Irrigated agriculture is an economic pillar in Pueblo County, Colorado. Pueblo Chiles at Whole Foods Market: they’re grown here—along with other specialty, food, and forage crops. Until recently, Pueblo County was relatively unaffected by municipal “buy-and-dry” practices (agricultural water appropriations by municipalities that result in permanent fallowing and the loss of farmland); but in 2009, the Pueblo Board of Water Works (Pueblo Water) purchased 5,540 shares of water on the Bessemer Ditch to repurpose for municipal and industrial use.

The Bessemer Ditch irrigates approximately 18,000 acres of designated nationally significant farmland. The 2009 acquisition will fallow enough farms under anticipated dry-up scenarios to create significant economic, environmental, and land use challenges—making it difficult for farms that did not sell water to remain viable. Pueblo Water leased water back to farmers through 2029 and, although dry-up could happen sooner, fallowing will likely occur after that date. A Pueblo Chieftain article termed the purchase-lease option a “slow death for agriculture.”

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) commissioned ICS to highlight pathways to retain a resilient agricultural base while guaranteeing the City of Pueblo its full yield of municipal water. ICS, leading a project team of diverse practitioners—GeoAdaptive; Sourav K. Biswas; Lyons Gaddis Attorneys & Counselors; McCarty Land & Water Valuation; and Palmer Land Trust—employed a collective impact approach to address the issue. The collective impact approach enabled joint fact-finding among disparate interest groups and the development of a common agenda to mitigate the anticipated impacts of the municipal acquisition. The findings of the group, published in ICS’s Navigating the Wake of Municipal Water Sales report, show how a new, post-transfer management strategy can improve land use patterns, promote economic opportunity, improve environmental conditions, foster intraregional cooperation, and advance innovative water management practices that benefit farms and cities.

Approximately one third of Bessemer irrigated farmland will be permanently fallowed through the Pueblo Water purchase. The study found that the problem is compounded by the fact that Pueblo Water’s purchase occurred on some of the best production lands in Pueblo County. When analyzing Bessemer irrigated farmlands, nearly half the parcels where water was purchased rank 90% or higher for protection priority (meaning they possess prime soils, exceptional production capability, demonstrated historic productivity, and are both sizable and contained within important farm production “clusters”). Under almost any agricultural economic objective, these are the lands that should be retained in irrigated agriculture.

The project team estimated that at least 3,000 acres could be fallowed in lieu of lands that rank high for protection priority. Fallowing these lands instead of the best production land would minimize negative agricultural, economic, and land use impacts and maximize environmental gains—for example, significantly improving water quality. The team further discovered that voluntary, market-based solutions can be employed to fallow alternative grounds and restore water to quality farmland where Pueblo Water purchased water; and three separate case studies demonstrate the potential for these “water exchange” frameworks to help farmers expand holdings, increase the value of those holdings, enhance production potential, improve environmental conditions, and permanently retain the best production ground in agriculture for future generations.

Click here to read the full Navigating report.