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Boulder County Open Space Plans to Increasingly Pursues Water Rights in 2019

January 11, 2019
River Hohenberger, left, his mother, Mandy, and brother, Arrow, join Brynna King, with baby Ramona, and brother, Simon, for a picnic Thursday in Heil Valley Ranch Open Space. After acquiring 13 parcels for open space in 2018, Boulder County Parks and Open Space in 2019 will focus more of its attention on acquiring water rights.

Open space preservation in Boulder County began in 1898 and while the program has begun to run out of new lands to acquire, the county continues to eye puzzle pieces integral to completing the community’s vision, even after completing 13 purchases for 297 acres in 2018.

“We still have a fair amount of acquisition left to do,” said Eric Lane, the director of Boulder County Parks and Open Space. “There’s a wide spectrum of values that we at the county are responsible to preserve and there are more parcels out there that have values for wildlife, agriculture, community buffers, and recreational trail connectivity.”

Because acquisitions are often a result of unforeseen circumstances, such as the death of a landowner, it could take decades for the county to complete its vision. Mayhoffer Farm, for example, was on the county’s list of properties identified for preservation for 40 years before being acquired last year. As the department continues to evaluate the needs of the ecosystem, that list also is constantly growing and evolving.

“It’s one thing to look at the buffers between the rural and urban areas, that’s really just a geographic exercise,” Lane said, “but our understanding of forests, grasslands, wildlife habitat, rare native plant communities, and trail networks has changed over time.”

For instance, as the county’s waterways become strained, Boulder County Parks and Open Space in 2019 will focus more of its attention on acquiring water rights.

“With impending climate change and the changes that we expect to see in water availability, timing and amount, there are some opportunities to shore up our water rights portfolio, especially in regard to maintaining agricultural productivity,” Lane said. “In the future, one can hope for opportunities to collaborate with other water users, so that from a stream management perspective we can stretch that water further for everyone. .

“With better collaboration,” he continued, “we might be able to manage the water for municipal, agricultural and industrial uses in ways that can also return more benefit to the aquatic ecosystems and recreational communities.”

The St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District is working on a stream management plan to do just that.

“For the most part, the St. Vrain Basin, which includes Left Hand Creek, has not taken a holistic approach on all of those uses,” said Sean Cronin, executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy. “As a result, when you have a limited resource, there tends to be an imbalance and currently St. Vrain Creek is over-appropriated.”

During short water years, water law reverts to a rule known as “first in time, first in right,” which means whoever developed the water resource first gets first claim to it. Once that user has reached its limit, the next user in line gets to use water. In regard to environment and recreation uses, those rights are considered “junior,” meaning they are typically last.

“The environment, at times, needs more water during dry years, but we certainly don’t want to entertain something where we’re taking water away from agriculture or domestic use,” Cronin said. “What we’re trying to do is manage the system during those times, so that we can deliver the water to its intended use in a way that provides an environmental and recreational benefit.”

The Gunnison River Basin completed a similar study in 2010 that resulted in the $50 million Lower Gunnison Project. The first phase of the plan, which began on Tuesday, is the $4.6 million Fire Mountain Canal Improvement Project that will eliminate water loss along the canal route, as well as result in a pressurized water supply capable of reaching irrigators who can then use methods such as sprinklers or drip systems to water crops more efficiently than with flood irrigation.

Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River District, which is managing the Lower Gunnison Project, said the Fire Mountain project will benefit some 5,000 acres of irrigated ground while increasing flows for the environmental and recreational health of the streams.

Funding for the project comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, local water conservancy and conservation districts, and irrigation companies including the Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Co.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who was instrumental in helping secure federal funding for the Lower Gunnison Project, applauded the start of the Fire Mountain work in a news release.

“The demands on our rivers are greater than ever as we face the challenges of climate change and a growing population,” Bennet wrote in a statement. “Collaborative efforts like the Fire Mountain Canal Improvement project are critical to making irrigation systems more efficient to support our agricultural economy.”

With additional water rights in Boulder County, Parks and Open Space can have a larger impact on those discussions.

“Being one of the entities in Boulder County that has a large water portfolio, we’re of course interested in opportunities to better use our portfolio, but that has to be done in collaboration with the municipalities, private farmers and ranchers,” Lane said. “There’s a whole appropriations system here that’s not going to change, so it will be interesting to see how we can work with it and stretch that water further for everyone.”

John Spina: 303-473-1389, jspina@times-call.com or twitter.com/jsspina24

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