Presentation with panel discussion

Engineer Mike Weber of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District introduced the documentary film, “The Arkansas River: Leadville to Lamar,” to an interested audience mainly of agricultural stakeholders on Monday evening at the Ed Stafford Theatre on the Otero Junior College Campus. He also introduced the panel of experts who spoke individually and answered questions from the audience. They were La Junta Utilities Commissioners Lorenz Sutherland, Colorado State University Experimental Station Manager Professor Mark Bartolo, Otero County Commissioner Kevin Karney, Colorado Division of Water Resources Commissioner Lonnie Spadey, and Manager Jay Winner of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

The film, which focuses on the many uses of the river - recreational (fishing and rafting), agricultural and municipal. Eighty percent of the precipitation in Colorado falls on the western slope and 80 percent of the population is on the eastern slope, so we do import water from the Frying Pan river system through the Boustead Tunnel. The water is controlled in a series of reservoirs, mainly Turquoise and Twin Lakes on the upper river and Pueblo Reservoir on the lower river. Storage is the key to survival for recreation, agriculture and city dwellers.

A view of the agricultural community featured Matt Heimer and his nephew Dave Tomky, Reeves and Betsy Brown, and others. They have a concern about attracting young farmers and ranchers. Heimer is happy to have a nephew following in his footsteps and sees making the life financially as well as aesthetically and life style-wise attractive to the younger generation is key. Reeves and Betsy Brown have been ranchers for 35 years. “Calving is the most fun,” said Betsy, who makes it her job to know which calf came from which cow right down to the auction.

Melissa Esquivel, attorney for the LAVWCD sees storage as key to the survival of farmers. The plans for fallowing land for a certain number of years in order to sell the water for that period, yet retain the water right and keep it on the land, is fundamental. Farmers make $1000 an acre for the water right, keep their land, and have some financial stability. At LAVWCD, the rotational fallowing program is called the Super Ditch and a pilot program is running on the Catlin Canal at this time.

White water rafting on a stretch of the Arkansas River has become big business by partnering with fishing interests. A large amount of water is released from storage during the summer at the height of the rafting season and less water is released during the spring and fall, for the lower water preferred by the sport fishermen. The rafters and fishermen were formerly at odds with each other, but found a solution in working together, with the help of water resources storage.

Members of the panel implied cooperation is the answer in the conflict of interests between agriculture and cities. “Cities are planning 20 or 30 years into the future: we need to do that, too,” said Winner.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the booming population of metropolitan Colorado. The cities continue to expand, multiplying the cause for flooding with the parking lots, buildings and concrete expanses which do not allow the water to soak into the ground. The case of buy and dry when Aurora bought the water rights in Crowley County was presented, also. It was too easy to sell the water rights and have a retirement fund, and there wasn’t an alternative. The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District is trying to supply a viable alternative, seeking to keep the water with the land. “When we don’t have any more water, we won’t be talking about water any more,” said Karney. The number of people is increasing, the amount of water is the same.

The Arkansas Valley Conduit is a plan to supply safe drinking water to southeast Colorado via a pipeline from the Pueblo Reservoir. Most of the small water companies from Pueblo to the Kansas Border are in trouble for water quality. Heavy metals like selenium and uranium occur naturally in the soil, making it impossible to meet the Environmental Protection Association’s guidelines for safe drinking water. A recent plan set forth by the South East Water Conservancy District for using part of Pueblo’s water system to transport the water through the city instead of around it is gaining momentum. This would save 10 years and $30 million, it is estimated. The plan has now been working for 17 years, but most small towns and water companies will be saved if it is actually accomplished. “Failure is not an option,” said James Broderick in the film presentation.

At the end of the presentation, each of the panelists spoke individually, before taking questions. Chair of the La Junta Utilities Board of Commissioners Lorenz Sutherland spoke of the reverse osmosis plants in La Junta and Las Animas, and of the new Waste Water Plant which will soon be on line in La Junta. He said the quality of water and the endurance of the plants will be much improved when the Conduit is in operation. Kevin Karney, now in his 20th year as an Otero County Commissioner, was not optimistic about the water supply, unless we all work together. He has heard the farmers talking about the Frying Pan/Arkansas project all his life. He has seen Rocky Ford sell its water and dry up; he has seen Crowley County dry up. The stakes are high.

Manager Mark Bartolo of the CSU Experimental Station has high hopes for farming through smarter use of water with technology. He is impressed with how readily the farmers take to new methods and metering techniques. “They are the most inventive people in the world,” said Bartolo. Spadey looks to the cooperation on recreational water between the rafters and the fishermen as an inspiration for cooperation between the municipalities and agriculture. Jay Winner of LAVWCD said the water quality is the most important issue right now. What kind of water comes off the fields? It’s not if Kansas will bring up the question, it’s when.” And, on water supply, “I believe people will understand that they must cooperate, manage better, and sell water three out of 10 years.”

Bartolo added, “I am an optimist, but still look at the future: we must develop alternative methods of using our water. Water use has changed dramatically. We are in a new era; we must develop a new relationship with our urban partners. Sutherland sees optimism in the inventiveness of farmers - agritourism is a new thing that is catching on. Ever been through a corn maze? The Hanagans have one, and also a hay stack climb and corn sandbox. Kevin Karney hopes to see us “turn dirt” on the conduit by 2020.

Weber, in his wrap-up, said, “Cooperation and education are the most important part of this issue right now. A lot depends on how well we can educate the public on the conduit and water transfers.”

Weber thanked Jean Van Pelt for her help on this project and gave credit for the development of the film to Professor Michael Ebersole  and his people at Colorado State university - Pueblo.