ATM's might be part of SLV ag future

ALAMOSA — Dozens of local agricultural producers attended the Rio Grande Basin Ag Producers’ Water Future Workshop on Tuesday to learn about a different kind of ATM — Alternative Transfer Methods — such as leasing water rather than “buying and drying” options that leave farmlands barren.

Sponsoring the workshop was the Colorado Ag Water Alliance (CAWA), formed a dozen years ago to preserve agriculture and its water. Member Jim Ehrlich, also the executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, said the grassroots group recognized the problem of agricultural water being transferred to municipal uses and urban development.

He said the 2005 Statewide Water Supply Initiative Study identified future gaps between water resources and demand by the year 2050, when Colorado’s population is anticipated to be double its present census.

Phil Brink, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association put the increased water demand in this way: In 2010 the City of Longmont used 16,258 acre-feet of water, the equivalent of the entire storage capacity of Mountain Home Reservoir east of Fort Garland. Colorado’s population is increasing by the equivalent of the City of Longmont every year, which means the demand for additional water is the equivalent of Mountain Home Reservoir “every single year.”

Ehrlich said even in the 1990’s when he was still farming, cities like Thornton were buying water from farms in Weld and Larimer Counties and drying up the farmland.

“It’s a real problem statewide,” he said.

The ultimate goal of groups like CAWA, Ehrlich added, “is to keep agricultural water in the hands of agricultural producers and keep agriculture viable across the state.” Water is a huge asset to farmers, he added, and there is a way for farmers to creatively use that asset for their financial benefit and still retain the water for agriculture.

Ehrlich and MaryLou Smith, Colorado Water Institute, talked about the governor-approved Colorado Water Plan that encourages all types of water users to work together to meet Colorado’s future demands. It is not just the farmers who will be expected to reduce water use, Smith said. Cities like Greeley are implementing water-saving measures and encouraging xeriscaping to reduce urban consumption.

Brink added that the state’s water plan calls for conservation by municipalities as well as storage expansion and agricultural water leasing with a goal of 50,000 acre feet per year from ag water leasing.

“We feel ag water leasing represents the best opportunity we have for conserving ag land now and in the future,” Brink said.

Brink said if the trend to divert ag water to municipal use continues in order to meet growing urban needs, Colorado could lose 500,000-700,000 acres of ag land.

“We only have 2.6 million acres left that are irrigated,” he said. “That could be as much as one-fourth of our remaining irrigated land that could be lost.”

Although there has been a lot of “buy and dry,” which took the water off the farms, producers are now looking at ATM’s like purchase and lease back where municipalities purchase the water and lease it back to agricultural producers or agricultural producers retain ownership and lease water to municipalities. The City of Aurora is using these types of methods and others in the Arkansas River Basin.

“Purchase lease back is the most common way water is being transferred from agricultural to urban at this point,” Smith said.

Smith said ag producers could use water differently by increasing their irrigation efficiency, which increases yield, reduces labor and other costs, increases their profits, better prepares them for drought and improves water quality.

Another way to use water differently is through consumptive use leases, she said. By doing this, producers make water available for urban use and diversify their own profits, especially when commodity prices are low.

Brink said of 260 survey responses returned on this subject, about two-thirds of respondents said they might be willing to participate in ag water leasing, with 20 percent of them saying they definitely would if the terms were right, 35 percent not at all and the rest “maybe.” Many said if they were to lease their water, $400-600 per acre would be a fair price or put another way, $500 per acre-foot.

Glen Hirakata from Rocky Ford is involved in a pilot water-leasing project there, and he said he is receiving $150 per acre upfront and $500 per acre-foot delivered.

“Right now it’s a pretty good option,” he said.

One of the water-leasing concerns of producers was the security of their water rights if they used the water in this manner. (State Engineer Dick Wolfe addressed this concern in his part of the Tuesday conference, which will be featured in a subsequent Courier edition.)

Rural Costilla County resident Juanita Martinez shared concerns about the cultural effects of transferring water from agricultural.

“Arkansas Valley I feel lost their birthright when they sold their water,” she said. “Those of us in the San Luis Valley still have an opportunity to approach this problem with great care because we have seen the example that happened in the Arkansas Valley.”
She said the water should stay with the land and with the community.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Cleave Simpson said he did not see the Valley using ATM’s the same way as the Arkansas Valley, where the water is going to municipalities. He said here the transfers might be more from ag to ag.
He added, however, that it is a little early to see how ATM’s might fit into the Valley’s paradigm.