With Colorado’s population expected to almost double to 10 million by 2050, water managers are grappling with how to quench the thirst of this exploding urban population.
Many people have their eye on farms as a possible solution to the looming water shortage and the state is encouraging cities and farmers to work together.
Above Image: Currently corn, alfalfa and sugar beets are grown by the farmer who leases the Little Thompson farm from Larimer County. The water shares being leased by Broomfield allow the municipality to use them during three dry years out of every 10. The rest of the time, the water stays on the farm.
The highway that borders the Little Thompson farm near Berthoud in Northern Colorado provides the soundtrack to the massive urban growth that is turning more and more farms in this region into housing subdivisions.
Alex Castino, a Land agent with Larimer County’s Engineering and Natural Resources division says that urban growth is gobbling up farmland in this part of Colorado.
“1400 new houses were just approved in Berthoud…so yeah, it’s a lot.”
This working farm grows corn and alfalfa as well as sugar beets. It was recently purchased by Larimer County, which has been conserving agricultural land but most of their purchases were dryland farms or ranches.
“When we looked into why that might be we realized the price of the water might be the reason.”
Water rights are often worth more than land itself and often those with pockets deep enough are the Front Range cities with the growing populations.
“Well, There is no more water in our rivers to acquire, so we have to acquire it from the other water holders.”
With agriculture in Colorado using upwards of 80% of the state’s water, farmers are often faced with an offer they can’t refuse…depressed crop prices in recent years has led many to sell their water rights to municipalities, leading to a phenomenon known as buy and dry. The permanent removal of water rights from farm land.
When this family farm of just over 200 acres was up for sale, it seemed likely this land would succumb to that same fate. The $ 8.4 million price tag was too steep for the farmer who had leased the land for 30 years. In fact it was too steep for any farmer to make an offer. So that’s when Larimer County stepped in with a view to keeping this farm in production, but those expensive water rights were beyond their budget. So the county looked into other options and came up with a plan to lease rather than sell outright the water. It’s a transaction called an ATM. While it’s not the money dispensing machine you might think of, it can be a money generator for farmers. This type of ATM is an Alternative Transfer Method, an alternative to the outright sale of water from farms. They found a willing partner a few miles to the south. Erin Messner, the Water Resources Administrator for the City and County of Broomfield says this was an opportunity for the city to add to its water portfolio.
“In this format in the ATM, we don’t own the water rights but we know that in that perpetual contract we will always have the ability to call on them.”
The deal offset almost half off the purchase price of the farm for Larimer County. And Broomfield saved money as leasing water was cheaper than buying it outright. Under this ATM, Broomfield can get water from the farm during three dry years out of every 10… in perpetuity and it’s that component that made it the first of its kind in the state.
“At first it was one of the things that almost deterred us. City councils and city management get really nervous when the term perpetuity is in any agreement.”
Larimer County was also figuring out how this deal would impact the farm. Alex Castino says a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board allowed them to hire a team of experts to study the impact.
“So some of that may involve some crop changing, some of it may involve some more creative irrigation practices, but the number one priority of this project for Larimer County was to ensure a viable farm in perpetuity.”
ATMs are a big part of Colorado’s water plan which identified a goal of transferring 50,000 acre feet of agricultural water to municipalities by 2030 through these leasing arrangements. But not everyone is happy about that. Greg Peterson the Executive Director of the Colorado Agricultural Water Alliance says many farmers see the Colorado Water Plan’s emphasis on Alternative Transfer Methods as choosing urban growth over agriculture.
“An ATM can be interpreted as saying that your way of life isn’t as important as this way of life and we need your water.”
Peterson says while farmers involved in these deals are satisfied, others are eyeing them with a sense of caution.
“I think what you have to understand is that if you’re a single farmer, or farmers along a ditch, you don’t have the resources that they municipalities do if there is some kind of issue in the future and you’re entering into an arranged marriage that could go poorly for you and I think that’s something people are concerned about.”
Erin Messner with Broomfield says this particular model however could be something that other communities could replicate and even improve on.
“I’m really excited to see what comes after this and I’m sure it could be even better.”
Larimer County land agent Alex Castino also hopes to see this model of water agreement replicated. She says counties, farmers and municipalities must work together to find creative alternatives to buy and dry. Because the alternative is too dire to imagine.