The Arkansas Valley is a leader in finding innovative methods for sharing water between thirsty municipalities miles away and local farms heavily dependent on waterways that flow through the sparsely populated plains, according to the host of a recent agricultural water tour.

The Arkansas Valley is a leader in finding innovative methods for sharing water between thirsty municipalities miles away and local farms heavily dependent on waterways that flow through the sparsely populated plains, according to the host of a recent agricultural water tour.

In the shadow of Crowley County, where most of the irrigation water was sold out from under productive farmland decades ago, farmers here have been more willing to look at alternatives than in some of Colorado’s other basins, according to Greg Peterson, executive director of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance.

The alliance, along with partner organizations National Young Farmers Coalition, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, recently hosted an educational tour to show how irrigation water is being managed and conserved at several sites between Avondale and Rocky Ford.

Peterson told the tour group that relinquishing claims on the water through alternative transfer methods remains a touchy subject.

“I talk to a lot of farmers, and every one of them love what they do,” he said. “Asking them not to farm is a hard ask.”

Water that once flowed out of the mountains to replenish the prairies increasingly reverses course and heads back upstream through a series of pipelines, pump stations and reservoirs to accommodate surging metropolitan growth.

What happened in Crowley County, in particular, has been the source of hard feelings that still linger.

“There are less than a dozen of us still farming along our ditch,” said Matt Heimerich, who farms near Ordway and serves as the Lower Arkansas Valley Conservation Director for the Palmer Land Trust.

Farmers sold water to put their kids through college or in some cases simply to buy modern appliances they’d done without over a lifetime of backbreaking work, he said. By no means was the choice an easy one.

“Farmers often say it was the worst thing they’ve ever done,” he said.

The Palmer Land Trust is working to develop programs that make it possible to move water around on a temporary basis without permanently drying up farmland. Another goal is to create incentives to dry up marginal ground first rather than forfeit what is most productive.

Remembering back to his experiences during the harsh droughts of the early 2000s, Heimerich said leasing water and fallowing land during drought years might be the most logical solution for everyone involved.

“In 2002, we put in money to get the crop started and by June we were done. In those circumstances it makes more sense to help cities rebuild their reservoirs,” he said.

Peterson said water leasing can be beneficial but farmers remain reluctant.

“I’ve talked to farmers who have leased water all over the state, and every one of them said they would do it again,” he said. “But outside of that group, it is still very unpopular.”

Lease-sharing of water is a relatively new invention, and farmers are approaching it cautiously, in some cases dipping a toe in to test the water, so to speak.

During a tour of the packing shed at Hirakata Farms, where cardboard bins were filled with watermelons and bright orange pumpkins, owners and cousins Glenn and Michael Hirakata explained why they decided to participate in the Catlin Canal lease-fallow pilot program in 2015 along with five other farmers.

“We wanted to get in on this from the ground floor,” Glenn Hirakata said. “Since it’s a pilot program, we’re not locked into it.”

Their trial run involves 900 acres of which 230 are dried up on average every year. When rainfall is ample, the forced fallowing has little impact.

“The last couple of years we’ve still been able to harvest a crop,” he noted.

They are looking at treating water leasing as a potential alternative crop.

“Economically, it’s not great, but it is better than some of the grains will bring in,” Glenn Hirakata noted.

Much of Crowley County’s water was sold before greater public awareness led to rulings that mandate re-vegetation and other concessions from municipalities.

Aurora Water is the third largest water provider in Colorado, responsible for meeting the needs of over 350,000 residential customers. In Otero County, the water utility is pioneering a new approach to water sharing along the Rocky Ford Ditch, where only about 6 percent of the water remains in local hands.

Gerry Knapp took a job with Aurora Water back in 1988 after hog prices collapsed. With roots in the valley, he has been helping to forge constructive working relationships in the region ever since.

Knapp showed off fields where the utility shares water back to farmers in years when less municipal water is needed. The water authority also paid to install high efficiency drip irrigation systems, which are used for growing low water use crops like onions and squash. The deadline to make a call on the water is Feb. 1.

“It has kept 880 acres in production so far, but more research is needed,” Knapp said.

Figuring out the right water-sharing formula is something he is passionate about, he said.

“If we can incorporate more water-sharing arrangements, there’s an opportunity for agriculture to survive and for cities to provide water to their citizens,” he said. “We think this offers lots of benefits to lots of different parties.”

Increasingly, water users who buy up rural water supplies are required to remediate the land and mitigate negative impacts on local economies. Knapp took the group to see another field nearby where around $700 an acre was invested in re-vegetating the land with native grasses. It is managed with a combination of mowing and intensive rotational grazing.

The utility also makes up the difference in local taxes between the lower rate the landowner now pays and the higher rate that would have been assessed if the land had remained in irrigated production.

Suburban water users are the ones who ultimately foot the bill for these programs.

“The Aurora City Council has been very supportive,” Knapp said. “You could say the city pays more and gets less water, but when you look at this from a state perspective, it’s the kind of thing we need to be doing.”

That doesn’t mean negotiating for control of water is not contentious. Farmers in the valley who banded together to lease water on a cooperative basis through the Super Ditch project have yet to cut any deals with Aurora, Knapp acknowledged.

“The economics of making it work for farmers and for cities isn’t easy to accomplish,” he admitted.