Contentious water sale could leave Bent, Colo., high and dry | TheFencePost.com

Contentious water sale could leave Bent, Colo., high and dry

In its 44 years, 25 of which have been marked by a lawsuit regarding water across the Kansas border, the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association has seen tremendous changes to both agriculture and water law. Having reached a permanent water sharing agreement with Colorado Springs Utilities, LAWMA is at the helm of this major change.

LAWMA, a non-profit, member-owned corporation, is responsible for making replacements to the Arkansas River for depletions caused by the membership's groundwater usage.

The well augmentation association based in Lamar, Colo., has members from the state line nearly to La Junta, Colo., with about 125 members and 600 wells.

"We were made, unfortunately, the guarantor of state line flows by the state of Colorado and the state of Kansas so you'll see our name in a lot of water cases," said Don Higbee, LAWMA general manager. "Generally, we're just there monitoring and making sure that nobody's doing anything that will affect state line flows or cause injury to our water rights."

The lawsuit, he said, lasted 25 years and is still ongoing as Colorado is watched underneath a microscope to ensure agreements are satisfied on both sides of the state line. Economic development in the area has been made difficult by water rules for a number of years.

"Over the years we have become very comfortable helping people do what they want to do and what I think we do best is we make cooperative agreements with other members to use our water resources in an effective manner that helps the plan and helps the community," he said.

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The LAWMA board members are all volunteers and are primarily farmers in the area.

"We frequently do not speak with the same voice as the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District, which is a tax-supported district not related to us in any way," he said. "The Lower District likes to think they speak for the Lower Arkansas Valley and that's not the case always."

In an effort to best serve the communities within its reach, the LAWMA reached an agreement with Colorado Springs Utilities.

"Our deal is to keep water here," he said. "Everybody is surprised we would be doing that but the bottom line is we will end up getting more water than they will get and it's an extremely good deal for my members and the community."

Thus far, it has been without controversy and basically supported by the state, he said, as it is exactly what the Colorado State Water Plan set out to do. Despite its alignment with the water plan, Higbee said some people are suspicious of the plan and its benefit to the community.

HIGH AND DRY

Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District said this agreement is bad for agriculture and bad for the small communities in the area, especially in Bent County.

Winner said LAWMA calling this an Alternative Transfer Method is inaccurate. The water sold in the agreement, he said, is coming out of Bent County, drying the agriculture land in that county. The water then used for augmentation will be in the southeast corner of Prowers County, literally leaving Bent County high and dry.

"If water comes off the land, that land will forever be out of production," Winner said. "Don Higbee likes to say it's good for agriculture because he will use it for augmentation water when he pumps his wells. The day is going to come that the aquifer will be so low there will not be any wells to pump."

Winner said water bought by Arkansas River Farms is about 23,000 acres, the same amount as the gap Colorado Springs needs to fill prior to 2030. According to an article that appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent, Colorado Springs purchased 2,500 LAWMA shares owned by Arkansas River Farms at $3,500 per share, or $8.74 million.

"I believe they will take this first bit of water and then go after all the rest of it," he said.

History in this area of the state is a testament to the affect of the "buy and dry" deals common in the 1970s. Crowley County, he said, was bustling with the Colorado Canal, Lake Henry, and Lake Meredith until Colorado Springs purchased the water rights, drying Crowley County.

"Today, Crowley County is the poorest county in the state of Colorado," he said. "Another community that Aurora dried up is Rocky Ford. They bought the Rocky Ford 1 and Rocky Ford 2 ditches. In 1977, Rocky Ford had a graduating class of 147. In 2017, they had a graduating class of 38."

The Colorado Springs Independent reported Arkansas Valley Farms has promised to revegetate acres left without water in the years Colorado Springs Utilities elects to use the water and has promised to build a $40 million dairy and a commercial tomato greenhouse in addition to installing irrigation sprinklers, planting native grasses, and providing Bent County a $1.7 million letter of credit and some cash to cover lost property taxes as land moves from higher taxable irrigated acres to dry. Despite this, Winner said negotiations with Colorado Springs Utilities were in progress for over a year prior to the date when the 1041 permit was signed, suggesting empty promises.

"When people sell their water to big cities, they have forgotten about the community," he said. "They have forgotten how they got that water — most of that water was inherited. That's the saddest part is people who own the water turning their back on the community." ❖

— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at rgabel@thefencepost.com or (970) 392-4410.