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Skeptics launch ads to call attention to Colorado Springs Utilities water-sharing deal 

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One battleground for public sentiment over water might be this newspaper.

An ad that ran in the Oct. 17 Independent, and likely will repeat in weeks to come, calls attention to a water-sharing deal inked last summer between Colorado Springs Utilities and the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association (LAWMA).
“Taking water from Lamar? That’s taking things too far,” says the half-page ad. “Colorado Springs harms Lower Arkansas Valley farms.”

Placed by the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, based in Rocky Ford, the ad is a reflection of opposition to the water-sharing agreement, says district executive director Jay Winner. (The district also joined the Environmental Protection Agency lawsuit against Colorado Springs alleging neglect of its stormwater system.)

“City Council needs to be aware that Colorado Springs Utilities is drying up, through a third party, land in the Arkansas basin,” Winner says. “The water in Crowley County ended up in Colorado Springs, and I do not believe that the citizens of Colorado want to see that in the future.” He’s referring to the “buy and dry” practice that long ago transferred water rights from Crowley County farmland, north of Rocky Ford, to Colorado Springs and Aurora.

But Utilities argues the water-sharing pact doesn’t parch farmland. Though complicated, the deal allows Utilities use of 2,000 acre feet of water — more than enough for 4,000 households annually — for five out of 10 years by buying water rights from Arkansas Valley Farms in Bent County that are held as shares in LAWMA. LAWMA, a member-owned nonprofit that replaces water to the Arkansas River for its members’ depletions caused by irrigation pumping, 
is entitled to use the water the other five years. The deal cost Utilities $10.5 million, which included converting a gravel pit in Lamar to a reservoir so LAWMA can store water for dry years.

The goal of the ad, says district board member Lynden Gill, is to raise public awareness. “In the end, it results in water leaving this area,” he says. The five-county district, which works to acquire, retain and conserve water resources, includes Bent County, where the purchased water came from.

Bent County Commissioner Kim MacDonnell tells the Indy the pact is concerning and that she wants to be sure it “leaves Bent County in a good place.” Asked about the ad, MacDonnell says she’s not sure it reflects the valley’s majority opinion. “We have concerns, there’s no doubt about it,” she says, “but it’s not to the place where we’re hopping up and down saying Colorado Springs is drying up our farms.”

Colorado Springs City Council President Richard Skorman says Arkansas River Farms viewed the water as “excess” and was willing to sell, promising Bent County it would build a dairy or greenhouse on the 5,000 acres from which water rights were transferred.

But Winner says in the Valley there’s no such thing as excess water.

Scott Lorenz, Utilities’ senior project manager for the sharing program, acknowledges the deal has raised a few hackles but says it complies with the state water plan. “The political swirl around this definitely has a negative tinge to it, and we know that,” Lorenz says. “Utilities doesn’t get to do anything that doesn’t have that swirl around it. Skepticism is appropriate, but this thing will be measured a decade down the road. Did it benefit the farmers in LAWMA, or did it hurt them?”

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