The Super Ditch
Acquiring irrigation water is the easiest, most efficient and lowest cost way for growing Front Range municipalities to obtain additional water supplies. This is because Colorado’s major rivers are over-appropriated, agricultural conversions pose no new environmental impacts (and thus no environmental permitting issues), and municipal values exceed agricultural values.
This is evident from the loss of 24 percent of the irrigated land in the Lower Arkansas Valley since the 1950s. The water from this land now irrigates lawns in Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Pueblo West. The former agricultural land, in contrast, is largely abandoned, an unproductive, weed infested, fire hazard.
Communities from Sugar City to Rocky Ford to Manzanola harbor empty storefronts along main streets, further illustrating the devastation caused by the loss of $33.5 million in annual economic activity.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board and Interbasin Compact Commission estimate that an additional 28 percent of the Lower Valley’s irrigated land will be dried up by 2050, if municipal growth follows historical trends, leaving less than half of the historically irrigated acreage in production. The Lower Valley can ill afford to lose any more of its economic base.
LOWER ARKANSAS VALLEY WATER CONSERVANCY DISTRICT
In 2002, residents of the Lower Valley voted two to one to create the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District (“Lower District”) to protect the Valley’s water resources, and with them, their social and economic future.
While the Lower District has aggressively fought additional agricultural to municipal transfers, it has just as steadfastly worked to develop an alternative that will meet inexorable municipal demands while protecting and enhancing the value of remaining irrigation water.
LEASING. Water leasing, pioneered during California’s 1990s drought, emerged as the most promising answer for several reasons.
First, leasing would not require current irrigators to sell their water to realize its current value, preserving the long-term ownership of the water in the Valley.
Second, most irrigated land would remain in production every year.
Third, water leasing would create a “new crop,” one with a predictable cash flow that irrigators could use for on-farm improvements, debt reduction, equipment upgrades and the like.
Fourth, cities could obtain the water supplies they need - an irrigated field is functionally equivalent to a reservoir that can be tapped (dried up) when needed for municipal uses.
MOVING FORWARD. The Lower District sponsored a conference in 2005 featuring speakers from California and Idaho who talked about their leasing programs. The Lower District subsequently hosted local irrigators on a 2007 trip to the Imperial Valley of California and the Palo Verde Irrigation District, which inked a 35-year lease arrangement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in 2006.
After “kicking the dirt” farmer-to-farmer, Lower Valley irrigators embraced leasing and began developing an organization. Concurrently, the Lower District sponsored proof of concept and detailed engineering studies to confirm the feasibility of a leasing program.
SUPER DITCH. Shareholders of the Rocky Ford High Line Canal, Oxford Farmers Ditch, Otero Canal, Catlin Canal, Holbrook Canal, and the Fort Lyon Canal (later joined by the Bessemer Ditch) met in Rocky Ford on May 7, 2008. They incorporated the Lower Arkansas Valley Super Ditch Company, a Colorado for-profit corporation managed by a Board of Directors elected by Valley irrigators. The Super Ditch negotiates on behalf of irrigators to make water available to other water users through long-term leases, interruptible water supply agreements, and water banking.
MUNICIPAL DEMAND. In June 2010, the Super Ditch announced an agreement with members of the Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority. The 40-year lease (with a right to renew) carries a base price of $500 per acre-foot delivered.
Deliveries will begin in 2012 and rise to 8,000 acre-feet per year in 20 years. The Super Ditch reached a similar agreement with Aurora later in the year, for approximately 140,000 acre-feet over 35 years, also at $500 per acre-foot.
The Super Ditch expects it can lease up to 24,000 acre-feet in a dry year, 50,000 acre-feet in an average year, and 80,000 acre-feet in a wet or extremely dry year (like 2002 when there was not enough water to farm). The Super Ditch will deliver water into Pueblo Reservoir; lessees will be responsible for transporting the water for their use.
LEASES. Although the Super Ditch will negotiate uniform terms and conditions with each new user, leases will be signed by individual farmers to avoid double taxation. It will be up to individual farmers to decide whether, and to what extent, they want to participate and an irrigator will be able to transfer his lease to another irrigator. If there is more interest in leasing than demand, the amounts will be prorated. Irrigators may fallow land in rotation or on some other basis, and will be responsible for weed and erosion control on their fallowed land.
Leases will constitute a legal encumbrance upon the ditch company shares leased by the irrigators, and constitute a continuing obligation of the owner, assignor, or successor to provide certainty of supply to lessees.
ANTI-TRUST. An analysis of the anti-trust questions by Tom McMahon - Colorado’s leading anti-trust attorney - put that issue to rest when he concluded the notion would likely withstand legal challenge.
1041 PERMITS. Super Ditch leases will transfer more than 1,000 acre-feet of water from agricultural to municipal use, triggering 1041 permitting requirements in Bent, Otero, Prowers, and Pueblo counties.
WATER COURT. Leases will require adjudication of exchanges to Pueblo Reservoir, Case No. 10CW4 (Div.2). Leases will also require changes in the type and place of use of the leased irrigation water for municipal purposes in different locations.
The Super Ditch is pursuing legislation to allow the State Engineer to approve such changes to reduce the time and expense of water court. Separate applications for specific leases with each municipality will meet the anti-speculation requirements of Colorado water law.
MUNICIPAL PURCHASES. To avoid undermining the Super Ditch, a condition of leasing water is expected to be a voluntary agreement not to transfer irrigation water rights out of the Lower Valley while someone is leasing water. While lessees would not be expected to forgo purchasing additional water rights, they would be expected to make those water rights available for lease just like any other water right owner.
For more information on Water 2012 around the state or to learn more about the Arkansas River Basin, please visit www.water2012.org.