Buying and drying: water lessons from Crowley County — The Colorado Independent #COWaterPlan

crowleycountydryupjennifergoodland

From The Colorado Independent (Marianne Goodland):

In Otero County, the corn is knee-high, the famous Rocky Ford cantaloupes are almost ready to pick and the onions, tomatoes, sugar beets and wheat are thriving in the fields.

But on the north side of the Arkansas River, over in nearby Crowley County, the landscape looks very different. The only bumper crops are “noxious and obnoxious weeds,” according to a county commissioner. This is what happens when a county sells its water rights.

As did many communities this year, the southeastern Colorado county had what locals are calling a “Miracle May.” Rainfall in that single month was just a couple inches shy of what the county gets, in total, most years. For the first time in recent years, Lake Meredith will have enough water for fish to survive and maybe even generate a little tourism from anglers.

Still, it wasn’t enough to resuscitate the once-thriving agricultural industry nor to save the county’s last remaining feedlot, which is scheduled to go up for bankruptcy auction later this month.

Water experts say Crowley is a parable for how bad things can get when cities and industry dry up farmland to buy rural water — a controversial practice known as “buy and dry” deals.

But the county’s dry landscape could change if, as proposed by a group of water users representing the Arkansas River basin, the state’s water plan includes a blueprint for bringing water back to the county.

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How Crowley County dried up

Water, and the agriculture industry that followed, didn’t come naturally to Crowley County.
The county was formed in 1911 out of a portion of northern Otero County – named in honor of state Sen. John H. Crowley, who represented the area at that time. The county is bordered on the south by the Arkansas River.

But the river wasn’t enough to irrigate local farms. The first irrigation systems came in through the Colorado Canal in the 1890s. In the 1920s, the state built a tunnel through the mountains to deliver water from the Roaring Fork River on the Western Slope and into a new reservoir at Twin Lakes, near Leadville. Crowley County farmers paid for the reservoir.

The county had its agricultural heyday before the dustbowl of the 1930s, but even after that farmers prospered.

Attached to Sweetness, a history of the county’s tiny town Sugar City, published in the 1980s, states “water created a Garden of Eden.”

The county easily rivaled its neighbors on crop production. It was known for tomatoes, onions, corn and wheat. It had two major feedlots for native Colorado cattle, and a sugar factory for processing sugar beets. And it was famous for cantaloupe. The juicy melons, known as Sugar City nuggets, were a “pink beauty,” according to Attached to Sweetness.

In the 1970s, more than 50,000 acres were irrigated in Crowley County.

But Crowley’s shares in the Twin Lakes reservoir earned it attention from thirsty Front Range cities.
In the late 1960s, with crops and cattle prices in decline, farmers and ranchers in Crowley County started thinking about selling their water rights. Some wanted to get out of agriculture. Others were ready to retire, and farmland was their 401(k).

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In 1972, the Foxley Cattle Company bought water rights from farmers and ranchers all over the county. For a couple of years, that land stayed in agriculture and continued to be irrigated.

Then came the Crowley County Land and Development Company, which bought more water rights — both from Foxley and directly from farmers and ranchers willing to sell at the right price. CLADCO sold those water rights to Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Pueblo West and Aurora to quench those communities’ sprawl.

According to the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, municipal and industrial users now own 90 percent of the water stored in Twin Lakes.

The terms of the water sales included a requirement that municipalities revegetate the fallowed farms and ranches to restore the county’s natural prairie grasslands. But several current and former residents say the contractors did a poor job of re-seeding the prairie grass, and it quickly died.

A county that once had more than 50,000 irrigated acres now has only about 5,000. In the drought of 2012, the number dropped to 2,500.

Even the few remaining farmers with water rights are not guaranteed water in a year when there is not enough to go around.

Asked if Crowley is still an agricultural county, County Commissioner Frank Grant paused, and then said, “Yes. We still have cattle.”

But according to one lifelong resident, it’s mostly dairy stock, not valuable cattle that can be sold for beef.

crowleycountycattle

The prisons of Crowley County

With dwindling agriculture, the county had to find another industry for its economic base. It turned to prisons.

There are two in Crowley County: the state-run Arkansas Valley Correctional Center, just outside the town of Crowley; and a private prison operated by Corrections Corporations of America near Olney Springs.
The county’s most recent property tax revenues totalled about $1.6 million – more than half of which came from the private prison.

The most recent census in 2012 counted more than 5,823 “residents” in Crowley County, but 46 percent of them are prison inmates.

Crowley County Commissioner Tobe Allumbaugh said that outside of the prison numbers, the county’s population has declined at about the same rate as its neighboring counties – about 1 percent per year.
The prisons have brought jobs, but not necessarily to Crowley County. Most of the prisons’ workers live in nearby counties or in Pueblo or Colorado Springs.

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Commissioners Grant and Allumbaugh attribute the lack of interest in living in the county to a housing shortage. Most of the homes are small, old and asbestos-laden. It’s too expensive to tear the houses down because they would need asbestos mitigation. No one is showing any interest in building homes in the county, either, they said.

While the CCA taxes contribute to the county coffers, prisons haven’t helped businesses survive in Ordway and other communities.

Ordway, the county seat, has a population of just over 1,000. There are a few businesses on the town’s Main Street – mostly county and town government offices – an insurance company, grocery store, pharmacy, the reservoir and canal company offices, a couple of medical facilities and Chubbuck Motor, the local Ford dealer. The nearest farm tractor dealer, John Deere, is in Otero County.

Mostly, buildings along Main Street are for sale or appear to be abandoned.

Darla Wyeno, clerk for the town of Crowley, was one of those who sold water rights to the big cities. She and her husband have 120 acres on which they used to grow onions, tomatoes and melons. Today, they graze cattle on their land. She says life might have been different if the cities that bought their water had done a better job of re-seeding their land with prairie grass.

The loss of water hasn’t been all bad, she said. Their son went to college on the earnings they made from the water deal. He’s now a successful banker in Colorado Springs. Her husband has an off-farm job, and both their careers mean two steady paychecks every month instead of one uncertain one at the end of the year when they cashed in their crops.

Still, Wyeno adds, “When we sold our water, we sold our future.”

Local residents now fight the rampant dust every day, never realizing that would be the impact of losing their water. Bees won’t come to Crowley; it’s too far a flight. The hay fields today have to be pollinated with bees rented from outside the county.

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State water plan may hold promise for the county

The state water plan, ordered by Gov. John Hickenlooper two years ago, incorporates suggestions made by roundtable groups in each of Colorado’s nine river basins. The roundtables include representatives from agriculture, municipal water providers, industrial users, environmental and recreational interests and those who own water rights.

Under Colorado’s complex web of water laws, once water has been removed from the land through the purchase of a water right, it cannot be returned. It’s gone for good.

But that isn’t stopping the Arkansas Basin roundtable from trying to find ways to get water flowing back into Crowley County.

The roundtable suggests that the county should acquire water rights to maintain permanent water levels in its two major lakes: Lake Meredith and Lake Henry. Inconsistent levels have resulted in loss of fish, blowing dust and bad odors in both lakes, according to the basin’s recommendations.

Allumbaugh says replenishing the lakes could help the county become a tourist destination, although getting the water to a stable level is just one part of the solution.

Two more recommendations seek water rights for municipal, industrial and agricultural needs.

The roundtable’s recommendations don’t specify where that water will come from.
Engineer Rick Kidd represents Crowley County on the Arkansas basin roundtable. He says the group firmly supports any efforts to get and keep water rights in the Arkansas River valley.

Grant says what has gone down in Crowley County – which he has called home for the last 36 years – is pretty typical of rural communities all across the state.

“It just happened here sooner,” he says. “The water sales got us.”

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

#COWaterPlan: Colorado farmers grow more food on less water amid rising competition — The Denver Post

Subsurface irrigation via NETAFIM
Subsurface irrigation via NETAFIM

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Producers brace as water crunch turns eyes to agriculture’s 85 percent share

Agriculture across Colorado and the West continues to use 85 percent of total water supplies. But growing numbers of farmers are shifting toward greater efficiency, replacing ditch-and-flood irrigation with center-pivot sprinklers and tubes that emit tiny drops…

State water planners anticipate farmers will be able to transfer more of their huge share of water to meet intensifying demands of Front Range industry and housing developers.

“Basically, we’re going to ask the agricultural community to do what the municipal community has already done: Let technology work for you,” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Greater efficiency irrigating crops means farmers could grow more and make more water available to companies and cities, Eklund said.

“You can do right by your business and attract new people,” he said, “and at the same time you can be freeing up water that otherwise would have been lost.”[…]

In the South Platte River Basin, state data show loss of water reduced 1.1 million acres of agricultural land during the past three decades to 813,000 acres. That decrease of nearly 300,000 acres adds to large losses in southeastern Colorado after sales by farmers to cities in the 1970s shifted 14.6 billion to 19.5 billion gallons of water…

In southeastern Weld County, traditionally one of the nation’s biggest agricultural producers due to heavy irrigation, farmers said one-third of water rights have been sold since 2009.

Some went to companies involved in the oil and gas boom. Others went to expanding cities.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has declared “buy and dry” must end. Hickenlooper’s senior water adviser, John Stulp, said in a recent interview that, given food and environmental benefits of agriculture, the notion that agriculture’s 85 percent share of water should shrink is unrealistic.

Yet Colorado will encourage Alternative Transfer Mechanisms for shifting water to cities — with farmers leasing water temporarily while retaining ownership — aiming to move 16.2 billion gallons a year. Stulp said any ATM deals will be voluntary.

“There is no mandate to agriculture,” he said. “No one is asking growers to give up ownership of that water.”

“Should we be planting cities in desert areas? Who should go — the farmers or the city dwellers?” said Paul Kehmeier, who grows alfalfa, oats and other crops 50 miles southeast of Grand Junction in western Colorado.

To do that, he diverts water from a river into ditches, managing a homestead his great-grandfather started 120 years ago on land where Ute Indians once thrived.

“Certainly, our farm needs to be irrigated. Otherwise, it would be sagebrush and desert,” Kehmeier said…

Arnusch said he’s wary of even leasing any water back to cities.

Every year for more than a decade, Arnusch has had to leave about 250 of his 2,500 acres fallow for lack of water to irrigate. Farmers here since his grandfather began irrigating in 1952 have accepted limits of nature and, in dry years, planted less, Arnusch said.

The problem with cities is they build based only on market economics, disregarding water, he said.

“Buy-and-dry is happening, and it will continue to happen. But as our nonagriculture water needs increase, what is that going to mean?” Arnusch said. “The urban areas should be like farmers, only using exactly as much as they need. If I don’t have a sufficient water source, how am I supposed to produce?”

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

#COWaterPlan — is it strong enough? — KUNC

Colorado Water Plan screen shot August 1, 2015
Colorado Water Plan screen shot August 1, 2015

From KUNC (Stephanie Paige Ogburn):

Colorado’s statewide water plan has been criticized for failing to make tough decisions about the state’s biggest water issues: how new growth uses water, a new transmountain diversion from the Western Slope, and how to balance urban needs for water with a desire to preserve agriculture, which uses the majority of the state’s water.

In response, those involved with the plan say that’s not the point. The plan, by gathering input from across the state, is bringing together people with very different perspectives on water. By getting them to discuss the biggest issues around water in the state, it lays the foundation for better water management.

“It’s kind of like building a house,” said James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and head of the water plan process.

“You have to have the right tools and this plan sets out our tools, and where we are lacking, and how we can make them stronger. And really it’s a blueprint for how we want to build Colorado moving forward.”

On the other side, some of those watching the plan call it less a blueprint and more of a list. Susan Greene, a longtime water reporter and editor of The Colorado Independent, published an in-depth article on the plan where she interviewed Brookings Institution water expert Pat Mulroy. According to Greene, Mulroy was not impressed with Colorado’s plan.

“Essentially she was just saying this is more of a values statement, or almost an encyclopedia or compendium of the water issues Colorado faces than a plan,” Greene said.

Others quoted in the article had similar criticisms.

The Water Board’s Eklund dismissed this critique, essentially saying Mulroy is stuck in the past, where, as the saying goes, “whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.” That’s not Colorado’s way, or the way of the future, he insisted.

“Up here, collaboration and cooperation are our motto, and that’s our drive,” said Eklund…

Others involved in the water planning process say that growth and reducing water use with that new growth is the real issue. Jim Pokrandt, with the Colorado River District, said he is glad the state water plan at least talks about land use, growth, and landscaping as an important component of water use.

“How can we grow more smartly is the million dollar question that we need to start dealing with tomorrow,” said Pokrandt.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Colorado State University Western Water Symposium recap #COWaterPlan

Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs
Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

The battle between cities and agriculture for water was the theme for a Monday gathering of water experts from around the West who came to Colorado State University for the institution’s first Western Water Symposium. The all day discussions were timely, as Colorado is in the last few months of approving its first statewide water plan, which is due on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk by early December.

The plan, broken up by basins, seeks to prepare for a future with more Colorado residents and less water. The plan’s default solution is that the water will come from Colorado’s agriculture, said Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs, who directed the symposium.

“The Colorado Water Plan, it’s really a plan about agriculture, how do we get water for the cities and not destroy agriculture,” he said. “And we’ve got a short water supply, and the farmers can be on the short stick of this if we don’t look out for their water rights.”

While the experts spent much of Monday discussing the future of water in the Rockies, they also reminisced about how the West got here, with its water needs exceeding its resources.

It began in the mid-19th century, when three acts passed under President Abraham Lincoln, the Homestead, Land Grant College and the Pacific Railway Acts, opened the West for settlement.

But what settlers found was not the water-rich land and easily accessed gold mines depicted in popular maps of the day, said Susan Schulten, a professor of history at University of Denver. Instead, they found a sort of “American desert,” an arid plains landscape that needed water to sustain the kind of livelihoods people were accustomed to on the East Coast.

What followed was more than a century of work, building dams and reservoirs, and legal wrangling that transformed Colorado into a place that had enough water for gold miners, farmers and growing cities along the Front Range.

In the 21st century, agriculture in Colorado spans both sides of the Continental Divide, and most of it relies on water coming from the mountains. About 70 percent of the Colorado River allocations to Colorado go to agriculture, which is about average, said Reagan Waskom, the director of CSU’s Colorado Water Institute.

But water headed to Colorado’s farms isn’t the only share being eyed in the negotiations to bolster Colorado’s dwindling water supply. In 2012, the Bureau of Reclamation completed a study of the Colorado River, which has its head waters in Rocky Mountain National Park and is the lifeline for much of the arid states to the west of Colorado. To help preserve the river, the study suggested that agriculture and urban users cut back on their flows by one million acre feet…

But it was hard to figure out how to take from agriculture, which has been plagued by drought, and expanding urban areas, said Waskom, who sat on the agriculture committee.

“This big report I don’t think really got us to the future,” Waskom added.

The report suggested that much of the reduction in agriculture’s water reserves be done through fallowing, or letting farmers’ fields go dry. But that solution comes at too high a cost for Colorado’s farmers, Waskom said.

“The way you are going to get ag water is by reducing consumptive use,” he said. “How can you reduce it in such a way and that you can get water and not hurt a farming operation? There really aren’t too many ways that you can reduce consumptive use other than fallowing. If you are paid enough for that water when you fallow, maybe you come out ahead and go golfing.”

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Yampa River waters a hot commodity — Steamboat Today #COWaterPlan #ColoradoRiver #COriver

From Steamboat Today (Lauren Blair):

Both legislators and members from the Colorado Water Conservation Board appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper visited Craig on Wednesday to present information on the plan and listen to public input.

Northwest Coloradans have a major stake in the plan, which could allow for the eventual diversion of water from the Yampa River to the Eastern Slope to quench the thirsty lawns of a rapidly growing urban and suburban population.

Several local leaders from the water, agriculture and conservation arenas voiced their opposition to a trans-mountain diversion of Yampa waters.

“The state water plan has probably caused as much angst and apprehension as anything that’s happened in my lifetime,” said Ken Brenner, member of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District board of directors and also part of a third-generation ranch family in Routt County. “I am opposed to any new trans-mountain diversion. I don’t believe the water supply exists, and we are certainly having enough trouble meeting our compact obligations.”[…]

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District board, which includes Brenner and eight other members, issued a letter Wednesday to the CWCB asking for “an equitable apportionment of the native flow within the Yampa,” relative to native flows used by other basins in the state that empty into the Colorado River.

The concern is that, because Colorado is only allowed to use a certain portion of its river flows, and because Northwest Coloradans have junior water rights relative to regions that developed earlier, the state may limit local use of water in the Yampa/White/Green Basin in order to meet its obligations downstream.

State water planners are seeking public comments on the plan through Sept. 17. The legislative Water Resource Review Committee is also currently juggling how to weigh in on the plan. Committee-sponsored bills are due in October, two months prior to the deadline for the final water plan’s completion.

“As legislators, myself included, we feel very strongly that the water plan will only be successful if we have widespread public input,” said Committee Chair, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, District 6.

Roberts, who is one of a four-person Western Slope majority on the committee, hopes the visit to Craig and other locations will help better inform legislative water policy in the future.

“Getting them over here, driving our roads, seeing our forests and seeing that agriculture really is strong and viable. … They’re not necessarily aware of that if they live in the urban corridor,” Roberts said. “I think part of the value of the water plan … is to make urban dwellers more conscious of the tradeoffs that have occurred and that we live in a high altitude, arid environment.”

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

CWCB/DNR: July 2015 #Drought Update


From the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Tracy Kosloff):

Following the wettest May since record keeping began in1895, June and July have continued to provide beneficial moisture to the state. For the first time since August 2009, 97% of the state is drought free. As of July 20, the state has received 200% of average in precipitation based on SNOTEL sites. The year-to-date precipitation totals for the state have risen from 80% on May 1 to 97% of average as of July 1.

  • Water year-to-date precipitation at mountain SNOTEL sites statewide, as of July 21, is at 97% of normal. Southwestern Colorado and the Rio Grande Basin, which did not receive as much moisture over the winter, have had a wet spring and early summer. All eight basins have experienced above average precipitation so far in July with the Gunnison basin experiencing 270% of average.
  • June was the 14th warmest June on record (1985-2014) but so far in July, the state has experienced near normal temperatures with a few pockets on the west slope and the Front Range that are two to five degrees below average.
  • All of the CoAgMet sites measuring evapotranspiration (ET) continue to report below average ET and the Olathe and Lucernce stations are reporting record low ET. These stations have been collecting & reporting ET data since the early 1990s.
  • Reservoir Storage statewide is at 112% of average as of July 1st, up five percent from last month. Seven out of eight basins have over 100% of average. The Rio Grande has the lowest value at 89% of average, however, storage has improved since last month when they were at 66% of average. Storage in the Arkansas Basin is the highest since 2000. Between May 1 and July 1, John Martin reservoir, in the Lower Arkansas River basin gained over 250,000 acre feet of additional storage.
  • The NRCS Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) shows improvements in all but two SWSI values in the Upper Arkansas and South Platte. Several SWSI values in the Southwest basins increased nearly five index points. Only three SWSI values remain below normal, two in the North Platte basin and the other in the Rio Grande.
  • Agriculture officials in attendance reported 131,000 prevented planted acreage due to such wet conditions. The crops that have been planted are expected to do well as soil moisture has greatly improved.
  • The Division of Water Resources announced the completion of the SWSI Automation Project. They will discontinue the 1980’s era SWSI and will begin reporting the automated SWSI, which is similar to the NRCS SWSI, which has been produced since 2011. Additional information is available at: http://water.state.co.us/DWRDocs/Reports/Pages/SWSIReport.aspx
  •  According to water providers in attendance, their respective systems are in good shape as reservoirs are full and customer water demand is low.