Lease-fallowing plan so successful, no one notices
After all of the fireworks that accompanied creation of the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, the actual operation has attracted little notice.
“We put enough water into the ponds so that no one on the river knows this is happening,” Jack Goble, engineer for the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, told the board Wednesday.
Goble gave an update on the Super Ditch pilot program that is providing water to Fountain, Security and Fowler from farm ground dried up on the Catlin Canal near Rocky Ford. The water is accounted for on a dayto- day basis, with deliveries to the cities each month. The response of all participants has been enthusiastic.
“With crop values down, they want to fallow more farms,” Goble said.
But under [HB13-1248], passed by the state Legislature in 2013, that can’t happen. The law limits 30 percent of the farmland enrolled in the program to be fallowed in any given year, and each farm can be dried up only three years in 10.
This year, only 26 percent of the 900 acres on six farms in the program were fallowed and so far have yielded more water than at the same time last year. Through the end of July, the program yielded 239 acre-feet (78 million gallons). That’s on track to beat last year’s yield of 409 acre-feet.
But that depends on what happens the rest of this irrigation season, Goble said.
Water not used on fields is channeled into recharge ponds, which mimic the runoff and seepage that would have occurred if the farms had been irrigated. The ponds also cover their own evaporative losses. Recharge stations measure the flows on the ditch each day.
Those numbers are plugged into formulas that compute the consumptive use — the amount of water crops traditionally grown in the fields would have consumed.
On a monthly basis, the consumptive use equivalent is transferred, on paper, from Lower Ark accounts to Security and Fountain accounts in Lake Pueblo, where it is transported through the Fountain Valley Conduit.
For Fowler, the water is moved to Colorado Water Protective and Development Association accounts to augment the town’s wells.
“We need to let the water community know, ‘Hey, this works,’ ’’ said Peter Nichols, attorney for the Lower Ark district and Super Ditch.
Participants have had to overcome skepticism, opposition and even lawsuits since 2012 to achieve results that have been favorable to everyone involved, he said.
Leah Martinsson and Megan Gutwein, of Nichols’ Boulder Law office, are writing articles about the success of the program for national water and legal journals. Nichols also suggested presenting a report on the progress of Super Ditch to Colorado Water Congress and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“We’ve done a pretty incredible job,” added Lynden Gill, president of the Lower Ark board. “The first year, it seemed like there were nothing but roadblocks. It’s absolutely incredible, the progress we’ve made.”
Here’s part one of a recap of the meeting in Brush yesterday from Stephanie Alderton writing for The Fort Morgan Times:
The Colorado Ag Water Alliance, along with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado Water Institute, hosted a three-hour workshop for producers to help explain the new Water Plan’s application to agriculture. Speakers with various roles in water and agriculture talked about the new state plan’s emphasis on alternative transfer methods (ATMs) to conserve water, how the plan will be implemented in the South Platte Basin in particular and how farmers can increase water efficiency. People came from all over the state to hear and discuss details in the plan.
“A good Colorado plan needs a good South Platte plan,” Joe Frank, of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, said. “Nine out of the top 10 ag producing counties are in this basin.”
During his talk, the first of the day, he explained that the area has an increasing water supply gap as the population grows, which the Water Plan seeks to address. Frank’s group is in charge of implementing the plan in South Platte by coming up with a balanced, pragmatic program for farmers that is consistent with Colorado law. He said that program will focus on maximizing the use of existing water, encouraging farmers and other organizations to use ATMs in order to share water more effectively and promoting multi-purpose water storage projects, among other things.
Mike Applegate, of the Northern Water Board, talked about the status of current storage projects all over the state, while MaryLou Smith of Colorado State University gave a list of reasons why producers should want to use their water differently in an effort to conserve more. Phil Brink, of the CCA, reported the results of a survey on farmers’ opinions of ag water leasing, while Dick Wolfe, an engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, explained the problems with the “use it or lose it” mentality farmers tend to have toward their water rights. John Schweizer, a producer from the Arkansas Basin, talked about the success of the Super Ditch near his hometown, an ATM project that recently started seeing results. After a final panel made up of people involved in various ATM projects, including Morgan County dairy farmer Chris Kraft, the audience spent more than an hour trading questions and comments with the speakers.
The purpose of the workshop, according to a CAWA press release put out beforehand, was to bring people together to discuss the “opportunities and barriers” the Water Plan presents. The speakers in the second half of the day presented many opportunities in the form of ATMs and other projects. For example, Schweizer said the Super Ditch, though it’s taken many years to be completed, has the potential to help many farmers conserve water without new legislation or complicated water rights battles.
“We’ve had a lot of people say this wouldn’t work,” he said. “We’re starting to prove them wrong…I see nothing but a glorious future for this project.”
But it was clear that many people at the workshop saw many remaining obstacles to water efficiency. During the question and answer session at the end, several people pointed out that, while ATMs can make it easier for farmers and other organizations to share water, they can’t solve the problem of water shortages by themselves.
“We are concerned that the state Water Plan talks so much about these ATMs, and a lot of policy makers around the state are counting on them,” Smith said while moderating the discussion. “Part of what we want to do is get the message of what you guys are saying back to some of those policy makers.”
A water banking bill being considered in the state Legislature would help farmers keep their water rights while increasing the range of uses.
“Farmers always get the short end of the stick. The state likes to pick on farmers,” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.
Farms face a policy of “use it or lose it” that means if water can’t be used on a specific parcel of land, it flows downstream. Water banking could mean about 5-10 percent more water could be put to use each year, according to some estimates.
“Once a farmer deposits the water in this water bank, he can use it in any way within the Arkansas Valley,” Winner explained.
The bill, HB16-1392, is sponsored by Reps. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins, and Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, and Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa. The Lower Ark district is backing the bill as a way of improving on the 2013 legislation, HB1248, that established a pilot program now being used by the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch.
Winner spoke about the bill Thursday with The Pueblo Chieftain editorial board.
Winner expects the water bank to succeed where others have failed because it will be useful to farmers. It allows for short-term leases, either to cities or other farms, that are now possible, but expensive and complicated to execute. No change in water right is required, since the leases would be made under administrative rules under the supervision of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“This is a way to bring some land back into production,” Winner said. “The water rights decree never changes, but it provides more options to the farmers.”
The legislation also could advance concepts such as deficit crop irrigation, supplementing sprinklers or well and or partial irrigation of a parcel.
Farmers would be limited to putting water into the “bank” every three years in 10 or using no more than 30 percent of the total consumptive use water supply over that time. Water would not be able to leave its basin of origin. [ed. emphasis mine]
“It makes the water more valuable to farmers,” Winner said
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.