Stop, Thief!

Someone's stealing Otero County's water. Who it is depends on where you live.

Anything to do with water in Colorado has a way of creating awkward situations and odd bedfellows.

Consider the typical Aurora resident who buys a lottery ticket. She's happy that part of her dollar will be used to preserve open space and wilderness, but she probably has no idea that those same dollars will help fund a Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) pilot program designed to preserve farmers' water rights in the Arkansas Valley -- the very same water her home city is trying to buy with the money she pays each month on her water bill.

Otero County is at the heart of the farm belt along the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado. For more than a century, farmers have used water from the river to irrigate the bone-dry plains, growing everything from alfalfa to nationally renowned Rocky Ford cantaloupes. In the early 1900s, the area was one of the nation's biggest producers of sugar beets, and stately mansions lined Lake Meredith. Now, thanks to the rise of sugarcane as the predominant sugar source in the mid-'60s, Sugar City is a dried-up dust bowl of a town, and only those long on memory can see the ghosts of affluence past.

Water world: Aurora director of utilities Peter Binney.
Marc Suda/Suda Image
Water world: Aurora director of utilities Peter Binney.

Since then, many modern farmers have struggled to earn a living -- a situation only exacerbated by the recent drought. In fact, the most valuable asset that many of them have often isn't their farm or even livestock; it's the water rights they control. As a result, many farmers have begun to sell these increasingly valuable commodities to places like Aurora, alarming county residents who fear for the future of agriculture.

"We want to preserve the agricultural heritage of the county," says Otero County administrator Barry Shioshita. "For us, water is the lifeblood of the valley."

And that's where GOCO stepped in to help. The state agency, established in 1992 to buy open space using lottery funds, recently awarded Otero County a $1 million grant to purchase water rights from farmers considering siphoning them off to Front Range cities. And last year, Otero voters and the City of La Junta created the Lower Arkansas Conservancy District in order to raise an additional $2 million to $4 million annually for the GOCO project. Under the program, farmers would ostensibly be able to sell off their water rights and development rights to the district; in exchange, they would be allowed to continue farming in perpetuity. The district is currently trying to identify the first potential program participants, although it hasn't yet identified the size of the payout each farmer could receive.

"A lot of farmers were being forced to sell their water because they had no other option," Shioshita notes. "We wanted to provide another alternative."

But Aurora is skeptical. For one thing, the conservancy program creates more competition for water -- and the city is an active scout, having long struggled to build adequate reserves. In addition, officials wonder whether such an endeavor is a responsible use of lottery funds.

"It's a public subsidy for their water uses," says Peter Binney, Aurora's director of utilities. "I think there's a question about whether [GOCO funds] are being used for private benefit. The question is, if we're using public money to buy water rights, how are they going to be used?"

The city has already spent millions acquiring the rights to several billion gallons of the Arkansas River, typically paying about $56,000 per acre-foot -- the amount needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot, or about 325,851 gallons. Under the agreements, Aurora diverts water directly from the river as it flows through the mountains, tapping it before it moves south to Otero County.

But while Aurora has its doubts about GOCO's involvement in the project, the city has not challenged it up to this point, and GOCO officials are emphasizing the fact that the Arkansas Valley program is still in the experimental stages.

"This is certainly a different kind of project for us," admits Chris Leding, spokeswoman for GOCO. While the agency has always helped fund conservation easements to keep ranches and farms from being developed, this is the first time the group has devoted money specifically to protect water that's being used for agricultural purposes. Besides preserving the farm country, Leding says, GOCO wanted to help keep water flowing through the river, which is an important resource for birds and other wildlife.

"Our interest has to do with wetlands and scenic view sheds," she says. "The flora and fauna along the Arkansas River has been adversely affected by [water diversions]. There is value in preserving agricultural land. That's part of what voters intended in passing GOCO."

The agency is still deciding how far it wants to go in helping Arkansas Valley farmers, especially since many members of its board hesitate to make a major commitment to water projects because of the enormous costs involved.

"Frankly, I didn't think GOCO should get into water rights," says state senator and GOCO boardmember Norma Anderson.

The law governing Great Outdoors Colorado is vague about water issues, and Anderson fears the pilot project could create legal problems -- especially since GOCO doesn't have enough money to buy water rights for large numbers of farmers. And the board may not look favorably upon the project if Otero County requests additional funds. In any case, much will be left undecided until a replacement is found for former GOCO director John Hereford, who resigned earlier this month.

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