The pilot water bank that is expected to begin operating this month in the Arkansas River basin has been promoted as a way for farmers and ranchers to stay alive in hard times like the current drought.
But leaders of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District believe the water bank holds peril for the Ag economy, because the law will allow water to be leased outside the Arkansas basin.
Terry Scanga, manager of the district, said he has some concerns about the legal process of the water bank operation, but his principal concern is the prospect of out-of-basin leasing. Last year, the Legislature adopted a measure that authorizes the state Water Resources engineer to approve temporary supply plans enabling cities to use water they're in the process of buying.
This year, there's another bill in the Legislature to extend those supply plans to water banking transactions, Scanga said, and he thinks that's a deadly combination.
"If they can lease water and move it out of the basin without any judicial review, why would they ever buy water and have to go to court?" he asked.
It's not just an academic question. Aurora's water utility is seeking permission to lease water from the Rocky Ford Ditch while its purchase is still in water court, and to use it for 90 days this summer. (That plan is not involved in the water bank project, because the bank is restricted to stored water in the Arkansas system and the ditch water is a direct-flow right.)
"I would be the first one to support a market system for water," he said. "But we cannot allow the water to move out of this basin. We are an over appropriated system, and we're in a drought."
Scanga said, "When we challenged the water banking rules, we argued that because of the higher value given municipal use, leasing would move water out of our basin to the northern Front Range cities. The advocates asserted that the banked water actually would be leased by agricultural well associations."
But cities are willing to pay $1,500 to $2,000 per acre-foot of water, while agricultural users are hard-pressed to pay 10 percent of that price, he said.
If cities are allowed to lease water and take it out of the Arkansas Valley, Scanga said, "The agricultural economy of the valley will suffer a horrible loss. I feel split, too, when I think about the farmer or rancher who has an opportunity to lease his water and maybe save himself for a year. But the trouble is when that farmer's gone and his water is gone, then the bank will be gone, too, and the whole ag economy."
Rather than amplifying on water leasing programs, Scanga said the state needs to build more water storage vessels and adopt strong mitigation laws "so that when some city wants to buy water they have to show they're making full reuse of the water they have and they have made maximum effort to buy water within their own basin first."