ALAMOSA — Water leaders helped conserve two area ranches on Tuesday.
During their monthly meeting in Alamosa on Tuesday, members of the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, which represents water users throughout the San Luis Valley, approved funding for conservation easements on the Paulson Ranch in the Monte Vista area and the Lazy EA Ranch west of Del Norte.
The easements will preserve the current agricultural uses of these ranches as well as natural wildlife habitat that exists in these riparian areas along the Rio Grande corridor.
The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is handling the conservation easement on the Paulson Ranch, and Colorado Open Lands is facilitating the Lazy EA Ranch conservation easement.
The roundtable approved $36,200 from basin-allocated funding towards the Lazy EA Ranch conservation easement, which will total $202,951. Other funding or in-kind matches are coming from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services-ACEP-ALE Program ($100,751), Colorado Open Lands ($15,000) and the landowner ($51,000.)
The roundtable approved $18,000 from its basin funding towards the Paulson Ranch conservation easement, which is also seeking $157,000 from statewide-allocated funds to assist with the total $405,000 project cost. Other partners in this project are the landowner (estimated $130,000 in-kind match) and potentially Gates Family Foundation to which RiGHT has applied ($100,000.) The landowner’s contribution will be more defined once funding is in place and an appraisal is completed.
The state has granted roundtables in each of the state’s river basins funding in addition to a statewide pool of money for which projects throughout the state can apply. The Colorado Water Conservation Board ultimately must approve all funding requests. Projects must fit with the roundtable’s vision and goals.
The Paulson Ranch encompasses 180 acres in the Swede Lane area by Monte Vista and is in close proximity to several other existing conservation easements, RiGHT Conservation Director Allen Law explained to the roundtable members. The ranch is used for agricultural purposes and holds senior water rights, which will be protected through the conservation easement, Law added.
The farm acreage is flood irrigated and used for hay and grazing. Law said when land is flood irrigated, the water stays on the land and returns to the river slowly, which also assists in administering the Rio Grande Compact.
Law said the ranch, owned by Rock Paulson, also encompasses 35 acres of wetlands and 10 acres of habitat suited to endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatchers. There is one house on the property, and there will be no additional homes on the ranch, according to the agreement with Paulson and the land trust. The conservation easement will protect the property from development, Law explained.
The roundtable members discussed the opportunity in the future for flexibility in water management with conservation easements. For example, forbearance agreements are being used more frequently to manage water in the water management sub-districts. Law said the Paulson Ranch conservation easement does not preclude forbearance agreements but does not specify them as an option for water management.
“It does allow flexibility that still fits its current use,” Law said.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District Manager Cleave Simpson said Sub-District 1 utilized nine forbearance agreements last year, and although most were on bigger ditches, the sub-district can work with other water right owners as well. Forbearance agreements compensate water right owners for giving back to the river some of the water they are entitled to, Simpson explained.
“Things are changing. We are going to have to adapt,” said Roundtable Chairman Nathan Coombs. He suggested that conservation easements include language that would allow for some flexibility such as forbearance agreements, at least not to preclude them.
The Lazy EA Ranch encompasses 164 acres about three miles west of Del Norte along Pinos Creek and like the Paulson Ranch will protect senior water rights, agricultural operations and wildlife areas, Colorado Open Lands Conservation Project Manager Judy Lopez explained. The conservation easement meets many of the roundtable’s basin goals such as protecting the river, sustaining agriculture and providing multiple benefits, Lopez added.
It also meets the state’s water plan goals, which include preserving agricultural lands and wildlife corridors.
Lopez said it is important to conserve properties like this near Del Norte especially since the population density has been increasing in that area.
In addressing the issue of flexibility in water management, Lopez said “We have a real interest in being able to leave those options open.”