A Practical Approach

“At some point [cities are] going to have to quit expanding — or quit expanding their use of water,”  Rancher and longtime San Isabel Land Protection Trust Board Member Keith Hood replies when asked about the future of water in the West. He adds, "[Cities] are going to start cutting into food production because non-irrigated agriculture isn’t going to supply adequate food.” Hood, who has spent his entire life ranching in the Wet Mountain Valley, is skeptical about the future of ranching in Colorado as growing cities in the Front Range continue to require the transfer and use of agricultural water from the rural ranching communities.

The importance of water in Colorado is clear.  Agricultural water in the state supports 36,700 farms and ranches, generates over $40 billion in annual revenue, and supports 173,000 jobs that feed that state and country. In addition, irrigated agricultural land in the state protects iconic scenery, provides important wildlife habitat, and preserves nationally-sought after hunting and fishing opportunities.

“There has to be a balance between growth and producing food for these people to eat. If [cities] keep gobbling up our farmland we’re not going to be able to produce that food… and they’re not going to eat too well.”

Hood’s concerns are well-founded. The State’s population and municipal and industrial water demands are expected to double to 7.2 million people and 446 billion gallons, respectively, by 2050. Currently, a quarter of the water used by Colorado municipalities and industry is transferred from irrigated ranchlands in the Arkansas and South Platte River basins. As these demands have grown, many ranchers have sold their land and water, a trend which has led to 75 acres of agricultural land lost each day in Colorado. When asked about water being sold out of the Wet Mountain Valley by other landowners, Hood stresses, “It’s their property and they can do what they want with it, but water is important in our valley. Particularly if it’s agricultural water – once it’s gone from agriculture you’re never going to get it back.

Many ranchers share Hood’s sentiment and have chosen to protect their livelihoods and the region’s ranching heritage by utilizing conservation easements to protect land and water despite the potential one-time financial gain of selling water. Conservation easements prohibit property from being subdivided and water rights from being sold, and are the most widely used and strongest tool to tie water to land. Conservation easements convey certain property rights to the land trust, which can generate significant income through state and federal tax benefits. San Isabel Land Protection Trust encourages flexible terms that help landowners utilize their assets.

The Hood Family, who has ranched in the valley since 1870, protected their 500-acre ranch with San Isabel Land Protection Trust in 2006.  Hood says the family chose to use a conservation easement in order to protect the ranch from future development. “Particularly my mom didn’t ever want to see the land divided, she wanted to see the land stay in agriculture. Also, my daughter was in favor of the conservation easement. She didn’t want to see our land developed.”

A staunch critic of urban sprawl and a devoted rancher, Keith Hood never considered selling his water, but did want the flexibility to use it in creative ways. The terms of the Hood Ranch conservation easement allow for intermittent leasing of protected water rights to whoever would lease them, for 3 out of every 10 years. This flexibility facilitates short-term water leases between agricultural irrigators and urban municipal suppliers, which can allow agricultural producers to capitalize on the value of water rights without permanently separating water from the land. In addition, short-term leases can be used to satisfy In-Stream Flows, which are water rights appropriated to Colorado rivers in order to sustain healthy watersheds. Hood says, “I haven’t exercised the right [to lease short-term] and haven’t even thought about it. There hasn’t been enough water to think about it. It was put in there as a future possible revenue stream. You can’t predict what will happen in the future.”

As water demands in Colorado continue to strain relationships between historical agricultural uses and the booming growth of cities and businesses, conservation easements are an increasingly valuable tool to keep rural water on rural lands. The immediate financial benefit to the landowner and the ongoing benefit to the surrounding community when land and water are protected by a conservation easement make practical sense. The Hood Family ranch illustrates San Isabel Land Protection Trust’s ability to work with landowners to accommodate the changing needs of agricultural livelihoods while forever protecting Colorado's unparalleled quality of life.
 
Data used in this article was provided by State of Colorado, Western Resource Advocates, Summit Economic with The Adams Group, and American Farmland Trust

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