A Gunnison County family ranch plans to use a relatively new tool to help keep water flowing in a chronically dry section of creek while still irrigating their hay crop.
In dry years, the Peterson Ranch will temporarily loan some of the water it diverts from Tomichi Creek to the state’s instream flow program, which is aimed at keeping water in rivers for the benefit of the environment. The agreement was approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board this year under legislation passed in 2020 designed to make the water loans more attractive to water-rights owners and effective as a conservation tool.
“We don’t like to see the fish suffer, so we thought this was one way to allow us to continue with our operation and do something for the creek,” said ranch owner, former legislator and Colorado River Water Conservation District board member Kathleen Curry. “For us, it was a way to make a contribution.”
Historically, Curry and her husband, Greg Peterson, have flood irrigated their 220 acres of river bottom ranchland, about 15 miles east of Gunnison, beginning in the spring until the end of July. The end of spring runoff, combined with irrigation season, can cause river flows to plummet during the hottest time of year, which is bad news for fish.
“Historically, Tomichi Creek dries up in several locations,” said Tony LaGreca, a project manager for the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust, who helped bring the project to fruition. “A dry-up is the complete worst thing to happen for an aquatic ecosystem because everything that needs water to live does not live.”
In late July, Curry and Peterson normally stop irrigating to allow their fields to dry out for a few weeks so that they can get their one annual hay cutting in August, during which time — with the help of monsoon rains — creek flows tend to rebound. They resume irrigating in the fall to regrow some pasture grass and to replenish the groundwater for the next season, which leads to another dip in river flows.
But with the lease agreement enacted, Curry and Peterson would turn off their four ditch headgates at the end of June and keep them off for 37 days — usually the hottest, driest time of year and when Tomichi Creek could most use a boost. By turning water off a month early, they expect to lose about 20% to 25% of their yield, for which they will be compensated nearly $25,000 by the state of Colorado.
A second part of the agreement would let them irrigate in August and leave the water in the creek in September, when streamflows are lower. Peterson Ranch could get $2,500 if it enacts the lease in the second operational window. If they do both windows, they could get $30,000.
Over seven miles of Tomichi Creek would benefit from the loan of water. Depending on the location in the stream and time of year, the project could add between 2 and 18 cubic feet per second back to the stream for a total of 116 acre-feet of water conserved.
“It’s a win-win,” Curry said. “We can go with a little bit less yield and they are compensating us very fairly.”
The statute that allows irrigators to temporarily loan their water to the state’s instream flow program was originally crafted in 2005 with the help of Curry when she was a state representative. (Curry this week told Colorado Politics that she intends to run in 2024 to represent House District 58.)
The instream flow program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to appropriate water rights to “preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree.” Since it was created in 1973, the CWCB has appropriated water rights on nearly 1,700 stream segments, covering more than 9,700 miles of streams, according to its website. But because these rights are so junior compared with most other water users, their effectiveness as a tool for keeping water in rivers is limited.
Under the prior appropriation system — the cornerstone of Colorado water law — the holders of the oldest water rights, which usually belong to agriculture, get first use of the river. That means in many locations across the state, the much younger instream flow water rights — 18 cfs in the case of Tomichi Creek, with an adjudication date of 1980 — are not met. Temporary leasing of agricultural water to the instream flow is one way to remedy the problem.
Still, the tool is not widely used, despite tweaks to the legislation in 2020 with House Bill 1157 that allowed projects to expand to being used five of every 10 years from three of every 10 years. The Peterson Ranch lease is one of just three projects using the five-in-10 lease program, according to CWCB staff. There are six other similar projects across the state that came about under the previous three-in-10 legislation.
“It doesn’t appear at the rate it’s being utilized, it’s going to solve environmental problems all across the state just like that,” said Kate Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust. “But on the streams and rivers where it’s used, it’s transformative. It makes a huge difference.”
State Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, who represents District 8, was one of the sponsors of HB 1157. The bill also made it possible to renew loans for two additional 10-year periods, meaning that holders of agricultural water rights can theoretically loan their water for the benefit of the environment for 15 of every 30 years. Roberts said he has heard positive feedback about the expanded loan program.
“We’ve cut down some of the barriers and made it easier to participate but the whole time we’ve kept it voluntary,” Roberts said. “I think the tool is only going to become more important as we head further into drought and dry summers.”
Curry said she got involved with the original bill that created a legal pathway to loan water to ensure that it was workable for livestock producers.
“The state is changing, and we have to face that there are other values for water,” she said. “We just need to make sure if we go down this path, these types of projects need conditions: They wouldn’t hurt ag, they wouldn’t hurt your neighbor, it’s voluntary — things like that.”
State engineers at the Division of Water Resources still need to give their final sign-off for the Peterson Ranch project to move forward. In the spring, Peterson Ranch will decide whether to enact the lease for 2024’s irrigation season. Ideal conditions for the agreement would be a below-average runoff year but not in the bottom 10%.
Despite the lease program’s limited use so far, Ryan said she has seen more interest lately in partnerships among water-user groups.
“We don’t have to choose between ag and the environment,” she said. “I think water users are seeing there is a natural partnership between ag and the environment. But it’s still complicated and takes a lot of work.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the state is paying Peterson Ranch for its water, not the Colorado Water Trust.