 acre-feet in the right place would help us,” Wells said. “We’re not looking for a base supply year-in and year-out.”

Colorado Springs does not anticipate needing to establish a program in the next year, but is looking ahead to have a program in place should it be needed.

“Our storage is as full as it has been in several years,” Wells said.

The breathing room will allow Utilities and Super Ditch at least a year to negotiate and the soonest a program would be launched is in 2017, both sides agreed.

Colorado Springs purchased part of the High Line Canal lease from Aurora in 2005. During that year, Utilities also leased water from Pueblo Water to make up for depletions from three drought years prior to that time.

Meanwhile, here’s a report detailing this year’s pilot alternative transfer from Super Ditch to Arkansas Basin municipalities written by Chris Woodka for The Pueblo Chieftain:

A handful of farmers on the Catlin Canal were able to dry up some of their land this year and lease the water to cities in the first demonstration of how the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch would work.

The temporary fallowing of ground was carried out under a program supervised by the Colorado Water Conservation Board under the 2013 HB1248 that allows lease-fallowing project demonstration throughout the state. No more than 30 percent of farm ground can be dried up in any year over a 10-year period, or any parcel more than three years in 10.

“I think it’s calmed down the water community statewide, because it’s not hurting farmers, and the farmers say ‘We’re getting a good deal,’ ” Peter Nichols, told the combined boards of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District and the Super Ditch last week. “We had a good year and learned to build a bigger project.”

There were 60 conditions placed on the project in a rule-making process earlier this year in the third attempt to get a lease program off the ground. The Lower Ark district helped form the Super Ditch in 2008.

About 409 acre-feet (133 million gallons) were leased to Fountain, Security and Fowler, netting $500 per acre-foot for the farmers. They were also paid a $150 per acre readiness to serve fee.

To get to that number, the farmers dried up 235 of the 900 acres — well under the 30 percent annual limit — which translated into 252 shares of the 1,047 Catlin Canal shares enrolled in the program. The yield worked out to about 1.75 acre-feet per acre, so the total payoff was a little more than $1,000 per acre. That was not a bad outcome, considering depressed commodity prices were the norm.

“We put more water into the ground than we would have owed,” said Jack Goble, an engineer with the Lower Ark district. “It’s paid up so we don’t have to release water from Lake Pueblo for the next 20 years.”

The program gave the district and Super Ditch a chance to look at the real-world impacts of weather conditions on a lease-fallowing program. The farmers used one augmentation station to show water was being bypassed and two recharge ponds that replace flows that would have seeped into the ground from fields. Water was transferred to Lake Pueblo, where it could be used directly by Fountain and Security, or for augmentation flows that support Fowler’s wells through the Colorado Water Protective and Development Association.

Ironically, a rainy May and June made it difficult to claim recharge credits because it was too wet to run much water through the canal. But the high water levels made exchanges and trades easier so the program could be a success. The test program provided about 90 percent of the water that would have been available under the best conditions.

Typical Drip Irrigation System via Toro
Typical Drip Irrigation System via Toro

“As a farmer, I couldn’t have been happier,” said Phillip Chavez, of Diamond A Farms. “We put in drip systems and laser-leveled the (fallowed) fields.”

One of the outcomes of the project was a leasefallowing tool that conforms the engineering of the project to other water models, including those set up for surface sprinklers and wells to comply with the Arkansas River Compact. Still, Kansas looked at each of the farms in the program twice during the irrigation season to make sure the required ground had been fallowed.

More about the economic effect of ATMs from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

With farming, it’s always a wild guess in planning for the year ahead.

Crop prices could be high at the beginning of a season, and plummet by the end. Weather could bring drought, floods or hail — sometimes all of them — in any given year. Or, in that rare year, a bumper crop could bring premium prices as well.

All of which provides the groundwork for the theory of water leasing — providing a stable income with a known price for an expected amount of water.

It could be another crop for farmers, but there are hidden considerations.

“Leasing water depends on conditions. If it’s wet, no one wants it,” Brett Bovee, regional director for WestWater Research said. “It also depends on where you are in the state, and what kind of premium you can get over your baseline crop.”

Bovee was one of the featured speakers at a workshop last week at Pueblo Community College hosted by the Ditch and Reservoir Company Alliance. The workshop studied the economic, legal and political issues surrounding alternative transfer methods in Colorado.

ATMs, as the water community has chosen to shorthand them, have been a big topic in the state over the last decade. The Arkansas Valley Super Ditch is at the forefront, completing the first statesupervised transfer this year. ATMs also are a big piece in Colorado’s Water Plan.

ATM: The acronym conjures an unfortunate analogy, where you put money in and take water out. It’s not as simple as that.

Super Ditch has raised the bar for water prices in Colorado. While the average per-acre yield for the Arkansas Valley’s major crops is at the lower end in the state, it is leasing water to cities at the highest rate.

In other parts of the state, the rates range from $35-$337 per acrefoot, showing a wide disparity.

Farmers have to evaluate whether leases help their bottom line or pull water away from crops that might pay off better, Bovee said.

There are online tools that allow them to work out how much might be made growing a crop versus leasing the water.

Beyond the simple economics, there are multiple considerations to be taken into account.

On the plus side, leasing provides relatively stable prices, a high return, financing for other on-farm improvements and an alternative use for water while retaining a water right.

Drawbacks include impacts to the community, keeping a cover crop growing, keeping weeds down and the headaches of the transfer itself (engineering, legal issues and transaction costs).

“Leases can disrupt farm employment and business relationships,” Bovee said.

Statewide, water leasing has had little impact on the overall economy, but the effects locally can be tragic, as the dry-ups in Crowley County illustrate.

“The harm comes from taking water from one area and moving it out,” he said. “If agriculture makes up most of the economy and you move the water out, the effect is magnified.”

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.

Arkansas Valley Super Ditch update: Slow slog to 500 acre-feet delivered

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

From The High Country News (Joshua Zaffos):

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.

More Arkansas Valley Super Ditch coverage here and here.

CWCB approves Caitlin Canal lease to Fowler, Security, and Fountain for augmentation and exchange

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A plan to lease water from the Catlin Canal to Fowler, Fountain and Security beginning this year got final approval this week from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“This is truly beneficial to our basin and the state,” said Alan Hamel, who represents the Arkansas River basin on the CWCB. “I have a sense of urgency about seeing this happen, so that farmers will not give up on the idea of the Super Ditch.”

The plan comes with 60 conditions, 59 from State Engineer Dick Wolfe, who sorted through objections from other water users prior to recommending approval last week, and another added Monday dealing with precedence.

No one spoke against the proposal and approval was unanimous.

The application, under the umbrella of the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch and Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, is the first approved as a pilot project under 2013 legislation, HB1248.

During a 10-year period, up to 500 acre-feet annually (162 million gallons) will be made available to the cities. About half will serve as replacement water for wells in nearby Fowler under current plans. The remainder will be transferred by exchange to Lake Pueblo, where it can be physically piped to El Paso County through the Fountain Valley Conduit.

Wolfe spelled out that the use of the shares is a temporary change and that using the water would have no impact on the Arkansas River Compact with Kansas. All other water rules, including Pueblo’s flow maintenance programs, must be observed. While 1,100 acres are involved, only 311 Catlin shares on six farms will be used to provide the water. The exhaustive list of conditions specifies that water from any given farm is available only three out of every 10 years and only 30 percent of a farm may be dried up at any given time.

Daily, periodic and annual accounting is required, and recharge ponds will be used to assure return flows that normally would have come from irrigation to replace water to the river system at the right time and place.

“It’s important that we move forward, because the biggest part of the municipal gap in the Arkansas basin is in El Paso County,” Hamel said.

At the last roundtable meeting, a proposal by the Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority underscored concerns that more farmland could be dried up if alternatives such as Super Ditch are not explored, he added.

Hamel also is open to more long-term arrangements that would tie conservation easements to water leases, so cities would have more certainty of future supply, while the primary use of water would remain in agriculture.

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.

Arkansas Valley Super Ditch update: 500 af to Fountain, Security and Fowler

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

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The Arkansas Valley Super Ditch is hoping the third time will be a charm. The group is preparing a proposal to lease up to 500 acre-feet of water (162 million gallons) from the Catlin Canal to Fountain, Security and Fowler under 2013 state legislation, HB1248. Fowler would get about half of the water.

The legislation allows pilot programs that demonstrate the effectiveness of temporary transfers of water by drying up irrigated fields.

The application for the program was accepted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in September, but the proposal was altered to include Fountain and Security, which had expressed interest in leasing water in 2012, when the Super Ditch program was aborted due to drought.

The 2012 lease failed partly because of a late start and numerous conditions that would have been imposed under a substitute water supply plan.

In 2013, the Super Ditch planned to lease water to Fowler, but the deal fell through when farmers backed out.

A little more than 1,100 acres of Catlin land could be dried up on a rotating basis over 10 years. No parcel could be dried up for more than three of those years.

Water attorney Peter Nichols said he is optimistic that the program can be completed this year if the CWCB approves it at its January meeting.

“This meets the goal of leasing water within the Arkansas River basin,” Nichols said.

More Arkansas Valley Super Ditch coverage here and here.

Lower Ark board meeting recap: “We’re trying to see if a lease-fallowing program is viable” — Jay Winner

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The Colorado Water Conservation Board last week approved a pilot project that will provide the town of Fowler water from several farms on the Catlin Canal over the next 10 years. The project is the first to be attempted under 2013 legislation, HB1248, that authorized demonstration projects that determine if lease-fallowing projects are a viable alternative to permanent dry-up of farms. It is also the first test of the viability of the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch.

Participating farms would be dried up no more than three years of the next 10 in order to supply 500 acre-feet (163 million gallons) annually to Fowler. Seven farms with 1,128 acres will be dried up on a rotational basis to provide the water under a plan filed by the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District and the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch.

The CWCB reviewed comments on the project expressing concern from Aurora, the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Colorado Beef, a Lamar feed lot. The comments were similar to filings made in the past in water court cases that sought to permanently change water rights. Most expressed concern that their water rights would not be injured by the program and sought to assure that measurements in the program are accurate. Some were supportive of the program and all wanted to be notified of progress or changes in the program.

“We’re trying to see if a lease-fallowing program is viable,” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. “We’re trying to keep the water in the Arkansas basin. That’s what it’s all about.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

How much water is staying down on the farm?

The state will spend $175,000 to study the amount of water returning to the Arkansas River from fields on the Fort Lyon Canal. That will be matched with $50,000 from the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. The Colorado Water Conservation Board approved the grant last week as a way to address contentions from farmers that the amount of tailwater return to the Arkansas River has been overestimated. The outcome could affect the formulas used by the Colorado Division of Water Resources in administering the Arkansas River Compact and rules that govern wells or surface irrigation. It could also make more water available to farmers to lease under the Super Ditch or other rotational lease-fallow programs.

The grant was approved in July by the Arkansas Basin Roundtable.

The state now recognizes a 10 percent return of water from fields, or tailwater, that are flood irrigated. That water must be replaced under state rules adopted during the 24-year Kansas v. Colorado court case.

The Fort Lyon Canal is 100 miles long and irrigates 94,000 acres, so farmers contend water soaks into the ground and never makes it to the river. It is anticipated that the collection and analysis of data will take about two years to complete, at which time further work could be contemplated.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Leaky ponds are good news for farmers in the Lower Arkansas Valley. The second year of a pond study in a normal water year is showing similar results as last year, when drought gripped the region.

“We’re not seeing a significant difference,” said Brian Lauritsen, a consultant on the study being funded through the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Water leakage on more than 20 ponds averaged about 20 percent this year, compared with 18 percent last year. Most are on the Fort Lyon Canal. It had been thought the numbers would be higher when the ground was drier.

“Usually, you don’t want to see ponds leaking,” said Jack Goble, engineer for the Lower Ark district.

But in this case, there is a chance the state will adjust its formula used to determine how much water irrigators owe for return flows that are reduced through more efficient irrigation techniques such as sprinklers. More leakage means less water owed to the river.

The Lower Ark also has built two ponds on the Catlin Canal designed specifically to leak. Called recharge ponds, they are designed to return water to the Arkansas River over time, the way that water flows through the aquifer in farming operations. One pond fills part of the need for Rule 10 surface irrigation plans, while the other is credited to Rule 14 well plans. One pond contributed 135 acre-feet (44 million gallons) in a month, while the other leaked 120 acre-feet (40 million gallons) in 21 days.

“I hope we’re able to get more of these ponds, especially in the lower part of the basin,” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Ark District.

More HB13-1248 coverage here. More Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District coverage here.

The Arkansas Valley Super Ditch files pilot rotational fallowing application with the CWCB

Arkansas River Basin -- Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey
Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The Arkansas Valley Super Ditch is planning a pilot program next year under a 2013 state law encouraging water sharing programs as an alternative to permanent dry-up of farm ground. The plan, filed with the Colorado Water Conservation Board last week, would lease up to 500 acre-feet (163 million gallons) annually from the Catlin Canal to Fowler, Fountain and Security. About 1,128 acres would be dried up on a rotational basis to deliver the water.

“What we’re trying to do is see if a lease-fallowing program is viable,” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. “We’re trying to keep the water in the Arkansas basin. That’s what it’s all about.”

The application is the first to be filed under HB1248, passed last year by the state Legislature, which allows the CWCB to look at 10 test projects throughout the state. The projects are supervised by the state water board, with input from the state engineer. It may finally launch Super Ditch pilot projects that have stalled because of drought and second thoughts by farmers.

The Super Ditch submitted a substitute water supply plan with the state Division of Water Resources in 2012 for a lease-fallowing pilot project with Fountain and Security that failed because there was not enough water to move. The state restrictions that were placed on the project, fueled by objections from other water users, made moving any water in that dry year futile, Winner explained.

Last year, the Super Ditch was prepared to move some High Line Canal water to Fowler, but the deal was stopped when farmers pulled out. Fowler leased 125 acre-feet of water for $25,000 from the Pueblo Board of Water Works instead.

Under the plan outlined in the application, Fowler would lease up to 250 acre-feet, while Fountain and Security would lease up to 125 acre-feet each annually.

State law provides that the plan can be operated for 10 years.

“I think we’ll try it for a year or two, just to see if lease-fallowing is feasible,” Winner said. “We have to see if we can move water to Lake Pueblo. One of the drawbacks of HB1248 is that it only allows for municipal leasing, but if this works, there’s the possibility for industrial or agricultural leases as well.”

More Arkansas Valley Super Ditch coverage here and here.