An ICS-led water optimization study will explore opportunities for the City of Thornton and Larimer and Weld counties to strategically repurpose—and possibly reirrigate—farmland following a large municipal water transfer.
In 2019, the City of Thornton commissioned development of a Northern Properties Stewardship Plan (NPSP)—an effort to identify long-term management and dispossession strategies for 18,000 acres of farmland the city owns in Larimer and Weld counties. Thornton acquired the farms and their associated water rights in the 1980s to meet future demand for municipal water; it secured its Water Court decree changing the agricultural water rights to municipal use in 1998. The city intends to develop its water supplies over a 40-year period, between 2025 and 2065. It does not anticipate retaining land ownership after that time.
Repurposing 18,000 acres of farmland has significant social, economic, and environmental implications for Larimer and Weld counties. The United States Bureau of Reclamation and the Colorado Water Conservation Board are funding two initiatives designed to advance NPSP planning efforts, which could help Thornton and Larimer and Weld county communities repurpose land more strategically. The initiatives include a Regional Land Use Assessment and a Water Optimization Study. THK Associates is leading the Regional Land Use Assessment. ICS is spearheading the Water Optimization Study. CDR Associates is facilitating community engagement on both fronts.
The Regional Land Use Assessment will identify prospective future land uses on Thornton farms. It will engage community members in discussions regarding the needs of cities, towns, nature, and industry to determine what optimal future uses might be. The Water Optimization Study will explore how a “continued irrigation” provision in Thornton’s decree could help farmers, conservation groups, and other interested parties restore (with non-Thornton water) irrigation on Prime Thornton farmlands that will otherwise be dried. Specifically, it will examine whether a conceptual water market vehicle (a water optimization market) could support better, more integrated land use and water management outcomes by enabling Prime Thornton farmlands to stay in irrigated agriculture. The combined efforts aspire to holistically support new development, retain irrigation on Prime Farmland, and protect native ecosystems.
A simple illustration of how a water optimization market transaction might work under Thornton’s decree is as follows: Farmer X owns both land and water rights on 1,000 acres under the Water Supply and Storage Company (WSSC) system (all Thornton farms are irrigated with WSSC water). One of Farmer X’s 160-acre fields, which is irrigated by two WSSC shares, is designated as “Not Prime” by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). It has shallow, Class 5 soils with poor water retention characteristics. It produces low yields, has steep slopes, and contributes to nonpoint-source impairments in an adjacent tributary drainage corridor. In a water optimization transaction, the City of Thornton sells Farmer X a 160-acre farm it owns—a unit with Class 1 soils and demonstrable yields, and which is proximate to Farmer X’s operation. The fee-title sale transfers the land only. Thornton does not include the two WSSC shares it owns that have, up until now, irrigated this ground and which are mandated (by the decree) to be developed for municipal use. Concurrent with the sale, the City of Thornton works with Farmer X to “move” the two WSSC shares from his/her 160-acre field unit to the Thornton farm s/he has just purchased, employing the alternative irrigation provision to do so. Following the sale, Thornton develops the two WSSC shares it owns for municipal use and helps the farmer reclaim the ground s/he moved shares from. Through the transaction, Thornton and Farmer X have executed a multi-benefit, strategic land repurposing effort that has: (1) restored water to an exceptional piece of Prime Farmland that would otherwise be dried; (2) increased the financial value of that ground by restoring permanent water to it; (3) enabled higher annual yields by Farmer X; and (4) improved water quality by ceasing irrigation in an area that was contributing to nonpoint source impairments.
Efforts are scheduled to begin in late 2021. A steering committee composed of Larimer and Weld county stakeholders will guide Land Use Assessment and Water Optimization Study undertakings to provide the City of Thornton with a clearer idea of how it can balance fiduciary obligations to its residents through property dispossession with the needs of Larimer and Weld County communities, where the impacts of removing water will be experienced.
For a summary of NPSP work, see ICS’s 2020 NPSP Work Summary and 2021 Work Projects Outline.
For more information, visit the City of Thornton’s NPSP website.