Water Transfer Prompts Early Conversations

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Cattle graze on the CB Ranch at Coaldale, which has been purchased by the Security Water and Sanitation District for the water rights. Courtesy Pueblo Chieftain
Credit Chris Woodka / Pueblo Chieftain
Cattle graze on the CB Ranch at Coaldale, which has been purchased by the Security Water and Sanitation District for the water rights. Courtesy Pueblo Chieftain

The projected growth of Colorado’s Front Range has water planners looking ahead to meet the demands of the population influx.  One way to meet the growing need is for utility companies to buy water rights from farmers and ranchers and then divert that water to cover the city’s needs, commonly called “Buy & Dry.”

Chris Woodka covers water issues for the Pueblo Chieftain, and recently wrote about one such transaction that has rural neighbors worried and a water utility that’s striving toward cooperation. 

KRCC:  Briefly speaking, how prevalent is this practice of buying agricultural water rights to meet municipal needs?

WOODKA:  It’s a fairly common practice, and Crowley County is perhaps one of the more notable examples of this.  Many of their water rights were sold in the 1970s and 80s, and the county’s agricultural production dried up significantly.  Its towns have never really fully bounced back.  And, it’s a growing practice as the Front Range is projected to grow considerably over the next few decades.

KRCC:  In this particular situation that you just recently wrote about, Security Water and Sanitation District bought the CB Ranch in Coaldale, halfway between Cotopaxi and Howard along the Arkansas River.  The utility had to buy the ranch in order to obtain the water rights.

WOODKA: Right.  And that’s been the model for most water transfers in the last 30 years.  Security wanted to strengthen its water resources, and bought the 200-acre ranch in 2013.  The concern from the rural residents though, is that this will stress the ecology, landscape and hurt others in the area who have to make a living off the land.  Typically, these kinds of cases are contentious, especially when a water provider is looking for water so far from its own boundaries.

KRCC: What’s so interesting about this particular case?

WOODKA: I’d say it’s because all the stakeholders are coming together at a time early in the case when the utility has no immediate plans to actually take the water away. 

At a recent meeting of landowners in Fremont County, the manager of the Security utility, Roy Heald, was present.  And they talked about how past land transfers had gone bad at several ranches within a 50-mile radius of Coaldale and the fears from locals that this would be the fate of the CB Ranch. Some ideas were floated there that included conservation easements and interruptible water supplies, which have been tried in much larger land deals.  In a small land deal like this, it gave me an opportunity to look at how those ideas could play out.

For his part, Roy Heald, the head of the utility, made no promises, but he said he would work to try to meet the concerns of residents, and he’ll meet the water court requirements.  That wasn’t much of a guarantee—I talked with one of the people who was at that meeting, she was encouraged by it, but still seemed to be on guard.

He also invited one of the residents to a future Security board meeting, and they talked about the goals of the San Isabel Land Protection Trust, which is helping to facilitate discussions.

The stakeholders are laying the groundwork to help mitigate the effects for when the water is eventually needed in Security, and that’s something of a rarity.

KRCC:  Looking forward, what’s next?

WOODKA: More conversations, in this case. Heald says they want to recoup the investment of the land, so for now, farming and grazing cattle will continue because they need to make some money off the land.

This is sort of the middle of the process for all the stakeholders, and it’s too early to tell what will eventually happen.  But residents appreciated Heald’s candor and he showed a real concern for their questions. It’s clear that Security Water and Sanitation wants to work with those residents to the extent that it can.

KRCC:  It’s the middle of the process, which means we’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next, but are there any takeaways?

WOODKA:  Yes.  From what I’ve seen, many water deals resemble a well-organized imperial army launching salvos at hastily organized militias to defend farming communities that may not even realize they are under attack, and in some cases may even be sympathetic to these invaders. The solutions always seem to address only a part of the problem.

So it was refreshing to sit in a casual setting and calmly discuss potential outcomes, where no one felt really under the gun yet.

As the state continues its century-long transition from a tree-lined, farm-studded landscape to a more urban environment, I don’t think it should forget its roots and the rural values that drew so many people here in the first place.

This isn’t the biggest water deal I’ve covered, but it was a way to tell a story about the grand ideas in the state water plan in strictly human terms. I think any of us can relate to the equal horrors of having your landscape shattered before your eyes as you drink your morning cup of coffee or turning on your kitchen tap only to hear air rushing out.

Chris Woodka covers water issues for the Pueblo Chieftain. You can read his article 'Dreams of fields: Security purchase of Coaldale ranch stirs conversation' here.