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Will the West figure out how to share water?

Can farmers stop cities from buying their water rights and drying out agricultural land?

SHARE Will the West figure out how to share water?
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Farmer Matt Heimerich opens the head gate to allow water to flow from the Colorado Canal into his irrigation ditch lateral to his winter wheat crops in Crowley County outside the town of Olney Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Heimerich, originally from New York, moved to Crowley County in 1987 and purchased his irrigated farm. Heimerich is one of few farmers left after water sales that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chancey Bush, for the Desert News

In Crowley County, Colorado, sugar beets and alfalfa used to line the fields. Its cantaloupes were famous.

But that all changed about three decades ago when most of the farmers sold their water rights to rapidly growing cities on the Front Range.

“I guess it was hard for farmers to pass up on what seemed back then like a windfall,” said Matt Heimerich, one of the few people who still farms in Crowley. 

Crowley County relied on water from the nearby Arkansas River and had over 50,000 acres of irrigated farmland until a spate of water sales took place in the ’70s and ’80s. (An acre-foot of water is enough to meet the needs for two families in a year.)

By 2002, only about 6,000 irrigated acres remained, and by 2017, the number had dropped to roughly 4,600

In the dry and arid West, where little rain falls, irrigation is the life blood of farming.

As droughts become more persistent and urban growth across the Mountain West continues to skyrocket, agricultural communities are increasingly worried about losing their water to far away cities — turning the towns into dust bowls with few job prospects. 

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Farmer Matt Heimerich walks through one of his winter wheat crop fields in Crowley County outside the town of Olney Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Heimerich, originally from New York, moved to Crowley County in 1987 and purchased his irrigated farm. Heimerich is one of few farmers left in the area after water sales that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chancey Bush, for the Desert News

Since 2010, the West’s large cities and small towns have seen an average population growth of 9.1% and 13.3%, respectively. From 2018-2019, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado were the top three fastest growing states in terms of new housing. 

At the same time, the West is experiencing one of its worst droughts in years. More than a third of the West is experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, and 72.5 million people are living in areas “affected by drought,” The Washington Post recently reported

According to Colorado’s 2015 Water Plan between 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated land in the state could disappear by 2050 due to urbanization.

While places like Colorado’s Front Range, home to a corridor of the state’s largest cities from Denver to Boulder, continues to grow and climate change exacerbates drought conditions, the discourse over water is only going to get more tense. 

Water markets didn’t consider the ripple effects

Heimerich, who is originally from New York, met and married a girl from Crowley County and they decided to move there in 1987 after his wife was offered a job as a nurse practitioner. 

His father-in-law was a farmer, and he decided to try his hand at the business. 

Heimerich’s father-in-law was one of the few who refused to sell his water rights in the past decades. In Colorado, water rights are like real estate — they can be bought and sold on the market and the sales are adjudicated by a special water court. 

In Crowley, water wasn’t just sold from one farmer to another, or even to nearby cities. Instead, the water flowed out of the county and to Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo (towns between 50 to 100 miles east of the county). 

Because farmers in Crowley organized their farms around joint irrigation canals, once a certain percentage of the farmers that owned shares in a canal sold out, it made maintenance (from repairing breaks in lining to removing vegetation) more difficult and a heavier burden on those left behind.

Austin Woodward, left, and Robert Salais, right, prepare to lay gated pipe that will irrigate water to wheat fields Colorado.

Austin Woodward, left, and Robert Salais, right, prepare to lay gated pipe that will irrigate water to farmer Matt Heimerich’s winter wheat fields in Crowley County outside the town of Olney Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Heimerich, originally from New York, moved to Crowley County in 1987 and purchased his irrigated farm. Heimerich is one of few farmers left after water sales that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chancey Bush, for the Deseret News

Heimerich said the water sales were like a divorce, or the splitting of assets after a family member has died and didn’t leave a will: “It’s that kind of underlying tension, and there’s no real forethought to what the long-term consequences are going to be.”

Or, as one Crowley County farmer told a newspaper in 1992, “The ones who sold their water sold out their county.” 

In the West, agriculture holds some of the most senior water rights (i.e. they get first priority when water allotments are divided up each year), said Ellen Hanak, the director of the Water Policy Center of California. 

Permanent dry up, like the one time sales that happened in Crowley, happens for a few different reasons: One is if there’s a water shortage that affects both cities and farms, another is water shortages that affect only agriculture, and another is an increased demand for water in areas outside of agriculture.

What happened in Crowley County was so dire that it has since become the poster child for the negative consequences of “buy-and-dry,” when water goes from supplying farms to cities.  

Heimerich explained there was also a ripple effect for the people who didn’t farm — from the gas station owner to the local implement dealer. “What are those people supposed to do? What’s the school superintendent supposed to do? He’s got to figure out how to run a school system with a lot less kids, and eventually less tax money,” Heimerich said. 

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Farmer Matt Heimerich poses for a portrait in Crowley County outside the town of Olney Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Heimerich, originally from New York, moved to Crowley County in 1987 and purchased his irrigated farm. Heimerich is one of few farmers left after water sales that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chancey Bush, for the Desert News

Plus, the large swaths of dried out farmland have also created ecological problems — from dust to weeds. 

“I’ve had my tree rows filled up with weeds. Weeds fill up our borrow ditches and our canal and our laterals,” Heimerich said. 

Now, the once prosperous farming community has a 44.3% poverty rate. The population in Crowley County also started declining. In 1920 the community had 6,383 residents, by 1980 the population bottomed out at 2,988. 

School enrollment also steadily declined throughout the 2000s — going from 610 in 2000 to 493 in 2010. 

The population has increased since the largest sales took place (in 2010 it had 5,823 people) but much of that growth has come from two large prisons that opened in Crowley in the late 1990s — in 2015 nearly 45%of the population was incarcerated.

A new way to share water

People in Colorado, and other states in the West, have been looking into alternatives to “buy and dry” — a way to balance booming urban populations, water shortages and the needs of agriculture. 

In the past, the roll of water courts in Colorado wasn’t to consider the ripple effects that water sales have on the communities when large amounts of land go dry, said Scott Campbell, a conservation planner and water consultant. “We just need to figure out better ways to help manage our water sources.” 

One of the solutions that’s been gaining traction is water sharing agreements. Campbell has been a proponent for a new kind of water market: one where water is a “cash crop,” something farmers can lease to municipalities (rather than a one-off sale) and provides another form of stable income. 

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Farmer Matt Heimerich opens the head gate to allow water to flow from the Colorado Canal into his irrigation ditch lateral to his winter wheat crops in Crowley County outside the town of Olney Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Heimerich, originally from New York, moved to Crowley County in 1987 and purchased his irrigated farm. Heimerich is one of few farmers left after water sales that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chancey Bush, for the Desert News

However, despite a handful of pilot programs, water sharing agreements have yet to become ubiquitous, although they originated in California nearly two decades ago. 

Palo Verde, California, farmers started leasing water to the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California in the early 2000s. A similar agreement occurred with the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California. 

“There’s growing interest as an alternative to buy and dry, which is the approach that Colorado was especially known for,” Hanak said.

In March, Utah’s governor signed a water banking bill, which would allow farmers to lease water to municipalities. And in Wyoming, ranchers were paid to forgo irrigation and instead let their water run down the rivers that feed Lake Powell and Lake Mead. 

Otero County (population 18,278) lies just south of Crowley County, in the Arkansas River Basin. It hasn’t experienced the same devastating effects of buy and dry, and farmers there are hoping to keep it that way. 

Eric Hanagan is a fifth generation farmer in Otero County. He farms about 1,500 acres, primarily vegetables, seedless watermelons, cantaloupes, peppers and tomatoes, along with a few alfalfa fields.  

He saw what happened to Crowley when farmers sold off their water rights. 

“We’re a century-old farm here and I just couldn’t live with myself if I did that.”

Hanagan began participating in a water leasing agreement a few years ago. A third of his farmland is fallowed (i.e. he does not plant crops) each year. The water is then leased to municipalities.  

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Farm equipment sits on a dead, dusty and overgrown field with weeds in Crowley County outside the town of Olney Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Farmer Matt Heimerich, originally from New York, moved to Crowley County in 1987 and purchased his irrigated farm. Heimerich is one of few farmers left in the area after water sales that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chancey Bush, for the Desert News

Hanagan’s land is irrigated by the Catlin Canal, one of many irrigation ditches that feeds water from the Arkansas River to the surrounding land.

His farm is one of six on the canal that participates in the lease-fallowing program. Farms that leased their water received about $700 dollars per fallowed acre accordingto the 2019 report from the Lower Arkansas Valley Super Ditch Company.

“It works out really good for us,” Hanagan said. “It takes a lot of the risk out of the game.”

Will cities and farmers accept alternatives at greater scale?

It remains an open question whether or not cities in the Mountain West will be open to leasing rather than buying water rights and permanently drying up farms.

“It just gives us a level of certainty and control that you don’t get as part of a rotational leasing program,” said Alan Ward, the division manager for water resources for Pueblo, another city in the Arkansas Basin that has been experiencing moderate population growth in the past few years. 

In 2009, Ward started to worry about the impacts of climate change, making the water they receive from the Colorado River less reliable. So the city of Pueblo started purchasing water in an irrigation ditch east of the city. 

“We know if we need the water rights in the future, they will be available to us.”

While Pueblo doesn’t need the water they’ve purchased just yet — they currently lease the water back to farmers, some are worried about what will happen when the city does need the water it purchased. 

“They are poised to dry about 5,000 acres of some of our best production ground in the state,” said Campbell, who is working on an effort called the Bessemer Project, which aims to retain some of the irrigated land along the Bessemer where water rights were sold to Pueblo.

“Unfortunately what happened in this sale, and what happens in a lot of these buy and dry deals, is that some of the best farm ground could be dried.” 

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Farmer Matt Heimerich watches water begin to flow through his irrigation ditch from the Colorado Canal in preparation to water his winter wheat crops in Crowley County outside the town of Olney Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Heimerich, originally from New York, moved to Crowley County in 1987 and purchased his irrigated farm. Heimerich is one of few farmers left after water sales that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chancey Bush, for the Desert News

Campbell hopes to try a variety of different methods to keep some the best irrigated land along the Bessemer ditch in production — from rotational fallowing to water sharing to using more efficient ways of irrigating. 

There are still concerns about the ripple effects from land fallowing programs, and potential hit to all the businesses related to agriculture — from farm equipment to seed sales. 

Despite some hesitation on the part of both farmers and cities, water sharing agreements offer hope. 

“Maybe it’s not perfect, but it’s a start,” Hanagan, the farmer participating in the lease fallowing program in Otero County said.

“It’s an avenue for us to preserve and protect our communities and our way of life and our farms. Because once you lose your water, you lose your people, you lose your schools, and it’s just downhill from there.”