Security Water District (SWD) purchased the 200-acre CB Ranch in Coaldale in December 2013, paying $1.25 million for the ranch and $480,000 for the ranch’s Hayden Creek water rights. 

Currently, that water irrigates Pleasant Valley alfalfa fields along U.S. 50, creating an agricultural setting in sharp contrast to rugged Bighorn Sheep Canyon just downstream.

Prior to the sale, the San Isabel Land Protection Trust had attempted to acquire the land and establish a conservation easement that would have preserved the ranch in its current state. While a conservation easement remains a possibility, the sale of the ranch and its water rights means it’s only a matter of time before the water that sustains the alfalfa fields ends up on the Front Range.

Amid questions and concerns, the land trust organized a July 2014 community meeting in Coaldale. About 100 people attended the meeting, including neighbors whose wells and water rights could be affected by the dry-up of CB Ranch if Security Water District were not required to adequately replace return flows from historic irrigation.

As Chris Woodka reported in The Pueblo Chieftain, the meeting “drew plenty of comments about how past land transfers had gone bad and fueled fears that this, too, could be the fate of the CB Ranch.”

Coaldale resident Kristie Nackord pointed to the Hill Ranch near Nathrop, the Goodwin Ranch in Howard and the H2O Ranch in Westcliffe as examples of productive ranch lands that were dried up by Front Range cities. Those properties, once made verdant by irrigation water, now produce bumper crops of noxious weeds that create problems for neighboring properties.

Nackord and the land trust remain at the forefront of efforts to organize local residents, listen to their concerns and communicate their goals to SWD. According to land trust documents, those goals include:

• Maintaining the CB Ranch as open space to “protect wildlife, scenic, historic and community resources.”

• Keeping the ranch “viable and productive as long as possible.”

• Requiring “proper revegetation after dry-up.”

Roy Heald, SWD manager, has indicated the district will meet residents’ concerns “to the extent we can … . There are requirements in water court, and we’ll meet them.”

Since the CB Ranch water rights are decreed for irrigation use in Coaldale, SWD must file a water court application to change the type of use for the water as well as the location where those water rights will be used.

During the court proceedings, SWD will need to prove that the changes in type and location of use will not harm other water rights. So as Heald’s comment indicates, the outcome of the district’s water court case will largely determine the fate of the CB Ranch and how much the dry-up will affect neighboring properties.

In anticipation of SWD’s court filing, local residents formed the Coaldale Alliance to ensure the community has a voice in the proceedings.

In September Security filed its Application for Change of Water Rights in Division 2 Water Court – Case No. 2016CW3055 – and the Coaldale Alliance filed a statement of opposition, as did the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District.

As previously reported in The Mountain Mail (Oct. 18), conservancy district concerns include:

• Ensuring that the amount of water claimed by SWD is not excessive.

• Ensuring that SWD administers the amount and timing of return flows so that other water rights are not injured by the change of use. (Return flows represent the percentage of the irrigation water that seeps into the aquifer and eventually returns to the Arkansas River.)

• Ensuring that the dried-up ranch land is properly revegetated.

The first two concerns will be addressed primarily through engineering studies, and the Upper Ark district has agreed to share its engineering data with the Coaldale Alliance.

In December the water referee in the case established the first round of deadlines, including Feb. 28 for SWD to submit its preliminary engineering report, proposed decree, proposed water accounting and a revegetation proposal.

Objectors – those who have filed statements of opposition in the case – will have until May 31 to respond to the SWD filings. The water referee will then hold a status conference with all parties in the case June 29.

Taking a water court case to trial is costly, so all parties are motivated to negotiate stipulations that will settle the case without the need for a trial. That negotiation process will begin to play out once SWD submits its proposals Tuesday.

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