State legislators and about 60 attendees of the Southwestern Colorado Livestock Association met Saturday in Cortez to discuss possible threats to rural Colorado such as water speculation and behavioral health.
Incoming state Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa joined fellow Republicans Sen. Don Coram and Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose at the morning meeting at the Elks Lodge, which preceded a dinner, dance and the crowning of the association’s annual Stockman and Cowbelle of the year.
Because of redistricting, Simpson will represent District 6 in 2023. The district is composed of 14 counties that stretch west from the San Luis Valley to the Utah border. It is considered among the state’s most politically balanced districts, with just a 0.5 percentage point advantage for Democrats, based on the number of active registered voters.
Simpson replaces Republican Coram, who, because of redistricting, is no longer a resident of District 6. He plans to run in the Republican primary against U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert to represent the 3rd Congressional District.
The threat of water export from the state’s agricultural lands to cities is real, Simpson said, and the San Luis Valley aquifers have been a target for 50 years.
Developers envision drilling wells or diverting rivers to pipe water to growing cities on the Front Range and elsewhere.
The latest plan is the Renewable Water Resources Project, which proposes to develop up to 22,000 acre-feet of aquifer water per year from the San Luis Valley and make it available to the Front Range market.
Project promoters pitched the investment to the Douglas County Board of County Commissioners in December, he said.
“It is a sign of things to come. Anywhere you go in Colorado, the pressure on irrigated agriculture grows exponentially, and if we are not thoughtful about this, then it will fundamentally change what Colorado will look like,” he said.
He cited Crowley County as an example. In the 1980s, decisions were made to divert agriculture water to the city of Aurora, and since then Crowley County agriculture went from 50,000 irrigated acres to 5,000 acres.
“I don’t want to see that happen in the rest of rural Colorado,” Simpson said.
Coram and 58th House Rep. Catlin also weighed in on the threat of water speculation.
“Water speculation is going on. Water futures are traded on Wall Street,” Coram said.
He said a situation in Mesa County could happen in Southwest Colorado.
Water Assets Management has purchased 10% of land under irrigation in the Grand Valley, Coram said. The company has leased it back to a farmer and have not sought a change of use from agriculture.
A big concern is if they stop leasing the water, it has the potential to go downstream to California, Coram said.
“That water is ready to leave the state if someone does not use it, and that is very concerning,” he said.
Buying water to hold it for speculation is illegal in Colorado, legislators said at the meeting. It must be put to beneficial use, according to state water law.
Montezuma and Dolores counties could face a similar threat, Coram said.
“When that water leaves McPhee Reservoir, there are not a lot of people downstream to use it, so I am concerned if someone gets a hold of those water rights and abuses them,” he said.
According to Coram, LGS Holding Group was granted 60 well permits in Southeast Colorado’s Southern High Plains Aquifer, a depleting aquifer that is part of the Ogallala Aquifer.
Many of the wells are high-capacity, Coram said, and is a type of water investment that could sell on the open market for millions of dollars. He worries that it might be used for purposes other than agriculture.
According to a June 13 article in the Colorado Gazette, LGS Holding Group is a real estate company based in Georgia, and they are using the water from the newly-drilled wells for agricultural purposes.
The article stated a proposed LGS sale listed 45,000 acres of the land for almost $40 million, which Coram said has residents and legislators concerned about what could happen to the water.
Coram is working on a bill to address water speculation and investment. Stakeholder meetings are ongoing with Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Colorado Water Congress, Farm Bureau, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy.
Catlin agreed the state needs to defend against the threat of water speculation, but it must be done in a way that protects a landowners’ water rights – private property that holds monetary value for families.
“The way I look at the ranch you live on, that is your 401(k), and I’m not going to step in between you and your 401(k). Farmers and ranchers should not be asked to give up your water for benefit of the community, you own the water right, it is part of that ranch and part of your private property,” he said.
Adjusting the rules to protect agriculture from “dry and buy” speculation while protecting individual water rights will be tricky and take lots of discussion, Catlin said.
Colorado is set up so a water right cannot be filed on with speculation as the purpose. There needs to be a beneficial use for the water or you can’t file for it.
Catlin said the “linchpin to focus on is to say to investors, ‘If you take the water off the land there will be some different rules set up.’”
He urged people to get involved in the discussion by taking advantage of Zoom to testify at committee meetings or attending in person.
He said Colorado “overall is a rural red state being run by city people from a dagger of blue on the Front Range” who don’t understand the importance of agriculture.
“They are taking over our representation, and we need you to be involved in committee meetings, so people trying to this figure out will hear directly from you,” Catlin said.
Simpson also touted his commitment to addressing behavioral health problems that plague rural areas and contribute to drug abuse, overdoses, suicides, crime, mental illness and homelessness.
The state has allocated $400 million toward behavioral health from the American Recovery Plan Act allocation. Bills addressing how to spend the money are expected in the coming weeks.
“Families impacted by opioids, are disproportionally higher in rural Colorado, and I am really interested in how to spend dollars to fundamentally change that paradigm and have an impact on behavioral health in Colorado,” Simpson said.
There is not enough bed space to treat people and not enough people trained to treat people if there were enough beds, he said. Spending money on preventive measures is also key and should be distributed by individual counties.
“I’m looking forward to representing you. You did not get to pick me, but I will be a strong voice for you next year,” Simpson said.
About 60 people attended the meeting. Along with elected officials, county, state, and federal land agencies gave presentations.