Kevin Niles runs the Arkansas Groundwater Users Association, charged with providing augmentation water for well owners in the Arkansas Basin.
Farmers come to his office to pay to offset the water they use by pumping their wells, and it is his job to go out and find water to replace it, typically by buying water on the spot market.
He knows that doesn’t exactly make him their favorite person. Add to that, unlike his predecessor, he doesn’t come from a farm background. He left a metropolitan water district to come to Rocky Ford after starting his career in corporate management.
“It was quite an adjustment,” he admits. “Out here there’s a very different way of thinking about things. I’ve had to develop that thought process over time.”
In addition to finding water to buy, he has to secure it a year in advance based on what well owners think they’ll need. That means in a wet year like this one he can easily end up with more water than he can use.
“In dry years, we’re in a panic. But when there’s abundant water because it’s been wet we lose a lot of that water because there is no way to store it or to recharge anything,” he explained.
The only storage option is Pueblo Reservoir, but that quickly becomes cost prohibitive, he added.
Despite all that, Niles loves his job.
He likes doing something different every day and thrives on having a puzzle to solve.
“It’s like a chess game,” he said.
Niles was among more than 40 participants who attended a recent Colorado Ag Water Alliance tour in hopes of taking home new ideas.
He was particularly interested in learning about conservation techniques his farmer-members could use to help conserve well use.
Water planners and conservationists from outside of the region also participated in the tour.
Beverly Richards, who works for the Gunnison Water Conservancy, knows the ample water supplies in her district would be the envy of most farmers in Eastern Colorado. Still, she sees competition for water increasing downstream in the Grand Valley and beyond and wants to prepare the district for the drought years that are sure to come.
In fact, the district has started writing a water plan, modeled on the state planning exercise that was completed a couple of years ago.
Richards said by coming to a region where water is already scarce, she hoped get some ideas about how to work collaboratively to address future water allocation.
“We’re just getting ready to start our process,” she said. “I’m looking for how to get ranchers to the table. I’m looking for ways they have collaborated here on making it work.”
Riding along on the bus were also several concerned citizens from different parts of the state.
Carla Hendrickson and Ian Hartley didn’t have far to travel. They are both from Pueblo West.
While involved in various boards and community organizations, they said what drew them was a personal quest to better understand the state’s water issues.
“Water is important in Colorado whether you live in the city or own a farm. It’s our lifeblood,” Hendrickson said. “We should know everything we can about it.”
Her grandfather was an engineer for Denver Water and helped to build some of the early transfer tunnels that supply the city. Fast-forward to today, and she’s interested in learning about household conservation practices like gray-water storage and reuse.
“I do get it that most of the water will be used to put on farm fields,” she said. “We all have to work together so we have enough for that.”
Hartley serves on the citizens advisory committee for the Fountain Creek Flood Control Project.
“One thing that has surprised me is how many quasi-governmental agencies are involved in helping farmers,” he noted. “It’s like an alphabet soup out here. It about looks to me like we have more people talking about how to help farmers than we have farmers.”
Several participants said they were hoping to bridge what they see as an urban-rural divide.
“I have a lot of interaction with urban water users, but I want to develop better messaging so that I can talk to my audience about what farmers are doing,” said Kristin Green, the Front Range field manager for Conservation Colorado, based in Denver.