Tri-State’s attempt to restrict Lower Ark Valley irrigation pumping places farms at risk
LAMAR, Colo. — Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. is asking the Division 2 Water Court to require the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association — a non-profit member-owned association of Lower Arkansas River Valley farmers, ranchers and agricultural businesses that use groundwater wells — to limit certain members’ initial pumping every year to the amount of pumping that would be available in the driest of years, regardless of actual conditions. LAWMA’s Water Court case involves wells that will be used as a supplemental source of water for 11 farms under the Fort Lyon Canal.
LAWMA has operated its augmentation plan for the benefit of its members in the lower Arkansas River basin since 2007. LAWMA members own shares of stock that represent senior surface water rights purchased by the association. The augmentation plan allows LAWMA members to use their groundwater resources most effectively and economically while still keeping the river whole for other water users.
“Tri-State’s request goes far beyond what is needed to protect their water rights,” said Don Higbee, LAWMA’s manager. “We are asking why a large power supplier is seeking to restrict the annual amount of water independent farmers and ranchers can pump to protect water rights Tri-State will likely never use?”
According to Higbee, if Tri-State is successful, the result would be to cut the initial pumping allocation for certain LAWMA members by approximately 57%. This drastic reduction could have a disastrous impact on the farmers who rely on those shares to plan for crop planting and production.
Tri-State claims that requiring LAWMA to assume it’s the driest year on record each year is necessary to protect the power provider’s water rights for coal-fired power production in southeast Colorado.
However, Tri-State announced in 2020 the retirement of all coal-fired power plants in Colorado and New Mexico, and will not move forward with the planned coal-powered facility in Prowers County. From LAWMA’s perspective, without the Prowers County facility, there will be no need for Tri-State to maintain a water rights portfolio in the lower Arkansas River basin.
“Tri-State’s request of basing allocations every year on dry-year conditions is worrisome compared to how LAWMA currently allocates water to its shares,” said Paul Casper, Operator of Arkansas River Farms 7. “The economic impacts from dry-year allocations every year will be devastating for my farm — just as they would be to other farmers in the valley if those terms were applied in the whole augmentation plan. I can’t plant nearly as many crops with an initial dry-year allocation as I can with an allocation based on actual conditions, because farmers can only plant crops for which they know they will have sufficient water.”
LAWMA’s dry-year allocation typically is set at approximately 0.35 acre-feet of water per common share, while its average year allocation typically is set at approximately 0.82 acre-feet per common share.
“Tri-State’s proposal would force LAWMA to waste a portion of its senior water rights in anything other than the driest year because those supplies would exceed the amount required to replace certain members’ drastically reduced pumping,” said Higbee. “Much of that water would run down the river to the Colorado-Kansas Stateline, resulting in a windfall to Kansas with no benefit to Colorado water users.”
Tri-State’s position not only puts LAWMA shareholders at risk, it also puts lower Arkansas valley agriculture and economic development at risk.
Higbee added, “LAWMA has boosted regional economic development opportunities over the years, making it possible for new businesses to the come to the area and succeed, including a new dairy farm in Prowers County, Big R Farms and Nature’s Alternative Farms in Bent County, and GP Aggregates in Prowers County. Those new businesses, which have created more than 100 new jobs, are dependent on the augmentation water LAWMA provides. Tri-State’s position is threatening the local farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to irrigate and jeopardizes the economic gains of Bent and Prowers counties.”
Farmers under the Amity Canal, who Tri-State claims it is protecting, would also be negatively impacted if Tri-State’s request were applied to all of LAWMA’s members. Farmers who irrigate land under the Amity Canal relied on their LAWMA shares to pump an average of approximately 8,700 acre-feet a year from 2011 through 2020. These same farmers could see the amount of their initial LAWMA pumping allocation reduced to about 3,600 acre-feet each year if Tri-State’s request were applied to all of LAWMA’s members.
Higbee concluded, “LAWMA has always taken a ‘good neighbor’ approach in working with Tri-State. We have worked with them to their benefit on many issues. Now, Tri-State is taking the position that farmers in the lower Arkansas River basin should be held to stricter standards than large cities in the Denver metro area — and stricter standards than Tri-State’s own augmentation plan decree. This is not how we do things in the Lower Ark Valley.”
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