Many Colorado cities will have extra water to lease to farmers this year — after having none in 2013

By Eric Brown | The Fence Post

With the water outlook now drastically better than it was in 2013, many Front Range cities in Colorado, which leased little or no water to ag users last year due to shortages, are now saying they will have extra water to lease out this year.

Harold Evans, chairman of the city of Greeley Water and Sewer Board, said board members officially decided at their recent meeting they would have extra water to lease to agriculture this year, although they would have to examine requests from farmers and take other things into consideration before deciding how much they would lease out.

Officials with the city of Loveland, too, said this week they will have extra water to lease to agriculture.

Snowpack on Tuesday in the South Platte River Basin — which supplies northeast Colorado — was 130 percent of historic average, according to NRCS figures, and reservoir levels in the basin are also above normal, sitting at 108 percent of historic average on April 1.

While the outlook has been good for months in northern Colorado, many city officials in the area were waiting to see how much water would be released this year from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District’s Colorado-Big Thompson Project, the largest water-supply project in the region, before giving the official yay or nay on leasing to agriculture.

The Northern Water board set its spring quota for the C-BT Project on April 11, and even though the board set it at a below-average 60 percent, it was enough to give most cities the green light to lease to ag.

While the C-BT quota played a large part in determining how much water most northern Front Range cities can lease out this year, the situation is a little different for the city of Longmont. Ken Huson, water resources administrator for Longmont, said that because some of its water-delivery systems are still under repair from September’s flooding, the city likely won’t be renting any water out this year.

Evans noted that while Greeley has plenty of water to lease this year, cities typically get fewer requests in years of good snowpack like this year, because so much snowmelt makes its way down the mountains, filling irrigation ditches and reducing the farmers’ needs of supplemental water from cities.

But even with plenty of snowmelt expected to fill ditches this spring, farmers still like to have water available to lease from cities as a back-up supply, if nothing else. Local farmers say they never know how fast the snow is going to melt and flow by, or how dry it’s going to get later into the summer.

At the beginning of last year, the state was coming off the 2012 drought, during which reservoirs were drained to low levels, and snowpack in the mountains was also historically bad.

As early as January of 2013, a number of cities — like Greeley, Pueblo, Longmont, Fort Collins and Loveland, each of which typically lease thousands of acre-feet of excess water each year to producers across eastern Colorado — were telling local farmers they would have little or no water to lease to ag users.

Back in 2011, which was a historically wet year, the city of Greeley — located in the most ag-productive part of the state — leased 25,427 acre-feet of water (nearly 8.3 billion gallons) to ag users, but last year, could only honor its long-term ag agreements of about 5,000 acre-feet.

Water officials from cities around the state said last year marked the first time in about a decade, longer in some cases, that they’d had such little water to lease to agricultural users.

This year is different.

Even in the southeast part of the state, where cities have less water compared to their neighbors to the north, it’s looking like those municipalities will have enough extra for agriculture.

According to NRCS figures, snowpack in the Arkansas River Basin that supplies southeast Colorado was at about historic average Wednesday and reservoirs were only filled to 60 percent of average on April 1.

Still, Sharon Carleo, water resources coordinator with the Board of Water Works of Pueblo, said they could lease in the range of 6,000 acre feet of water this year to farmers.