Plants need water.
Until you begin to decide which kind of “plant.”
Pinto beans or cannabis? Steel or electricity?
While water is vital for life, it’s also a commodity, and determining the “highest and best use,” as water lore terms it, is a complicated proposition.
The Colorado Foundation for Water Education hosted a tour of about 50 people through history, farms and industry to show how water is used in Pueblo County.
“It’s a real blending of traditional and contemporary, where the Old West meets the New West,” said Kristin Maharg, of the foundation, which was formed by the state Legislature to provide impartial water information.
Most of the participants in the day-long tour were not from Pueblo County, which met the foundation’s goal of educating people from all over the state about the needs of the Arkansas River basin.
From the traditional side, Avondale farmer Tom Rusler explained the inner workings of the Bessemer Ditch and his own 1,600-acre farming operation that grows everything from onions and pinto beans to alfalfa hay and corn for livestock.
“On March 15 each year, water starts flowing in the Bessemer Ditch. It has to come 40 miles and takes about 40 hours to get here,” Rusler told guests as they enjoyed a lavish spread of Mexican food at tables in a farm shed. “We go up to the ditch and have a pizza party as we watch the water come in. From that point on, water dominates every conversation we have. It’s water all day, every day. It’s all we think about.”
Half of the 14 employees at Rusler Produce have the last name Rusler, including his sons Tommy and Nick. He joked that one of his young grandsons was quickly becoming the youngest farm manager in history — the sixth generation to work the land.
Rusler said he is blessed that his own sons have chosen to follow in his footsteps and at the same time excited that new technologies like sprinklers, GPS and drones are improving the efficiency of irrigation.
“It’s hard to make a farmer,” said Rusler, illustrating with his hands the basic equation of using soil, water and seeds to make a crop. “We would like to give young farmers a chance to see if they like it.”
On the modern side of farming, cannabis has become the hot new crop for Pueblo County, whether it’s marijuana or hemp.
“We’re getting an influx of people from out of state who know nothing about how Colorado water works,” said Kevin Niles, manager of the Arkansas Groundwater Users Association.
AGUA, like Pueblo Water, has set aside some of its water for growing hemp or marijuana. The association augments depletion from wells, and meets its members’ needs first. This year, it will set aside 250 acre-feet for cannabis grows, close to its limit of 300 acre-feet.
Growers explained their own particular challenges.
“We’re under a microscope,” said Jeff Ayotte of the Southern Colorado Growers Association. He is using some of his water to grow marijuana near Boone.
He explained that marijuana is far more profitable than other crops, but that the paperwork associated with all aspects, including water, makes things difficult.
His farm uses 250 acre-feet of water, but only 5 acre-feet for marijuana. The water for marijuana is treated and reused eight times because it is so valuable.
Tony Adza, of Notis Global, is working with a company that plans to grow hemp east of Pueblo.
“We’re facing competition all over the world,” Adza said.
Because hemp is treated like marijuana — both are forms of cannabis and still illegal under federal law, but legal in Colorado — hemp growers have overpaid for water, he said. The hemp grown here has only minuscule amounts of THC, and is used to make oil claimed to have therapeutic benefits. The fiber from stalks could be used for things such as textiles or biofuel.
On the industrial side of things, Tim Hawkins, executive director of the Steelworks Center of the West, explained the history of CF&I Steel, now known as EVRAZ, while Water Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte outlined the company’s extensive water rights.
Founded in 1872, CF&I’s story covers the spectrum of American industry. Built from scratch, the company sopped up water, coal and iron ore resources in three states initially to supply rail for the Old West. Many of those resources — including some, but not all, of the water — were sold off as the U.S. steel industry weathered storms of global competition.
The New West use for industrial water comes with Xcel Energy’s Comanche Station southeast of Pueblo. First constructed in the 1970s, and expanded in 2005, the behemoth of a power plant is Pueblo Water’s largest customer using more than 10,000 acre-feet annually.
Lauren Nance, Xcel water resources analyst, explained how the newest addition, Unit 3, is a hybrid type of generation facility that cools and recirculates water to reduce consumption.
Finally, the connection between past and future uses was addressed by Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart, who said the county is still coping with an outdated comprehensive plan when it comes to blending water planning and land use.
That comes into play on both land use decisions in the county and multicounty projects like the Southern Delivery System, he said.
“Rapid growth is going to put more and more strain on limited resources, both land and water,” Hart said, saying the county has to be zealous in keeping water in the Arkansas River basin. “If you look at Crowley County, it was devastated when the water was taken. Water is connected to economic development.”