#COWaterPlan: Conservation easements are being used to protect water

Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth
Arkansas River Basin via The Encyclopedia of Earth

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Conservation easements have figured prominently in the Arkansas River Basin as a way to offer landowners incentives to retain water rights rather than selling them off the land.

They also underpin Colorado’s Water Plan, mainly through statements in several of the basin implementation plans which fed into the final product.

Conservation, as a term in the water plan, is often described as reducing water demand, either for urban or agricultural use, in order to protect stream flows.

But the continued use of water on farms is an important element of the water plan in maintaining the environmental and recreational landscape that makes the state so attractive. Preserving agricultural water requires incentives to prevent it from being sold for uses that, on the surface, appear more lucrative. That’s how conservation easements fit in.

The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, formed in 2002 to protect water in the Arkansas River basin, considers conservation easements one of its most valuable tools in preventing water from permanently leaving the land.

But it’s taken a while for groups that promote conservation easements to come to the roundtables.

The Pueblo Chieftain asked Ben Lenth, executive director of the San Isabel Land Trust, and Matt Heimerich, conservation director for the Palmer Land Trust’s Lower Arkansas Valley programs, to reflect on how their organizations will connect with Colorado’s Water Plan.

How do we fill the gap in the Arkansas River Basin within the Colorado Water Plan and Basin Implementation Plan?


1. Financially incentivize temporary and intermittent water sharing and leasing agreements for landowners with water rights.
2. Incentivize efficiency improvements for irrigation without penalizing the water rights holder.
3. Prioritize water projects that have multiuse functions to benefit as many water users as possible.
4. Continue to incentivize and/or regulate water conservation measures by municipalities and industry.

It is important to consider that the Colorado Water Plan recognizes the importance of balancing the water needs of municipalities, agricultural and non-consumptive uses, such as recreation, and watershed health.

As a regional organization, Palmer Land Trust is committed to preserving open spaces, outdoor recreation, and working farms and ranches. Our goals as a land trust are well-aligned with the working tenets of the Colorado Water Plan.

Past solutions to solving water supply problems at the expense of working farms and ranches and the environment are no longer acceptable. As the state’s largest basin, it is imperative that the identified water supply gap in the Arkansas not create winners and losers over the equitable distribution of this precious resource.

What projects do you plan to fill the gap?


1. Planning and implementing land and water conservation projects to have maximum flexibility for leasing/ sharing water over time.
2. Water reallocation projects which benefit agriculture, municipalities, recreation and wildlife habitat.


After an in-depth study, Palmer Land Trust made the decision to open an office in Rocky Ford with the purpose of exploring economic-based alternatives to large-scale water transfers from irrigated agricultural to municipalities. Palmer’s conservation easements use language that, in addition to tying the water rights to the land in perpetuity, allow for short-term leasing opportunities when an extended drought threatens the viability of municipal water providers.

Palmer Land Trust is also an active participant in a coalition of farmers, water providers, locally elected officials and research institutions examining strategies on how to ensure the long-term sustainability of farming under the Bessemer Ditch as farmers face increasing competition for land and water in eastern Pueblo County.

How do we keep the gaps for agriculture and municipalities from becoming bigger?


Integrate landuse planning and water planning. Do not allow subdivisions to be permitted without proven sources of water.


Palmer believes that one of the ways to avert conflicts between municipalities and agriculture is to engage the urban/suburban citizen in a dialogue regarding the importance of irrigated farming to the region’s economy and cultural identity. The demand for locally-grown foods is increasing at a rapid pace.

Drying up farms along the Arkansas River is counterproductive on many levels. Our visibility in the greater Pikes Peak Region affords Palmer a unique opportunity to help close this gap between agriculture and municipalities.

Walker Ranch conservation easement: Black-footed ferrets are dancing amongst the cholla

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Billie Stanton Anleu):

Walker Ranch now is home to a 1,315-acre conservation easement in partnership with the Department of Defense, furthering its protection of Fort Carson and wildlife habitat, The Nature Conservancy announced Friday.

The addition brings the Walkers’ total conservation easements to about 22,292 acres, conserving land next to Fort Carson through money from the Army Compatible Use Buffer program.

The Walker Ranch conservation is one of the largest, most successful such projects, creating a buffer against development along more than 20 miles of the Fort Carson boundary, The Conservancy said in a news release.

Gary Walker’s family has worked with the Conservancy and the U.S. Army since 2005, ensuring continued military use of a key installation and economic driver for the Colorado Springs area.

The easement protects not only the post, but also habitat for the ferruginous hawk, scaled quail, burrowing owl, Cassin’s sparrow, mule deer and pronghorn antelope…

The ranch also became the first restoration site in eastern Colorado for the endangered black-footed ferret in 2013.

“I hope to have all our lands under a conservation easement in my lifetime,” Walker said in a Conservancy news release. “This ranch is meant to be protected, and there is nothing more destructive to this fragile ecosystem than subdivision. Build up, not out.”

Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes). Photo © Kimberly Fraser/USFWS
Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes). Photo © Kimberly Fraser/USFWS

No “Buy and Dry” and sprawl for Berthoud area farm

Berthoud Auto Storage back in the day
Berthoud Auto Storage back in the day

From the Berthoud Surveyor (John Gardner):

The property will continue to be farmed by a lease agreement with proceeds going back to the county’s Open Lands Department. This deal satisfies the sister’s dream of keeping the property a working farm.

“We just couldn’t stand to see it developed,” [Peggy] Malchow Sass said. “Knowing that it’s going to stay a farm is really satisfying to us.”

The water for the property fills the Handy Ditch that gets water from the Big Thompson River, Malchow Sass said, adding that it’s positive to keep the water with the land, not only for the farm, but for all the other nearby ranches and farms that utilize the Handy Ditch water.

“By leaving the water in the ditch enables many farmers along the way to get their water more easily; the more water there is in the ditch the more easily it is for farmers to get their water,” she said. “That’s a benefit directly to the Berthoud area.”

Per the agreement, the water will continue to be used on the property seven out of 10 years but will also be available to local municipalities during times of drought. Acquiring the water rights is an innovative aspect of the purchase, according to Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly.

“I think this is a great opportunity to really talk about what we want to do with water and how we want to see water addressed,” Donnelly said. “The last thing we want to see is a lot of irrigated farm land bought then dried up. We want to make sure that we keep some of those resources with the land so that they can be used in perpetuity.”

Craig Godbout, program manager for the Colorado Water Conservancy Board’s Alternative Transfer Methods grant program, agreed with Donnelly, saying the CWCB’s mission is to help preserve irrigated Ag land. And this is one of the first agreements that will have the water available for use by municipalities during time of drought.

“[Agriculture] is our second biggest industry contributing to our economy here in the state, and this project fits in really well with the state water plan because it helps close that municipal-industrial gap without permanent Ag dry-up,” Godbout said.

This is only the second alternative transfer of water agreement that’s been completed, according to Godbout, and it also creates a new mechanism that can be used as a model for future projects. It’s also an innovative way for the county to explore partnerships with municipal partners and some local farmers, Donnelly said.

“I think we’re doing some groundbreaking work here,” Donnelly said.

The property consists of high quality agricultural soils, with approximately 188 irrigated, 18 pastures and five farmstead acres, according to a natural resources department report. Two homes remain on the property; one built in the 1860s and the other built in 1947. There’s also the scenic red barn, once used to milk cows, located at the farm’s entrance, and a beat shack that was built in the late 1800s.

This land adds to the county’s open space catalog. The county’s interest in this particular parcel grew from its updated 2015 Open Space Master Plan that included citizens’ request for preserving irrigated farm and agriculture land according to Kerri Rollins, Open Lands Program manager.

“When we looked at our inventory across the board, we’ve done a whole lot of ranchland, we’ve done a really good job with ranchland; we’ve bought a few irrigated farms and conservations easements that we own, but they are certainly much smaller,” Rollins said. “So this opportunity happened to come along at the right time and at the time of updating our master plan. We’re excited to be moving forward with it.”

Donnelly credited the county’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Department for its work on making this deal happen and said that this deal has a wealth of opportunities. One of those opportunities could include an educational site for the Thompson School District’s resurrected Future Farmers of America program, where students who could use the land for a hands-on approach to agriculture, or using the farm as an incubator for organic farmers.

The Malchow family has worked with the Berthoud Historical Society to preserve some of the property’s historic features, including the beet shack and a pioneer grave.

One of the oldest ditches in Larimer County, the Eaglin Ditch, is located on the property. And the property also is located within the medium-to-high regional trail priority area for the Berthoud to Carter Lake Regional Trail Corridor…

The county’s Open Lands Department is actively pursuing grant funding to reimburse a portion of the county’s investment to the conserve this property and has already received a $178,425 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop the Alternative Transfer Mechanism and water-sharing agreement.

The county will pay $8.4 million for the land and its water shares with the intent of keeping it an active farm and making the water available to municipal providers in drought years. The land is valued at $1.6 million while the water rights are valued at nearly $6.9 million.

Rollins attended Tuesday’s Berthoud Board of Trustees meeting and requested a $100,000 contribution from the town’s Open Space Tax Dollar fund to help pay for the land acquisition. Trustees advised town staff to see what could be done to participate in this partnership.

The county is also seeking contributions through Great Outdoors Colorado and a private foundation, according to a report from the Department of Natural Resources. The land purchase will be finalized in April.

2016 #coleg: HB16-1174 (Conservation Easement Tax Credit Landowner Relief) update

Saguache Creek
Saguache Creek

From The Colorado Independent (Marianne Goodland):

Jiliane Hixson, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting over conservation easement tax credits with the Department of Revenue, left the Statehouse in tears last week. Lawmakers had watered down a bill she hoped would help her recoup some of her money.

Thirteen years ago, Hixson converted parts of her Lamar farm into a conservation easement, what should have been a win-win deal.

Colorado’s conservation easement program works like this: Landowners create a contract with a land trust. The land trust holds the deed to the property and blocks housing projects, oil and gas wells, solar or wind power farms or any other kind of development. The landowner gets a hefty tax credit and still owns the land: Farmers continue to grow crops, ranchers keep grazing cattle, and homeowners keep living there.

At least, that’s how the programs are supposed to work.

But four years after entering into an agreement, the Department of Revenue rejected Hixson’s tax credits. She still does not have control of her land and has agreed to a settlement with the Department of Revenue. She will be paying back those tax credits for the next 20 years.

Hundreds of other Coloradans, like Hixson, have been fighting the Department of Revenue over those tax credits.

A bill in the House was originally going to set a January 1, 2016 deadline for the Department of Revenue to resolve the conservation-easement tax credit disputes that still plague roughly 55 families. For those families whose property is now controlled by land trusts, if the Department of Revenue rejected those tax credits, the easement would be canceled and the deed to the land would return to the homeowner.

The Department has a four-year statute of limitations to accept or deny tax credits issued on the conservation easements.

But the department has ignored the four-year limit, fighting with hundreds of landowners over the tax credits, some from more than 13 years ago.

It has cost 800 Colorado families, many of whom are farmers and ranchers, tax credits totalling in the millions of dollars. Some have declared bankruptcy after fighting the department, which has alleged some appraisals were overvalued by incompetent appraisers or property owners who committed fraud.

The Department of Revenue’s spurious allegations of mass fraud have not been substantiated in the courts. Only one case has been prosecuted in the program’s 16-year history.

The measure, House Bill 16-1174, sponsored by Republican Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan, thinly skated out of the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee a month ago. It won the support of one Democrat on the committee, Rep. Max Tyler of Lakewood, who said the discussion on the issue must continue.

Last week, the House Finance Committee, which deals with bills about tax issues, took up the bill, which by then had garnered opposition from the governor. That put Becker to work with Democrats to save the bill.

Becker reached an eleventh hour deal Tuesday with Democrats to completely rewrite the bill. The new version substantially reduced the cost from its initial $11 million price tag. But more importantly, it took out the language that would have given Hixson and hundreds like her control of their land.

The rewritten bill only applies to those 55 cases still in dispute, and only cancels out any further interest or penalties on the tax credits while the cases are being settled.

Becker put the Department of Revenue and the Attorney General’s office that has backed the Department on notice during the hearing, warning if they don’t speedily resolve the remaining cases, he’ll be back next year and “It won’t be nice…Moving forward shows the departments we are serious.”

The decision to gut the bill was clearly emotional for Becker. “Fighting the state shouldn’t come to the point where families are destroyed,” he told the committee.

Lawmakers aren’t supposed to become too emotionally vested in their bills, but that has been the case for Becker with HB 1174. He pledged to keep the issue in the public eye and said he will continue to try to find solutions to help people like Hixson, who won’t be aided by the revised bill.

The bill now goes to the full House for debate, and if successful, to the Senate. Another bill to address the conservation easement issue, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, was killed by the Senate Finance Committee two weeks ago. Sonnenberg requested the action, stating he knew the bill would not have been passed by the committee.

Conservation Excellence 2016 — #Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts

Join us at
Conservation Excellence 2016!

March 14 – 16, 2016

Driscoll Student Center & Sturm College of Law
University of Denver
2055 E Evans Ave, Denver, Colorado 80210

CCLT’s Annual Conservation Excellence Conference is the place for the land conservation community across the Rocky Mountain region to share knowledge and network. With more than 250 attendees annually, CCLT’s conference helps define and influence the future of land conservation in the Intermountain West.

Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts is seeking session proposals for inclusion in the 25th anniversary event, Conservation Excellence 2016.

CCLT has a working agenda for the three-day conference.


Saguache Creek
Saguache Creek