ICS—Nature Conservancy Issue Urban Watershed Plan

ICS—Nature Conservancy Issue Urban Watershed Plan

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) retained ICS to help the organization determine how it could support more integrated, effective approaches to watershed health and management in and around southern Colorado’s growing Front Range metropolitan regions. Natural Solutions for a Communally Vibrant, Ecologically Resilient Fountain Creek: A Strategic Framework and Opportunities Analysis (Natural Solutions) is the result of that effort.

Natural Solutions informs potential TNC engagements in and around the Fountain Creek Watershed by combining goals, strategies, and key actions the organization can pursue with examples of projects that employ nature itself as a solution to address watershed management challenges. These strategic frameworks and prototype projects—explored through engagement with local stakeholders and state and national experts—align global TNC priorities with regional needs. They meet specific community-relevance and conservation-impact objectives established as guiding criteria at the onset of the project, supporting efforts that:

  • deliver durable conservation outcomes at scale;
  • address community-identified challenges or gaps;
  • have a broad base of support;
  • build lasting capacity;
  • drive systemic change;
  • address a critical environmental challenge in the watershed; and
  • demonstrate the value of and build support for nature-based solutions.

Fountain Creek is tributary to the Arkansas River, which is, in turn, the second-longest tributary in the Mississippi River system. The creek descends an incredible 9,475 vertical feet in just 74.5 miles from tributary headwaters on Pikes Peak to its confluence with the Arkansas River in the City of Pueblo. The 927-square-mile watershed spans portions of three counties (El Paso, Pueblo, and Teller) and various municipalities and townships (including Colorado Springs, Fountain, Green Mountain Falls, Manitou Springs, Monument, Palmer Lake, Pueblo, and Woodland Park). Fountain Creek ranks as one of Colorado’s most degraded waterways. It has been a nexus of conflict between upstream and downstream communities for decades and is the focus of a major Environmental Protection Agency lawsuit.

Three opportunity areas—forest health initiatives, collaborative stream management planning, and green-stormwater-infrastructure partnerships—emerged as TNC priorities. These are areas where TNC’s global expertise could be applied to reverse years of watershed degradation. ICS and the TNC leadership team developed strategic frameworks to guide actions within these opportunity areas, actions that will enable TNC to:

1. Engage land managers, communities, and private businesses in building a more proactive culture of forest and fire management—one that builds fire-adapted communities, improves wildfire response, enhances landscape resilience, and increases the pace and scale of forest restoration across 200 square miles of Fountain Creek’s western tributary drainage areas.

2. Support regional partners in creating new delivery mechanisms for stormwater management and channel restoration projects—especially green infrastructure projects—by combining community capacity-building assistance that activates key policy levers with on-the-ground demonstrations that catalyze more sustainable development.

3. Support collaborative efforts to protect and restore Fountain Creek through the development of scientifically grounded stream management plans and decision-making tools—products that build consensus for restoration needs and priorities, create actionable lists of projects, and open doors to new funding opportunities for watershed partners.

A combination of strategic frameworks and GIS analyses enabled ICS and the TNC leadership team to develop a suite of on-the-ground projects with stakeholders in several communities, and a list of priority projects was established and documented in a Natural Solutions Project Supplement. While by no means an exhaustive list of project-based opportunities, the Project Supplement outlines specific steps that will help TNC launch its work within the 927-square-mile watershed.

stormwater flooding fountain creek

Stormwater from the greater Colorado Springs metropolitan region fills a farmer’s ditch with urban refuse.

To learn more about the altered hydrology of Fountain Creek and TNC’s efforts to restore river flow and function, see: A Western River with too Much Water? Or, read the ICS report: Natural Solutions for a Communally Vibrant, Ecologically Resilient Fountain Creek.

A Western River with too Much Water? ICS Explores

A Western River with too Much Water? ICS Explores

Can it be, in the midst of drought, with intense competition for limited water supplies, that a major tributary flowing through one of the Intermountain West’s largest, fastest growing cities, has too much water?

Descending an incredible 9,475 vertical feet in just 74.5 miles from tributary headwaters on Pikes Peak to its confluence with the Arkansas River in the City of Pueblo, Fountain Creek bisects the City of Colorado Springs. Observed from the heart of downtown, it looks like a major water course, and at flood stage it is. But Fountain Creek used to be ephemeral: dry in different places at different times of the year. Today, it’s perennial, with three times more water flowing in it than flowed there historically. And that’s not a good thing.

The history

Unlike Denver, Fort Collins, or Pueblo, which developed around major river systems—the Platte, the Cache la Poudre, and the Arkansas—the City of Colorado Springs, which is projected to become Colorado’s largest city within two decades, did not develop proximate to a robust array of local surface water supplies. The growing city derives the majority of its supply from rivers on Colorado’s Western Slope, importing water through a series of transbasin diversion, storage, and conveyance projects. Other communities in the Fountain Creek Watershed—the 927-sqare-mile hydrological basin that surrounds Colorado Springs—share a heavy reliance on imported water, and groundwater as well. But where does all that imported water end up? Not just in people’s taps, but in Fountain Creek.

In the Fountain Creek Basin, there is a correlation between water demand and increased creek flows. It takes 1.0 acre-foot (AF) of imported water, on average, to serve two single-family homes for one year. 0.6 AF of the water used in those homes goes down the drainpipe and, after treatment by sewage plants, is discharged into Fountain Creek as “new water.” The impervious surfaces created by those homes and the infrastructure that serves them creates 0.25 AF of additional flows into Fountain Creek in the form of stormwater runoff. So today, for every 1.0 AF of imported water, 0.85 AF is added to the Fountain Creek system. Accordingly, an average of 110,000 acre-feet per year (AFY) flows down Fountain Creek today compared to 38,000 AFY prior to 1970, and even small rain events produce much greater flooding than they did historically due to expanding impervious surfaces.

It takes 1.0 acre-foot (AF) of imported water to serve two single family homes for one year. For every acre-foot imported, 0.85 AF is added to Fountain Creek. 0.6 AF of water used by those homes becomes treated sewage, which is discharged into Fountain Creek. And every two new homes (and the infrastructure that serves them) create impervious surfaces that add 0.25 AF of new stormwater runoff into Fountain Creek as well.

Why is more water in the creek a bad thing?

A New Norm for Floods? Expanding impervious surfaces have altered the rainfall-runoff response in Fountain Creek. Contemporary rain events produce greater floods than their historic equivalents. The graph illustrates a significant shift beginning around 1980. Analysis compiled by Brian Tavernia, Spatial Ecologist, TNC.

The simple answer is that the geology of the area cannot handle the increased flows. Loose, sandy soils define the region. Erosion has cut hundreds of banks. Cut banks disconnect the creek from floodplains. Floods become much more devastating. Sediments from erosion and flooding release dangerous contaminants such as selenium and arsenic. The cost to repair the damage in Fountain Creek is already well over $1 billion—and this does not count the costs to human life, health, and property that continue to accrue or the costs to address the causes of the problem.

So what’s to be done?

The key, as difficult as it sounds, is to address the root causes. This means uncoupling the relationship between water demand, which is driven by growth, and increased creek flows. To do this, Colorado Springs and surrounding communities—whose populations are some of the fastest growing in the state—will have to embrace three principles: reduce overall water use, increase water reuse, and capitalize on green infrastructure and low impact development opportunities. Reducing water use and increasing water reuse (recycling water as many times as possible, at a variety of scales—from the household to the utility scale) means less water is sent “down the system.” And green infrastructure and low impact development means stormwater is treated onsite and absorbed into the ground rather than running across impervious surfaces as sheet flows going straight into a river system that nature didn’t design to handle those flows.

Erosion on Fountain Creek

This fifty foot bank exists where a county road between Colorado Springs and Pueblo used to lie. The bank began eroding in the late 1970s, when water imports started producing higher base flows and expanding impervious surfaces contributed to higher peak flows. Banks like this disconnect Fountain Creek from its natural floodplains, which absorb water and mitigate flood damages. Accordingly, each subsequent flood becomes all the more devastating. Repairing this bank will cost $5.6 million. It is one of 215 identified bank stabilization projects south of Colorado Springs. Photo © Denise Dethlefsen.

Can it be done?

Yes, but not overnight. In the Fountain Creek Basin, it will mean course-correcting 100 years of water management history while addressing complexities in state and federal water law. An ICS-led team of scientists, policy analysts, and program managers from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) spent a year studying restoration needs in the 927-square-mile basin and determining how to navigate these issues. One key action to guide future endeavors will be the development of a stream management plan that helps basin stakeholders determine (and agree to) the combination of demand management, water reuse, hard infrastructure, green infrastructure, and floodplain restoration activities required to stabilized this highly unbalanced system. Colorado’s Water Plan calls for developing stream management plans on 80% of rivers and streams identified as basin priorities by 2030. Fountain Creek is an Arkansas River Basin priority. The  Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) provides funds to develop stream management plans. It allocated $5 million for stream management planning efforts in 2017, and TNC is helping Colorado communities tap into these funds and launch planning efforts.

Numerous basin stakeholders—including state and federal water experts, water engineering firms, and NGOs—believe a CWCB-funded stream management plan, and the scientific studies that support it, can drive consensus for collective actions to restore the watershed. And there is more to do than just fix the altered hydrology. The Colorado Water Plan calls for stream management plans not only to assess existing hydrological and geomorphological conditions and prioritize management actions to achieve measurable progress toward improving flow regimes; it also calls for developing recreation opportunities, restoring habitat, and improving other physical conditions around the creek. These are critical needs in Fountain Creek, which is, today, a heavily degraded urban waterway throughout much of its course.

To learn more about the altered hydrology of Fountain Creek and TNC’s efforts to restore river flow and function, see ICS—Nature Conservancy Issue Urban Watershed Plan, or read the ICS report: Natural Solutions for a Communally Vibrant, Ecologically Resilient Fountain Creek.

ICS Enterprise Launch: Frost Ranch Sportsmen Club

ICS Enterprise Launch: Frost Ranch Sportsmen Club

ICS helped Frost Livestock Company launch a private sportsmen club for fowl, small game, and big game hunters on its 24,000-acre, Frost Ranch property. Frost Ranch Sportsmen Club, LLC, a subsidiary enterprise of the livestock company, is an important component of two succession-planning endeavors designed to help the company facilitate a shareholder buyout and consolidate company interests: (1) the pursuit of venture capital, and (2) the launch of new ranch-based enterprises.

The overarching goal is to facilitate the transfer of shareholder interests without having to subdivide portions of the ranch—thereby keeping the historic agricultural operations whole. Frost Livestock Company retained ICS to develop capital acquisition strategies and assess green energy, water, tourism, agricultural, and educational enterprise development opportunities that could help it achieve this goal. The sportsmen club is the first of several planned subsidiary enterprise businesses. New enterprise development is key to increasing company revenues, creating loan leverage opportunity, supporting capital development strategies, and bringing the next generation of ranchers home.

Frost Ranch lies less than thirty minutes from downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado, and twenty minutes from downtown Pueblo. Five residential structures exist on the ranch, the largest of which, the “Big House,” a historically and architecturally significant home, serves as the clubhouse for the new enterprise. The 6,500-square-foot adobe home with 5 bedrooms, 5 baths, and 5 fireplaces was designed and built by Wallace Frost, the architect who, among many notable achievements, designed actress Ellen DeGeneres’s 1930’s era home, which is the subject of her 2015 book: Home. Cattle and sheep are raised on the ranch, which also grows organic produce and is a member of the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers Cooperative and the Colorado Farm and Art Market.

The Big House on Frost Ranch.

The ranch contains a mix of wetland and upland prairie habitat spanning the Fountain and Chico drainage basins. Two miles of Williams Creek and three miles of Fountain Creek course through the main section of the property, and exceptional waterfowl hunting exists on wetlands spanning the 1,000-acre area near the confluence of these two streams. Portions of Chico Creek also cross the property. In addition to duck, geese, and other migratory waterfowl, there is an abundance of turkey, quail, whitetail deer, mule deer, pronghorn, and small game hunting on the ranch.

The Frost family, nationally recognized as conservation pioneers, worked with ICS to design a club that provides an exceptional, intimate experience for a limited number of hunters, their families, and their guests. They wanted a club that advances a conservation ethos on the ranch; informs and shapes native-habitat- and ranch-improvement projects; works in concert with existing farm and ranch operations; and builds meaningful, long-term relationships based on shared values. The club, which launched in 2017, has already offset all business development, operations, legal, and consulting expenses with substantive first year revenues.  ICS continues to work with the company on new enterprise development, business and succession plans, and profitable ecosystem service payment opportunities.

Meet the next generation of Frost ranchers.  Watch the video.

ICS Navigates the Wake of Municipal Water Sales

ICS Navigates the Wake of Municipal Water Sales

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.

ICS Helps Launch New Babbitt Center

ICS Helps Launch New Babbitt Center

The intimate connection between land and water is often discussed in academic circles but not well integrated into land use and water management policy and practice at the local level. The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (LILP) and the Sonoran Institute (SI) asked ICS to help change that. In 2016, ICS was commissioned to guide the launch of a new water center and a cooperative, joint-venture program in the Colorado River Basin. That effort resulted in the launch of Lincoln Institute’s Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, announced on May 2, 2017, and a LILP/SI joint venture—Resilient Communities and Watersheds—focused on integrating land use and water policy at the local level in the Colorado River Basin.

“It’s been said that water is the new oil, and if we want to ensure that future generations have adequate supplies, we have to understand the intimate connection between land and water,” said George W. “Mac” McCarthy, President and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (LILP). ICS Principal Scott Campbell added: “Around the globe, there is a fundamental lack of integration between land-use planning and water management; yet land is the medium through which our water resources are managed—knowingly or unknowingly, wisely or unwisely, sustainably or without regard for the future. Most all of our water problems are land-use based.”

The Center, which will be based in Phoenix, is named for Bruce Babbitt, former Arizona governor, Secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton, and longtime board member of LILP. Jim Holway, former director of the LILP/SI joint Western Lands and Communities program and former assistant director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, will serve as the Center’s first director.

“I am honored to be associated with this initiative and vision,” said Bruce Babbitt. “The Lincoln Institute has emphasized the importance of land and land policy in addressing the world’s toughest problems, and the stewardship of water resources is at the top of the list. We all need to be aware of the connection between water and land.” “It’s a two-way street,” added McCarthy. “How we plan and use land has an impact on water, and water availability has an increasing impact on how we can use land. We seek to bridge these two worlds to better meet the needs of people, agriculture, and nature.”

The Lincoln Institute is a private operating foundation whose mission is to be a leading center for the study of land policy and land-related tax policy throughout the world. The mission of the Sonoran Institute, which serves the Intermountain West, is to connect people and communities with the natural resources that nourish and sustain them. LILP and SI have partnered for 11 years assisting western communities in applying pioneering approaches to the challenges associated with growth, economic development, climate change, and natural resource management.

ICS Guides Gates Family Foundation Strategic Plan

ICS Guides Gates Family Foundation Strategic Plan

The Gates Family Foundation has committed more than $350 million to Colorado philanthropic endeavors since its creation. In 2011, under the leadership of Tom Gougeon, the Foundation initiated a fundamental shift in its grant-making approach, devoting 60% of its resources to funder-initiated grant making programs that could better address critical conservation, education, and community development needs in the State of Colorado. In 2016, the Foundation asked ICS to assess its move beyond responsive capital grant making and help launch a new strategic planning effort by evaluating how funder-initiated grant making was working in its first five years.

The beauty of funder-initiated grant making is that it enables a foundation like Gates to say, “Hey, we want to move the needle in this area, and we think we can pull together the right partners and provide them with the resources to do it.” That’s a huge shift from responsive capital grant making, which says: “These are the things we care about. Come to us with your ideas for supporting these things and we’ll fund the best ideas through a competitive selection process.” With initiated grant making, foundations have to be exceptionally knowledgeable in the subject matter, knowledgeable enough to identify systemic problems that no amount of responsive grant making is going to fix. Then they need to get deeply involved in the issues themselves, demonstrating incredible persistence—as if they were a high-functioning operating foundation setting out on a lifetime mission. Finally they must possess a certain degree of risk tolerance if they are going make long-term investments in systemic change that is not easily won. Investments often begin to increase in amount, lengthen in time, and hone in on certain geographies; and greater demands are often placed upon foundation staff.

When making investments that carry a certain amount of risk or may succeed only after multiple attempts, strong working relationships with partners and grantees become critically important. In this sense, initiated grant making is actually helped when foundations like Gates develop and vet relationships through responsive grant-making experiences. Not all investments have to be risky or daring, but when they are, a foundation certainly wants to know that its recipients and partners are doing all they can to succeed. Because that, of course, is the hallmark of a great foundation: investing in things not because the foundation knows they will work, but because the societal need is great.