THE BEST way to protect Southern Colorado’s land and water from being dried up by urban development is the strategic use of conservation easements to preserve both environmental quality and the local economy.
Conservation groups already are investing wisely in preserving the environment, land and water in the San Luis Valley.
In the early years of this century, the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation group, supplied the impetus to permanently protect the Baca Ranch from greedy water speculators by jump-starting the $30 million purchase of the ranch. Congress followed by establishing the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, thus preserving the valley’s great natural asset forever.
Other large ranches in the San Luis Valley are being protected by similar conservation efforts.
On Nov. 3, the Del Norte-based Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, Colorado Open Lands and the Western Rivers Conservancy announced creation of a $2 million San Luis Valley Conservation Fund. The goal is to take care of the land and water, as well as fish and wildlife habitat along the Rio Grande, through the valley.
Conservation will have a positive lasting effect on the San Luis Valley.
Now conservation groups need to cast their eyes east and north to the Lower Arkansas Valley. This agricultural region is living proof that farmers have been the first human contributors to conserving land and water of irreplaceable value to the economy, food production and natural wildlife habitat.
We appreciate the Palmer Land Trust’s promising plan that, in the trust’s own words, “focuses on a 1.75-million acre landscape in the western Lower Arkansas Valley. Delineated by the Arkansas River and its southern tributaries, the planning area extends from Canon City in the west to Rocky Ford in the east, and from the city of Pueblo in the north to Colorado City in the south.”
The Lower Arkansas Valley looks to Palmer Land Trust success and also needs others, such as the Nature Conservancy and Colorado Cattlemen’s Trust, to add their considerable weight to more extensive conservation easements.
Remember, farming and ranching are the most time-tested contributors to conservation of the environment — wildlife habitat, recreation and scenic vistas — that draw people to the beautiful state of Colorado.
The advantages of conservation easements are numerous, extending to farmers and ranchers, especially. They can receive outside income to commit to staying on the land in irrigated agriculture in perpetuity. It’s a great disincentive to settling for a one-time payoff from selling their permanent water rights to be transferred north to urban areas.
Conservation easements are a win-win proposition. Now we need the conservation experts to pitch in and help save the future of the Lower Arkansas Valley.
Additional vital riverfront property is in the works to be permanently conserved along the Rio Grande.
Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT), which has already conserved more than 25,000 acres along the Rio Grande and its tributaries , is currently working with Wayne and Sharon Nash on a conservation easement for the 200-acre Nash Ranch near Del Norte in Rio Grande County.
RiGHT Executive Director Nancy Butler presented an initial proposal to the Rio Grande Roundtable, which will be followed by a formal proposal in January, for funding support for the Nash Ranch conservation easement. RiGHT is seeking $100,000 towards the estimated $560,000 easement total from local and statewide Water Supply Reserve Accounts, funds derived from severance tax funds set aside for water projects throughout the state. Of the $100,000 request, $10,000 would be requested from the Rio Grande Roundtable basin funds and $90,000 from water funds administered statewide through the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB.)
The remainder of the funds for the easement would come from landowner donation, about $200,000, and $100,000 grants each from the Gates Foundation, which has already been secured, and from Great Outdoors Colorado, which has not yet reviewed or approved funding.
“We have been really fortunate to bring a good match to our projects,” Butler said.
CWCB staffer Craig Godbout shared the amounts of funds available in the basin and statewide accounts and estimated how much would be added to those accounts in January. He said the Rio Grande Basin’s fund balance currently is more than $318,000, and this basin roundtable should receive $120,000 additional funding in January, if the severance tax is fully funded. The statewide account currently contains about $1.9 million and will double in January if the severance tax trust fund is fully funded.
Godbout added that the CWCB will consider the next round of requests from around the state in March and he knows of more than $1.8 million worth of requests that will be coming before that statewide water board at that time.
Butler reminded the Rio Grande Roundtable group of the multiple benefits generated through conservation easements on properties like the Nash Ranch and others that have been conserved already, such as the Gilmore, 4UR, Rainbow Trout and Garcia ranches.
These easements protect working farms and ranches, which are permitted and encouraged under the easements to continue with their historic uses. The landowner still owns and manages the property but complies with some stipulations laid out in the conservation easement.
The easements provide wildlife habitat, preserve scenic landscapes and protect water, one of the primary focuses pertinent to the Rio Grande Roundtable’s mission. The easements also protect the land from development.
Butler explained that all of the easements completed through RiGHT have been voluntary and incentive based. The Nashes approached RiGHT with a desire to protect their land and water, Butler added.
Sure, Fountain Creek is going to flood from time to time.
But one landowner says that’s inevitable, and a district formed to improve the creek should be looking at using conservation easements to build a trail system from Pueblo to Colorado Springs.
“You could create an easement to connect the two cities,” said Jerry Martin, a Pueblo West Metropolitan District board member who owns property on Fountain Creek about 5 miles north of Pueblo. “It doesn’t solve flooding, but it helps mitigate the damage.”
Martin spoke at Friday’s meeting of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District board.
Martin’s idea is for the district to secure easements, either through donations such as he is willing to do or by purchasing them. Martin, who chose to live in Pueblo West after working in Colorado Springs, said state funding is more likely if Pueblo and Colorado Springs can pull together for a common goal.
“My whole point is that we have a sow’s ear, but you can make a silk purse,” Martin said.
The district was receptive, and in fact already on the case.
Already, the district has secured Great Outdoors Colorado funding for trails in both El Paso and Pueblo counties, as well as recreational activities such as the wheel park on Pueblo’s East Side, slated to open in November.
Executive Director Larry Small noted that recreation has always been a purpose of the district, and is included in the strategic plan and corridor master plan.
Board member Richard Skorman added that the district is working to include the Fountain Creek trail as part of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s recently announced $100 million critical connections program for hike and bike trails.
“The designation would help,” Skorman said.
The idea of connecting Pueblo to the Front Range Trail via Fountain Creek goes back to then-Sen. Ken Salazar’s “Crown Jewel” vision in 2006. Skorman was a staffer for Salazar at the time.
“What can I do?” Martin asked. “I know it’s not a new idea, but one that I hope gets to the top of the list.”
“We’ve always felt we’ve been a stepchild,” Skorman said. “Colorado Springs and Pueblo need to push together. If we could get that (critical connection) designation, it could go a long way. We’re on a roll here if we can get this to work.”
Click here to read the latest newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Full Moon Tour under September’s Harvest Moon Moon
Come enjoy an evening with CDLT under September’s Full Harvest Moon. September’s moon is also the largest supermoon of the year and even graces us with a total lunar eclipse.
Date: Sunday, September 27, 2015
Place: Cobb & Ebert Placer
Price: $10 Suggested Donation
Naturalists: Rachel Winkler, and Kim Dufty
Register: Call (970) 453-3875, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Directions to Cobb & Ebert Placer:
From County Road 450 or Wellington Road proceed east to French Gulch Road. Continue east for about 4 miles to the parking area with USFS Trailhead signs.
This is an easy to moderate hike. Families are welcome, although it is not necessarily recommended for children under 10. Sorry, no dogs on this outing please.
What to Bring and Additional Info:
-Please bring water, snacks, hiking shoes, layers of clothes, walking poles (if you want)
-Dress warmly. Temperatures will drop as the night progresses.
-If we cancel due to weather, we will try to let everyone know by noon that day.
For more information contact Rachel at email@example.com, or (970) 453-3875
Irrigation season on the Carpenter Ranch normally begins in early May and continues until September. The ranch is located along the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado, about 20 miles west of the ski town of Steamboat Springs. Water from the river is used to grow fields of waist-high timothy, clover, and other types of grasses that, after being cut, provide hay for cattle.
This year, the seasonal cycle was disrupted. Irrigation on four of the fields, totaling 197 acres, was suspended on July 1. Instead, the water has been allowed to flow down the Yampa River 100 miles to Dinosaur National Park. There, it joins the water of the Green River coming down from Wyoming, which in turn joins the Colorado River in Utah. The comingled waters then flow into Lake Powell.
Powell is one of two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River, the other being Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. Together, the two reservoirs can hold 16 times the annual flow of the Colorado River—on average. But the river and its many tributaries have been flowing below average most years since 1999. Even after torrential rains and heavy snows in the Colorado Rockies in May, the inflow into Lake Powell this year is just 88 percent of average. It’s part of a long-term trend of declining reservoir levels in a river basin that provides water for 25 to 34 million people. (Estimates vary).
These reservoir declines have instilled a sense of urgency in Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water. His agency provides water to 1.3 people in metropolitan Denver, with half the water arriving in the city from the Fraser, Blue, and other tributaries of the Colorado River.
“One of the things we have learned in this drought is that it just seems to keep going and going and going,” says Lochhead. “We are really in uncharted territory right now in terms of where the (reservoir) levels are. The levels are the lowest since these dams have been constructed.”
Lake Mead, formed in 1936 as a result of Hoover Dam, is now at 37 percent of capacity. Lake Powell began forming in 1963 as a result of construction of Glen Canyon Dam and is at 54 percent of capacity.
Lochhead and other architects of the Colorado River System Conservation Program want to be ready in case an even more severe drought revisits the Colorado River Basin. Fresh in mind is 2002, when the Colorado River carried only 25 percent of its normal flows, and 2003 wasn’t much better. Should drought of that severity return, Lake Powell could even shrink to something called a dead pool. That’s when there’s too little water to generate electricity. The electricity is distribu ted broadly across the West to towns, cities, and farms. Revenues from sales are used to fund programs designed to protect endangered fish on the Colorado River.
Lake Powell also has another vital function for Colorado and other headwaters states: It is used to me et commitments of water deliveries to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California as specified by the Colorado River Water Compact of 1922. Denver’s water rights from the Western Slope of Colorado are mostly junior to the compact. If drought persisted, it’s conceivable that Denver and other water users with more junior rights—including many in the mountain resort community—would have to curtail their diversions in order to comply with the 1922 compact.
To forestall this apple cart from being upset, Denver and several major water providers that tap the Colorado River Basin last year joined with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to begin exploring how water can temporarily be shifted from traditional uses and allowed to flow downstream. The Carpenter Ranch along the Yampa River is the first pilot project announced in this Colorado River System Conservation Program.
The ranch is owned by The Nature Conservancy, one of several partners from the environmental community working with Denver and other water providers. The non-profit in turn sublets the land to ranchers, says Geoff Blakeslee, the Yampa River project coordinator for the organization. Taking water off the hay meadows reduces harvest and it will also reduce the number of cattle that can graze the meadows in autumn. About 90 percent of agriculture on Colorado’s Western Slope is, like the Carpenter Ranch, used to produce hay.
Joe Brummer, an associate professor of forage science at Colorado State University, has studied effects of water curtailment in small plots at the Carpenter Ranch as well as other farms. Hay production continues if irrigation ceases, but only in small quantities. The second year, after irrigation has resumed, production lags 50 percent, he says. Even in the third year, again after full resumption of irrigation, production at the Carpenter Ranch test site was 8 to 9 percent below average.
This year, the experiment is different: a split season.
Nine other pilot sites have also been identified, five of them in Wyoming and four in Colorado. They are being funded at a total cost of $1 million. A larger program on the Colorado River involving lower-basins states has a cost of $11 million. Other water agencies providing money, in addition to Denver, include those serving metropolitan Las Vegas and Los Angeles, along with the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy, says the overarching goal of the pilot program is to learn as much as possible about how water can be shared in time of crisis.
“It’s complicated to move water around,” she says. “These are property rights. Many farmers are unsure how it will impact their water rights if they participate in a project like this. So the point of these pilots is to learn as much as we can right now, so that if a crisis does hit, we will have good information so that we can design a program that allows us to share water in a drought.”
How close is crisis? Too close for comfort, she says. “If this were your savings account and it was continuing to drop, you would be concerned,” she says.
Hawes also sees another, even more dramatic analogy. “I think we were on the edge of the cliff, and depending upon whether it’s a good year or bad year, we take a step forward and backward. The California (drought) situation has highlighted impacts that we will have if we don’t have a plan in place.”
Some say that the Colorado River actually is in worse shape over the long haul than California. New evidence finds that warming temperatures in the Southwest may be causing evaporation and [transpiration] that alone can explain declining reservoir levels.
“The fact that the Colorado River Basin drought is more a product of the heat than any drop in precipitation is a frightening prospect, because that heat is not going to go away,” says Doug Kenney, research associate at the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado. In fact, because of increased locked into the atmosphere because of accelerating greenhouse gas emissions, all climate models forecast brisk increases of heat in future decades in the basin.
Denver’s Lochhead says the 2002 drought forced the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to consider how to share impacts of drought. Upper Basin states can move water from smaller reservoirs near the headwaters, such as Flaming Gorge in Utah and Navajo in New Mexico, down into Powell. Water can also be allowed to flow downstream through projects such as are being tested at the Carpenter Ranch.
Water providers in the Colorado River program want to work out kinks so that, if crisis occurs, curtailments can be scaled. But many questions remain, such as how to protect water users through the process, to ensure their water rights remain valid. “It’s really the first step,” says Lochhead, and there will be many follow-up questions.
Lochhead is sensitive about how the program is perceived. It is not, he stressed, a grab by cities for agricultural water. The transfers are intended to be temporary and provide compensation to water-right holders. He also points out that it need not be just farms and ranches. One of the pilot programs involves a city on Colorado’s Front Range, he says, but declined to identify the city, because negotiations have not been completed.
“We’re trying to take the perception of winners and losers off the table,” he says. “In this program, everybody wins because the system wins.”
What’s also of note is the extent to which environmental groups have waded into this program. Hawes says The Nature Conservancy wants to work with farmers because, when the river system gets taxed, agriculture and the environment are usually the first to lose. “We need to work to find partnerships,” she says.
Trout Unlimited has also been a major partner. It has property in the Pinedale-Green River area of Wyoming participating, and the organization has also enlisted a small farm along the Gunnison River near Delta, Colo. Cary Denison, project coordinator for Trout Unlimited in the Gunnison Basin, says the farmer will fallow the land for one year then, in the second year, plant a lower consumption crop. Corn, the current crop, takes two feet per acre. Winter wheat only requires a foot.
“Our role is very limited. I am looking at this is a way of participating in an interesting pilot project that looks at consumptive use of different crops.”
While some farmers already knew about the pilot program, he says, others needed to understand the motivation.
Some ratepayers in Denver also wanted to know why Denver Water would be paying farmers to let water flow downstream toward California. That question gets to the heart of the great complexity of water and the Colorado River Basin, points out Doug Kenney, research associate at the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado.
Denver itself is outside the basin, of course. Cheyenne, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City, plus Phoenix and Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Diego are similarly outside the basin—but also depend upon Colorado River water.
For such a relatively small river, it pulls a heavy load.
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Water Trust Staff Attorney Zach Smith said Upper Yampa began releasing 12 cubic feet per second from Stagecoach Reservoir on Monday, with the goal of boosting flows in the river up to the decreed instream flow amount of 72.5 cfs. The U.S. Geological Survey reflected that flows had quickly reached that level on Monday before declining slightly on Tuesday.
Smith reported Tuesday that the Lake Catamount Metropolitan District had agreed to pass flows below the Catamount Dam downstream from Stagecoach.
This summer’s water release comes later in the summer than it did in 2012 and 2013, when below average winter snowpack and early spring runoff left the river flowing below historic averages in early July. The hay harvest has been early in 2015 — months earlier, in some cases — than it was in 2014.
This summer’s purchase of 1,185 acre-feet of water is in contrast to 2012, when 4,000 acres was purchased from Stagecoach, translating into about 26 cfs for much of the summer.
The winter of 2014-15 was another low snow year, but above average rainfall has kept the upper Yampa Valley lush and the river at healthy flows through the end of July.
As recently as Aug. 4, the Yampa was flowing above median for the date at 180 cfs, but fell to 110 cfs on Aug. 9. It bumped slightly upward in downtown Steamboat on Tuesday.
The city of Steamboat Springs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Tri-State Transmission and Generation and Catamount Development and the Catamount Metropolitan District also played a role in the latest conservation water release.
The Colorado Water Trust is a private, nonprofit organization that facilitates voluntary, market-based water rights transactions to restore and protect streamflows in Colorado to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems. It also works on physical solutions and provides technical assistance on other projects.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Jerry Sonnenberg (R-District 1) today announced the holding of a special August 5 public hearing, focused on the state’s conservation easement program. It’s scheduled for between 9:00 a.m. and noon in SCR 356 at the state Capitol.
“This conservation easement process continues to be confusing and somewhat challenging,” said Sonnenberg. “We need to figure out why after a number of years some of these easements are still in limbo.”
More conservation easements coverage here and here.