An agreement between a member of the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association and the City of Colorado Springs will allow water originally allocated for agricultural use in the Lower Ark to be used for municipal purposes.
The pact, which was approved by the board of the Fort Lyon Canal Company, was announced Thursday.
"Colorado Springs Utilities purchased 2,500 LAWMA shares for $8.75 million and also will reimburse LAWMA $1.75 million for 500 acre-feet of water storage," said a LAWMA press release announcing the arrangement. "This storage will give LAWMA added flexibility to manage its water rights both in times of drought and excess.”
“We are appreciative of the Fort Lyon Canal Company board’s approval of this use of the water," said Don Higbee, LAWMA general manager, in the release. “The agreement with Colorado Springs will benefit many farmers in the Lower Arkansas River Valley. We will gain a more reliable water supply that will increase crop yields for the average shareholder in both wet and dry years.”
The release went on to say, "Colorado Springs Utilities acquired about 2,000-acre-feet of water from a LAMWA member, Arkansas River Farms in July. The agreement allows LAMWA members and Colorado Springs Utilities to take water deliveries alternately 5 out of 10 years."
Dale Mauch, FLCC board president, told The La Junta Tribune-Democrat that Colorado Springs will get to choose the years it wants the water delivered.
“They’ll wait for the wet years, because they’ll get more water," said Mauch. "They have water in storage in Pueblo.”
Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District - whose stated mission is "To acquire, retain and conserve water resources within the Lower Arkansas River" - expressed his displeasure with the agreement.
“They will take 71 percent of the water," he told the La Junta Tribune-Democrat. "That water will never come back to the land. It’s a buy-and-dry.”
To try to help farmers financially, the LAVWCD has been running pilot projects for the Super Ditch, a lease-fallowing arrangement in which the farmer stays in control of his water. He may fallow a fourth of his land for three out of five years, getting paid for the water per acre. He must rotate the part of his property that is fallowed, thus keeping the water with the land.
“If you want to know if water is important to maintaining the communities of Southeastern Colorado, just look at Crowley County and its effect on Rocky Ford," continued Winner. "Water affects everything. … When leasing your water, you take into consideration Main Street. With the water gone, we lose Main Street.”
Mauch, who is also the FLCC representative to the Super Ditch, said in a telephone interview, “Fort Lyon had nothing to do with LAWMA selling some storage. No damage to Fort Lyon. Not a lot of damage as long as nobody below or in Fort Lyon gets hurt. We don’t have a problem with it. What would hurt is being shorted water.
"It’s set up so everybody gets the same as always. LAWMA’s water stays in, but instead of irrigating land with the water, they dump it back. That percentage gets held up for Colorado Springs - the consumptive use of that amount - that’s what a crop would use. That percent has to stay in the river to keep people from being injured.
"The water must stay in the canal. Their water on those shares will run back to the river. Colorado Springs pays LAWMA so much for water, five out of ten years.”
Five out of ten years is too much, argues Winner, who added that Bent County could be the real loser in the deal. No revenue is headed its way, and county residents could suffer from the loss of commerce.
Winner is also concerned that Colorado Springs won't stop here.
"If you look at Colorado Springs, their water right portfolio isn't very good," he said. "Eighty percent of it is West Slope water. What we have heard is that they will be 23,000 acre-feet short by the year 2030. That's about 22,000 shares of the Fort Lyon Canal. I think with the project (LAWMA is) doing right now, they're just dipping their toe in the water, and they plan to take all that water from the Fort Lyon canal."
While Winner admits it is legal for LAWMA to pursue this project, he said the LAVWCD has the right to try and stop it.
"In this administration, people don't want to see the buy-and-dry of agriculture any longer," said Winner. "This district was put here to keep water in the Arkansas Valley, and that's what we plan on doing."
The Water Court must approve the agreement to change the shares of water from agricultural to municipal use, and that's where Winner is hoping some changes will be made.
“In water court, the judge doesn’t just hand down a decision,” he said. “He turns it back on the people who came to court and lets them work out a compromise.
“Three out of ten years we could talk about, but five out of ten - that’s a dry-up."