Community Agriculture Alliance: ATMs — A possible answer to Colorado’s water woes?
On Tuesday, people from across the state convened for the 2016 Colorado Ag Water Summit at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds near Denver. Northwest Colorado was well-represented by folks who live and work in both the Yampa and White River basins.
The subject of this year’s summit was ATMs. No, not the machines that dole out cash, but Alternative Transfer Methods. ATMs are creative ways to work within the confines of Colorado water law to enable water rights to be used temporarily for uses other than what they are decreed for.
You might remember that there are specific uses attached to an individual’s water right in Colorado – an irrigation right can only be used to grow crops, and a municipal right can only be used to provide water for a specific, set-area of residences, business, etc. If a water right is purchased for a use other than the decreed use, the owner must go to Water Court to get the decreed use changed.
When approved, these change cases typically take agricultural uses and turn them into municipal uses, enabling thirsty cities to provide water for an ever-increasing number of customers. This ‘Buy and Dry’ approach takes irrigated farm land out of production. Because these rural areas are losing agricultural productivity, they also lose farmers, farm implement dealers, local bankers, the local grocery store, etc. Eventually, entire communities disappear.
Landscapes also change from an environmental and scenic perspective when they are no longer irrigated. John McKenzie, who represented the Ditch and Reservoir Alliance at the summit, summarized it well when he said, “We’ve created a constructed landscape and environment we all really like.” That change was because we started irrigating otherwise arid lands.
ATMs aim to let one user (usually a municipality) use another’s right (usually a farmer’s) temporarily. Legislation passed recently allows for these arrangements three out of every ten years.
Since the legislation was passed, several new ATMs have been created. The Ag Water Summit featured panels of speakers who shared their experiences of participating in ATM projects. Ag producers, municipality and industrial, and environmental and recreational interests were represented.
Most of the panelists were pleased with their ATM experiences, although panelists also talked about the challenges that need addressed if this type of water sharing is to succeed in the intermountain west. Some of those challenges include: cost, risk and uncertainty, lack of infrastructure to store and convey water from one user to another and the need for all parties to have a long-term agreement in order to make plans for the future (investments, contracts, etc.).
Regarding those challenges, Andy Jones, a lawyer specializing in water law out of northern Colorado, said “Think of ATMs as a big water supply project: they will need the same infrastructure, investment, etc. as any ‘new source’ project.”
Colorado will continue to be challenged by more demand for water than we have supply to accommodate, but thinking of new ways to share it will help us to meet more of those needs. And continuing to bring people together to discuss it will help, too.
Todd Hagenbuch is the agriculture extension agent for Colorado State University Routt County Extension.
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