In Colorado water law, tugging at one thread can lead to unravelling in multiple places. Even when the motives are good, sometimes there are unintended consequences. That’s what members of a state-sanctioned work group are finding as they explore ways to strengthen Colorado’s laws against speculation, traditionally defined as obtaining a water right without a specific plan or intent to use the water.
For our story on the topic published Wednesday, Aspen Journalism again teamed up with KUNC reporter Luke Runyon to explore water investment and speculation on the Western Slope. We began working in February on a follow up to a 2020 story about a New York City hedge fund buying land with water rights in the Grand Valley, which, consequently, we learned this week was honored in the best enterprise reporting and best information graphic categories in the four-state Top of the Rockies contest from the Society of Professional Journalists. It was also announced this week that the collaborative multimedia package including the story with The Nevada Independent and Phoenix-based public radio station KJZZ had won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for best news series, and is in the running for a national award.
In early April, Luke and I spent a morning at Harts Basin Ranch in Delta County. The 3,400-acre spread near the south slope of the Grand Mesa with 1881 water rights is owned by Boulder-based real estate investment company Conscience Bay, which has been accused of speculation.
The state work group, made up of some of Colorado’s most prominent water thinkers, is looking specifically at financial water speculation, which they define as the purchase and use of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from the increased value of the water in a short period of time. But putting restrictions on this type of investment could also negatively impact agricultural producers, who say they don’t want the state making the process of buying and selling land and water more difficult. So far, conversations have focused on the intent of the buyer, but without the ability to read minds, this approach would be difficult.
Many of the anxieties around speculation boil down to a deep-seated fear in Western farm towns of water transfers from agriculture to cities, and the group has identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators. An old-fashioned fear of outsiders may also play a role. Ultimately, Conscience Bay President Eli Feldman sees what he calls the speculation about speculation as symbolic of how communities are choosing to address a water-short future under climate change. There are those who want to adapt water policy to make it more flexible to address the increasing scarcity and those who want to protect the status quo.
So how can the state protect Coloradans from the risks of nefarious water investors? That’s something the work group will continue to grapple with. Their report is expected in August.
For more on that as well as this week’s ongoing coverage of the Lead King Loop OHV overuse debate, a troubled dam above Kremmling and local COVID-19 data, check out the work linked below.
— Heather Sackett, Water Desk Editor
By Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism & Luke Runyon/KUNC | May 5, 2021
This system, used widely in the western United States, creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. Read more.
By Aspen Journalism Staff
May 5, 2021
Aspen Journalism won 11 awards in 10 categories, including first place honors for best beat reporting and best extended coverage, in the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2021 Top of the Rockies contest. Learn more.
By Curtis Wackerle | May 5, 2021
Gunnison County commissioners expressed concern that an immediate, partial ban would be counterproductive but called for partner agencies to “lean in” to long-term solutions. Read more.
By Heather Sackett | May 3, 2021
It’s still unclear whether or when the dam will need to be rehabilitated; that’s what adding more monitoring instruments may help the district figure out. Read more.
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