Central Colorado Water Conservancy District puts $48.7 million bond question on ballot
September 17, 2018
Randy Ray said every local water manager remembers years like 2002 and 2012.
"That's one thing water managers don't forget: the dry years. We always forget about the wet ones, except for the catastrophic floods," said Ray, executive director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District. "How did their water supplies react to the dry years?"
Water officials try to answer when they look toward the future of their systems. That's why the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District will place a $48.7 million bond question on the ballot this November in an effort to address priorities that, officials said, would help the district plan for droughts such as the ones that ravaged this part of the state in 2002 and 2012. Another drought currently bakes portions of the state this year, as well.
Central's boundaries stretch through parts of Weld, Adams and Morgan counties and serve about 550 farmers who operate about 1,000 irrigation wells.
The district's board voted to add the measure to the ballot in August, putting the future of three major water supply projects in the hands of a total of 14,391 Weld County voters and others in Adams and Morgan counties.
If voters choose to approve the funding request, the district will move toward three major projects:
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Constructing more lined reservoir storage near Fort Lupton, Greeley and Kersey to increase the district's holdings by 25 percent.
Purchasing additional senior water rights, including those currently leased by the district.
And constructing the Robert W. Walker Recharge project in Wiggins near the Weld and Morgan county line.
The recharge project, the biggest of the three, would claim an estimated $15 million of the funding in an effort to divert water from the South Platte River and send flows to groundwater basins about 5 miles away from the river. Officials said that would create storage to increase drought resiliency for the district's water users.
COMPLICATED YET SIMPLE
For Ray, the recharge project is a solution to problem years in the making.
"It's complicated, but then again, it's simple," he said. "If you want to pump groundwater, you've got to replace it. We're just simply putting water in the aquifer to offset pumping and generate additional supplies that we can count on."
Recharge projects, which have been in use for decades, exploded in the late 1990s, as strict regulations for well pumping required water users to replace the groundwater they pumped. They work by diverting water to a pond and allowing it to seep into the ground, and eventually, back to the river.
At the Walker Recharge Project, which is named after a former district president, officials plan to divert the water from the South Platte River when it's flowing at a high level to ponds along a plateau as far as 5 miles away.
The district purchased the land for the project in 2015 after it became clear to central officials that the district can't rely on leasing reusable water from Thornton, Aurora, Longmont and Westminster sewer discharge plants the way it has in the past.
Because the population in those cities is growing, Ray said, city officials are more reluctant to give their extra water supplies away. Water managers in those cities remember dry years such as 2002, too.
Plus, Ray said, the district views the projects as better financial investments.
"It's like renting a house," Ray said. "The landowner is getting the equity, and you're just basically paying their mortgage."
LESS RELIANCE ON CITIES
Ray said the other main projects outlined in the ballot question — the reservoir storage and additional senior water rights — also will play a role in helping the district rely less on water leases from cities. The gravel pit reservoir storage, he said, would help the district divert water from the river quickly when water levels are high for additional storage.
But Ray said the biggest selling point for the bond issue is agriculture.
"That's our big campaign, our big message to our constituents, preserving irrigated agriculture in the county," Ray said.
By purchasing additional senior water rights, he said, the district could help slow a trend called "buy-and-dry," in which cities buy water rights from farms.
"So, when one of those cities purchases those water rights, they retire the land, and it's got to go back to a dry land setting, which has a lot of negative associations with that," Ray said. "The economy dries up and the tax bases go away."
If central takes over that water right, Ray argued, farmers would still have access to groundwater to irrigate a portion of the farmland.
"If you're 80 years old, 70 years old, that farm and its water rights are your 401(k)," Ray said. "We want to be an alternative to these beautiful senior water rights in Weld County being transferred to Denver, Arapahoe, Douglas counties and reside here under the management of the water conservancy district." ❖
— Knuth covers government for The Tribune. You can reach her at (970) 392-4412, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SaraKnuth.