Agriculture Resilience Project
Agriculture is important to Chaffee County’s economy, heritage, and open lands. It is the fifth-largest economic driver in Chaffee County and accounts for over twenty-five percent of all the private land. The county’s agricultural land includes over 16,000 irrigated acres which supports critical and severe winter habitat for elk and mule deer, coincides with the major aquifer recharge zones, and stabilizes seasonal fluctuations in the aquifers. But there is growing concern about the long term economic viability of agriculture here. The total amount of agricultural land has decreased by 30% since 1982 with land often sold off for its higher value as residential development. With the county population expected to continue to grown this will place even greater pressure on already stressed agricultural operations dealing with issues of:
maintaining water rights,
access to and maintenance of ditches and ditch easements,
the financial and personal burden of resolving land use conflicts,
prolonged drought and climate driven changes in hydrology;
intensifying pressure for “buy and dry” and agriculture water rights conversions.
With all these pressures, finding solutions for the long-term viability of agriculture in the Upper Arkansas River Basin is challenging. The Upper Arkansas Conservation District and the Central Colorado Conservancy have come together in a collaborative project under the UAWP to create the Agriculture Resilience Project for the purpose of:
Strengthening relationships with local agricultural water users to amplify their collective voice;
Better understanding critical issues and priorities of agricultural producers and large landowners in the valley;
Identifying mutually-beneficial projects that can address needs through a collaborative approach;
Providing support for agricultural water users through education, future system optimization, and protection of existing water rights.
Agriculture Needs Assessment
The first project of the Agriculture Resilience Project is conducting an assessment with the agricultural community to identify the key issues, challenges, and opportunities that their operations face. Once this assessment is complete, the Agriculture Committee will work together to develop a report that identifies priorities for multi-beneficial projects that mitigate risk, improve efficiency, and to keep agriculture viable in the Upper Arkansas River Basin.
Sunnyside Ditch Rehabilitation Demonstration Project
The Sunnyside Ditch was identified as an opportunity to build and improve relationships within both the agriculture and Chaffee County community while also improving irrigation water efficiency on one of the county’s oldest ditches.
The Sunnyside Park Ditch serves 17 shareholders including several large ranches irrigating 780 acres and impacting over 10,000 acres of land. It runs along 2-miles of the Arkansas River, through two growing subdivisions, and is clearly visible from two major highways making it a highly visible demonstration site.
The ditch, however, is in need of improvements that will benefit the irrigators and increase water efficiency. It leaks and is increasingly difficult to maintain due to the growing number of housing developments along the ditch. The majority of ditch shareholders have proven they are willing to work together to find solutions and have collaborated on grant writing, feasibility planning, and community outreach supported by funds from Chaffee Common Ground, NRCS-EQIP, Colorado State Conservation Board (CSCB), Ag Water NetWORK and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB).
In 2022, the Sunnyside Ditch Rehabilitation will complete its first infrastructure improvement project laying 2,800 feet of pipe, install water control structures, and reseed disturbed areas to rehabilitate a stretch of the ditch. This project will hopefully serve as an example of collaborative problem solving and be able to be replicated along additional sections of the Sunnyside Ditch as well as other ditch systems throughout the county.
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Are you an agricultural producer or ditch shareholder, or ditch companyand interested in working together to strengthen land stewardship and water resource resilience? Contact us if you are interested in joining the Agriculture Committee.