New Colorado water rights transfer allows farmers to irrigate, then profit by leaving water in the stream | SteamboatToday.com

New Colorado water rights transfer allows farmers to irrigate, then profit by leaving water in the stream

— The Colorado Water Trust and a state water agency have unveiled a creative new way for agricultural water rights holders to be compensated for sharing their water to meet conservation goals.

The Water Trust is the same not-for-profit conservation organization that facilitated healthy flows in the Steamboat town stretch of the Yampa River during the drought seasons of 2012 and 2013. Now, it has collaborated with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to restore late summer flows to a 5-mile stretch of the Little Cimarron River in the Gunnison River Basin by sharing an agricultural water right.

Water Trust Executive Director Amy Beatie told Steamboat Today this week the agreement is the first of its kind, allowing agricultural water rights holders to use their water to raise a crop in early summer and then choose to be compensated for leaving it in the river in late summer and early fall. Compensation can be in the form of a lease or sale. It's a model they hope to see replicated around the state.

"How to meet the ecological needs of streams while keeping water in agriculture is a discussion happening at every level of water policy in the state," Beatie said Thursday in a prepared statement. "Agriculture is an essential part of Colorado's economy. So are recreation and the environment. This project is a great new example of how water sharing can work on the ground within the state's existing laws to bring together what are usually seen as incompatible uses."

Working with water rights holders in the future, Beatie said her organization will try to give them as much flexibility as is practical in terms of when they use their water, and each transaction will be unique in that regard.

CWCB Director James Eklund called the new agreement with the Water Trust "a model for future agriculture and conservation partnerships."

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The CWCB is the only entity in the state that can hold instream flow water rights to support the natural environment.

The transaction on the Little Cimarron involves a ranch irrigated with Little Cimarron flows from the McKinley Ditch. The ranch, which has an ag tenant in place, had been on the market for several years as 35-acre lots with the water rights marketed separately, according to the Water Trust. The land was purchased by the Western Rivers Conservancy, which has made two different conservation purchases on the Yampa River in recent years. The Water Trust then purchased the water rights associated with the ranch with help from the Walton Family Foundation.

The Trust's water will be shepherded downstream to the little Cimarron's confluence with the main stem of the Cimarron and on down to the Gunnison River. The Water Trust typically seeks to make arrangements to re-market water from instream rights even farther downstream, and that may happen in this case.

Although the water rights holder and ranch owner in this case are both conservation organizations, the intent is for private ag water rights holders to take advantage of the new model for sharing their water. Ultimately, the hope is that the methods worked out with the CWCB would be made available to other conservation organizations and even small water groups operating within specific river drainages.

"The more we can empower local communities to undertake these things, the more we can reflect local needs," Beatie said. "Our strength is pioneering these models. The idea is that, at some point, we want the world to figure out ways water sharing agreements can occur."

Historically, up to five cubic feet of water per second has been diverted from the Little Cimarron to support agriculture on the ranch. The environmental significance of suspending irrigation is that a five-mile stretch of the Little Cimarron that has run nearly dry some summers will see those flows restored.

Restoring the streamflows will "re-establish habitat connectivity," according to the CWCB's chief of the stream and lake protection, Linda Bassi.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1