Community Agriculture Alliance: Keeping the Yampa local
The American West has been defined by water, and as our population grows, the dialog will be more accurately defined by its limits. History illustrates access to water shaped the western states, and as more arid cities continue with significant growth, coupled with periods of drought and climate change, the western states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado are positioning for a water battle.
In order to consider what can be done to protect the Yampa River, it is important to understand historical principles of water law. Eastern states and the Western states follow a different set of rules for water use and ownership.
Eastern states adopted the riparian rights system, which is governed by allocating the water among those who own the land. Western states adopted a set of rules governed by the principle of “first in time, first in right” also known as the prior appropriation doctrine.
Important to western water law, the doctrine separates water rights from land ownership and allows the water right owner to sell the right independent of the land. Regarding Western Slope basins, such as the Upper Colorado River and the Arkansas River, a majority of the agriculture water rights have been acquired by Front Range municipalities, which, in turn, developed trans-basin tunnels to deliver Western Slope water to growing cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs. For much of its history, the Yampa River was considered too geographically isolated to supply the Front Range’s growing demand, but in recent years, the Yampa River is considered an important calculation in Colorado’s increasing population and multi-state water requirements.
News headlines of California’s drought, Arizona’s population increase and the history of agriculture water rights being purchased by municipal users may be an indication of the future. Our elected officials and water managers have been strategizing to protect the Yampa River water resources, but as a community, we need to be cognizant of the issues and consider all ways to preserve water flows within the Yampa River basin.
The majority of Yampa River water rights are agriculture rights, and these rights will become more valuable when Front Range and downstream municipalities, such as Las Vegas, are offering high prices for agriculture water to meet their growing demands.
The decision to sell a water right needs to remain with the owner, but we need to consider ways to incentivize water right owners to keep water local. An economically viable agriculture industry and our continued support of the farm-to-table movement will help sustain productive agriculture lands.
Local land trusts and conservation organizations may play a key role in responding to the challenge, with initiatives to expand federal and state tax incentives for landowners to encumber their property in a conservation easement with further incentives to encumber the water to the land.
Our community’s continued support of programs such as Routt County’s Purchases of Development Rights — which provides landowners an economically attractive alternative to selling by compensating them for conservation and recognizes the importance of sustainable agriculture by securing the water to the land — is vital.
Recent and continued amendments to Colorado’s water laws that allow flexibility for water right owners when managing the water right without jeopardizing their historical rulings will also be key.
We don’t know what the future holds, but water battles are looming. Now is the time to expand efforts to keep the Yampa River local.
Ren Martyn is a ranch real estate broker with Steamboat Sotheby’s International Realty and board member of Community Agriculture Alliance.
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