This project addresses the ecological and socioeconomic threats precipitated by the transfer of agricultural water rights to urban uses in the Arkansas River Valley in Colorado. This process is known as “buy-and-dry” in the United States and has become a common practice on the part of urban municipalities. This buy-and-dry mechanism is used to minimize risks and ensure a water supply for urban inhabitants in view of reduced water flows and reserves due to natural and human processes. This process has had devastating consequences on the landscape and its inhabitants, generating a scenario of winners and losers characterized by aggressive speculation in the water rights market and uncertainty in farming communities about the economic viability of their activities.
In 2009, the Department of Water Works of the city of Pueblo (PBWW: Pueblo Board of Water Works) acquired 5,540 agricultural water rights from the Bessemer Canal in the Arkansas River Valley, which represents 28% of the total rights on the canal for a total value of US$56M. This was done with the objective of fulfilling a mandate to provide a reliable and competitive water supply for the city. Following the acquisition, and in the absence of immediate need, PBWW leased the water rights back to the area farmers until the year 2029. In view of finalizing the contracts, in 2017 the PBWW began the procedures to change the agricultural water rights to urban use, which implies a legal and an administrative process. This process of changing the use of water rights is expected to be highly complex and expensive. In this sense, the project is framed in a context of urgency because the change of use is subject to a legal precedent, which is to literally dry out the land where the water rights are currently found. This implies that the water would be removed from approximately 5,300 acres, which represent 28% of the total agricultural areas irrigated by the canal − a percentage corresponding to the lands irrigated by the canal that are the most apt and fertile for agricultural activity − those with the best soil. In this context, and before the change in the use of water rights is processed, the objective of this project was to help the community and stakeholders to facilitate a process of transformation in the agricultural landscape, which will inevitably dry part of the lands. The project incorporates alternative mechanisms to the “buy-and-dry” process, making it possible to maintain agricultural activity on most of the lands for which the water rights were sold, supply water to the city, and maintain ecological functioning in a context of water scarcity.
These alternative mechanisms involve the creative use of market tools for conservation through the transfer of water and land to avoid drying those areas with the highest agricultural utility. The project focused on carrying out a systematic analysis of the agricultural and coastal landscape to detect agricultural lands with greater economic value, ecological functions, and important habitats where the impact of withdrawing water (buy-and-dry) could be minimized. With this information, a transfer system was conceptualized, where water rights were mobilized from lands with less agricultural value to lands with high agricultural value before they are dried by 2029 when lease contracts expire. This meant that instead of drying the lands with the best soils that sold water to the PBWW, lands with less agricultural value could be dried through the transfer of water for irrigation they possessed.
The analysis focused on 1) identifying and prioritizing the lands with high agricultural value to protect these and 2) identifying and prioritizing lands that could be strategically dried to (a) minimize the impact on the land of high agricultural value and (b) generate ecological benefit through efforts at replanting, conservation, and/or management. The analysis estimated land and water rights that could be transferred from land with a lower priority for agriculture that if dried could give way to consolidating lands with natural value, such as river corridors and wetlands. Through this process, approximately 2,000 acres of land susceptible to being dried was consolidated. Through this consolidation and transfer of water rights, 73% of the lands with high agricultural value that sold their rights to PBWW could continue to be irrigated (2,724 acres). Additionally, through market mechanisms, conservation easements (known in Chile as a real conservation bonus) would be incorporated to ensure that the transferred water would not be exposed to new “buy-and-dry” processes.
In its earliest stages, this project created the analytical base that would ensure conservation of a highly productive agricultural landscape with high social and cultural significance and important ecological value. In addition, the project sought to establish a benchmark for other areas facing similar processes (such as the central valley of Chile), where decreasing water resources is generating conflict between communities. The conceptualization of flexible water transfer mechanisms could be of great interest to Chile as climate change modifies rainfall mechanisms, increasing the risk of drought. Given that agriculture tends to have the greatest number of water rights available in a basin, a situation that is transversal in most of the world, it is likely that conflicts will arise over this resource, particularly in watersheds where agriculture coexists with mining and urban uses. In this sense, being able to recognize these changes and establish early mechanisms to resolve them is vital if the priorities are to maintain productive lands and their ecological and cultural values, while ensuring the availability of water for the growing population in cities.
Footnote: This project was presented at the 2017 Annual Conference of the American Society of Landscapes Architects (ASLA) as part of the panel discussion entitled “Productive Ecology: Hybrid Approaches for Landscape Design and Conservation” and in the Global Congress of the International Land Conservation Network (ILCN), January 2018 in Santiago, Chile.
Flavio Sciaraffia Márquez Director of GeoAdaptive @Chile, a global think-tank driven by creativity and scientific rigor with the aim of generating positive impacts on regions and organizations. This professional area focuses on the territorial scale that involves the interaction of complex socio-ecological systems in which landscapes and urbanization processes interact interdependently. Flavio is an Architect and holds a Master’s degree in Urban Planning from the PUC (2011) and a Master’s in Landscape Architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (2015). His projects have been awarded prizes by the ASLA, BSLA and the Harvard Innovation Lab.