NewsCovering Colorado


Win-win? Water-sharing deal between Colorado Springs and rural Bent County

Posted at 7:34 PM, Oct 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-17 20:26:45-04

BENT COUNTY, Colorado — It is mid-morning and the Wertz brothers are full of energy despite little sleep and a lot of work out cutting hay. “I mean 36 hours,” said Caleb Wertz. The brothers explain it is often best to cut hay overnight when temperatures are down and humidity keeps the hay from getting too dry.

Mark and Caleb Wertz are the newest generation of farmers in a family that has been working the land in Bent County, Colorado for more than a century. “My great, great, great grandfather started farming in this area. turn of last century, you know, and so it's something that is in our blood that we do that we love doing, and it's so far beyond just the economics of all of it,” said Mark Wertz

From generation to generation there is an unwavering constant the brothers know is crucial to farming. “Water is our livelihood,” said Caleb, “Truly, I am a firm believer that water is probably one of the most valuable commodities in at least the state of Colorado, but for sure in the Arkansas Valley.

The Fort Lyon Canal, the longest canal in Colorado, diverts water to farm fields in Bent County from the Arkansas River.

“Irrigation is everything down here, without it ever getting water we don't grow anything,” said Mark.

The brothers love sharing stories of how their grandfather spent nights in the fields to prevent water waste.

“He'd lay down and sleep through the night. And as soon as that water finally made it to the end of the field and woke him up because he was sleeping in the furrow that would wake him up to where he could go back to the top of the field and bring water down again. And that was the requirement to make water as efficient as it possibly could be,” said Caleb.

Now days watering systems have been modernized.

“Fast forward 50/60 years, and my brothers and I are able to control our irrigation from our phones from anywhere in the world. And that changes the game.

Mark explained, “We're investing in center pivot irrigation, which takes us from a lower efficiency flood irrigation to a much higher efficiency pivot irrigation, we can get as high as 90% efficiency on our center pivots.”

It sounds simple, but the cost of the systems is an issue.

“Those costs have skyrocketed, they're over $200,000 to put one up now. So it's extremely cost prohibitive, especially if you're a young farmer, like myself, that's trying to get started, get established,” said Mark.

A new collaboration with Colorado Springs Utilities offsets the cost and creates an incentive for farmers to install more efficient watering systems. The benefit for the utility company is it allows them to lease the water rights for the water saved through the more efficient systems.

“It's tough to do if you're a young farmer. And so Colorado Springs Utilities can come in, help them buy efficient means of irrigation through center pivots, help them by the land, and we get a portion of the water off of that land. And they get the rest of it,” said Scott Lorenz with Colorado Springs Utilities.

It is a complex deal with a couple of parts.

First, there is the unused water created by the more efficient pivot watering system. Through leasing, the excess can be diverted to Colorado Springs.

In addition, pivot watering systems create a circle and leave the corners of fields dry. Those corners have water rights. Utilities can buy the corner water rights.

It all has the potential to supplement the Colorado Springs water supply by as much as 20%.

Water rights also involve local governments. After years of debate and negotiation,

Bent County Commissioners just signed off on an intergovernmental water-sharing agreement with Colorado Springs.

They see a way to better share water and avoid what is often called “buy and dry”. That is when a farmer completely sells water rights. It basically ends the ability to farm the land associated with those water rights.

Without water, agriculture dies, and the economics of a rural county go dry.

“So it's really important for us to take care of what takes care of Bent County as well,” said Bent County Commissioner, Jean Sykes.

“It’s absolutely essential. The rural local governments are paying attention and proactive in protecting the water in their area,” said Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District President and water rights consultant Bill Long.

The newly approved intergovernmental agreement is seen as a win/win deal.

“Working together, I see it as a positive and a way to maybe work as a team rather than a buy and dry situation that we've had in the past and some situations an opportunity to work together,” said Sykes.

There are also economic benefits for the rural county where population numbers have been flat for decades and tax revenue is the same.

“Mitigation payments could be in excess of $30 million. And that would be for the actual acquisition of the water,” said Long, “And then in perpetuity, there are payments for leased water and water that goes to your community

“Hopefully, working some new economic development for Bent County, as well as supplying the needs to Colorado Springs Utilities,” said Sykes.

Both sides understand Colorado has a finite water supply that both agriculture and metro areas need.

“So we really set up this program as a way to develop new water supply options that could keep the local economies, the local ag economies vibrant,” said Lorenz, “while still getting us the water that we need.”

Rather than competing for water, this is an attempt between urban and agriculture to better share.

The program is new. As it shows success, the hope is more farmers will sign on for similar deals.

Hear from all sides of the deal Sunday night after the football game on News 5.

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