Bridging the Urban-Rural Gap: Boulder County water tour educates users

Robyn Scherer, M.Agr. | Kiowa, Colo.
Photos courtesy of Meaghan Huffman
FAIR members teaching tour participants how to use irrigation tubes at Panama Reservoir. (Photos courtesy of Meaghan Huffman)

Many in agriculture would argue that water is the most important element they deal with.

Learning about water is important to not only those who use it for ag, but for food consumers as well.

Like other places, water is a critical component of ag in Boulder County.

Held on June 7, the 2014 Water Tour was a collaborative effort between Boulder County Parks and Open Space and Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources (FAIR), with the support of local conservation districts, ditch companies and businesses.

“Boulder County is an increasingly urbanized county. Providing information about how farms get their water and how ditch systems work is a useful educational activity for many who have little knowledge about how irrigation works,” said Ron Stewart, director of Boulder County Parks and Open Space. “We wanted to give residents an opportunity to learn more about water systems used by agriculture.”

Stops and information on the tour included the September 2013 flood effects on agriculture, pre- and post-flood comparisons of ditches and rivers, a history of water in Boulder County, current uses, challenges, opportunities and ditch systems.

“We had a number of flood impacts to describe this year: The extent of damage, the work that has been done to repair ditches and other infrastructure,” he said.

The tour also included a stop at the Panama Reservoir for lunch, and about 140 people attended the tour.

“New stops for 2014 included the Highland Ditch Diversion and the Left Hand Water District Spurgeon Treatment Plant. We also revisited a couple stops from previous years. After the September 2013 flood, the landscape no longer looks the same. There were speakers on the bus as well as at each stop with time for questions and discussion,” said Meaghan Huffman, agricultural resource specialist with Boulder County Parks and Open Space.

One of the speakers was Sean Cronin with St. Vrain and Left Hand Conservancy District.

“Most of the water infrastructure was built well before most of us started living in Boulder County, and operates fairly flawlessly, so for the most part the general public is unaware the infrastructure even exists. This same water infrastructure played a key role in settling the area, and is critical to today’s high quality agricultural production, thriving ecosystems, valued recreation system, and strong urban economy. It is important for people to see and experience this significant piece of Boulder County’s quality of life,” he explained.

He also touched on the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which delivers water to St. Vrain, Left Hand, and Boulder Creeks.

“C-BT water is provided for agricultural, municipal and industrial uses. The information was provided as the public stood alongside the Little Thompson Siphon, an incredible engineering feat, and always gets an ‘awe’ from the tour participants,” he said.

Cronin is also the chair of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, and spoke about their efforts.

“I was also briefly able to discuss the roundtable efforts to develop a Basin Implementation Plan, and to influence the Governor’s request for a State Water Plan, known as Colorado’s Water Plan,” he said.

He finished his presentation by providing a very brief history of St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District.

His favorite part of the tour was the interactions that he was able to have with those who attended the tour.

“I enjoyed talking to tour participants, answering their questions and hearing what interests them in water. I sat behind a couple who are originally from England, and they attended this tour for the second time. It was really great to witness peoples’ excitement for something that some take for granted,” Cronin explained.

He loves to educate people about water, and truly loves what he does.

“The real joy is working in the water industry.

Former Representative Wayne Aspinall said, “In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything. It’s such a privilege to speak about a subject that touches everyone,” he stated.

The Water Tour is part of a larger effort.

“The Water Tour is just one part of our larger tour program that all of the FAIR guys have been involved in as hosts. We do farm tours and have since 2010. Over 2,000 people have attended our tours, and love meeting the farmers that are growing locally whether it be corn or veggies,” said Huffman.

She continued, “It really changes perspectives when they meet one of the farmers, hear their story, and see their family with them. The farmers and ranchers have become great advocates for themselves and improved so much in sharing their story. I know they don’t love it, but they do such a great job. We could not do these tours without the farmers and ranchers.”

Each bus had two members of the Boulder County Parks and Open Space, as well as two members of FAIR. One of the farmers from FAIR who on the tour was Paul Schlagel, who is a board member.

“We are always about promoting agriculture in Boulder County, and these tours are a great way to do that. It is also an opportunity for our members to showcase themselves, their farm and agriculture, while providing education to the public. We care about the environment, soil, air and water,” he said.

The tours allows people to learn about agriculture.

“This is a great way to open the dialogue between the farmers in FAIR and those in Boulder County to show what we do, and how we manage the open space we farm. Water is very critical to our area, and it’s very important to teach them what water has meant to this area,” he said.

He continued, “We reference our farm when we talk about center pivots and how they are more efficient. Most of the dialogue is about water usage, and where is goes. We get thousands of questions.”

The tour was well received by the participants.

“I worry every year that we failed, but when we get the feedback, we know we did okay. I feel like it was successful. We are always concerned that we could have done more, but you only have a certain amount of tie and you run out of time to answer questions. However, we get better every year and I believe it was successful,” Schlagel said.

Stewart enjoys the tour.

“It is incredibly beautiful in rural Boulder County right now, and I enjoy interacting with people who want to learn more about how farming and ranching works in Boulder County,” he said.

He continued, “The interest in this water tour and the various farm tours we sponsor each year is significant and extends beyond our county boundary. Hundreds of residents have participated and we plan to continue the tours,” said Stewart. ❖