A conversation with Matt Heimerich, Senior Water Advisor with Palmer Land Trust

Matt Heimerich works as senior advisor on the Lower Arkansas Valley for Palmer Land Trust and has been on the board of Water Education Colorado for less than a year. As a farmer, former county commissioner, and land trust employee in Crowley County, Matt has long been confronting the effects of large-scale agricultural dry-ups. His work today aims to facilitate creative and financially rewarding options for landowners who wish to keep their water rights on the farm perpetually. We spoke with Matt to learn more about how Palmer Land Trust conserves private land to benefit Colorado’s water.

Can you tell me about what Palmer Land Trust does in a general sense and then what your specific role is with the organization?

Palmer Land Trust was founded 41 years ago, and it was designed and founded by a group of concerned citizens in Colorado Springs who saw the beauty of the Pike’s Peak region. If you turn the clock back a bit, to around 1980, I’d like to say that Springs and El Paso county might have been a quarter-million people, and at that time it was a region on the cusp of the growth era in Colorado. As the area grew, partially due to the expansion of oil and gas, as well as from the growing military operations in the Springs, people started growing concerned with what the area was going to look like. Palmer started here, and the original intention was to preserve and protect those areas in the Greater Colorado Springs area. Palmer owns a fair amount of easements on parklands and open spaces that are enjoyed by El Paso county residents. Palmer then transitioned a bit, as the result of some great insight from a board member. Palmer began looking in Teller County and did a lot of work preserving, what is still referred to, as the Pike’s Peak Scenic Byway. Conservation easements happen to still be the main preservation tool that Palmer and most land trusts. The organization did some natural growing and expanded outside of the El Paso County area and then back in 2012, under the leadership of a very thoughtful CEO, Scott Campbell, Palmer began taking more a regional approach as to what they could be doing. There aren’t that many land trusts that were working in our area. The biggest of which is the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, which still to this day is probably the biggest, and then our friends at the Nature Conservancy, which do a lot of work in the short-grass prairies. But we were ultimately a local and regional land trust, so then the question arose; what ties us all together. Obviously, the answer is water.

Now I’m not sure what General Palmer was thinking when he built the city, but Colorado Springs has no sustainable water resources. Because of this, Colorado Springs began by looking locally to secure greater water, but eventually, they were forced to look state-wide. Colorado Springs has extensive holdings on the Western Slope, Fountain Valley, as well as the Lower Arkansas Valley, so the thing that does tie us all together is water. With this in mind, the thought was to look a bit more regional as well as global, and that brings us to my role with the organization.

Unfortunately, there is only so much water in Colorado. For the most part, farms and ranches control the vast majority of those water rights, so if you need to use water for any reason other than irrigation or watering your crops, under Colorado water law you necessarily or traditionally, you have to dry up agricultural land. That has happened in the Lower Arkansas Valley, to the tune of maybe 70,000, possibly more acres over the last three to four decades. Clearly, there are some massive impacts. There are economic impacts, social and cultural impacts, there are environmental impacts, and the thinking was that if Colorado Springs and the Greater Pike’s Peak area, which are growing, are the loci of this growth, then what does that mean going forward? Not only do the residents of Pike’s Peak, need open space and recreation, which remains Palmer’s keystone emphasis areas, but they also need to learn to coexist in an area, which I think COVID-19 has pointed out, that can remain a sustainable ecosystem. This sustainable approach was something that Palmer Land Trust studied and identified with the help of local stakeholders. We have some of the greatest and largest grasslands in the Western United States. Probably some of the largest intact shortgrass prairie in the whole United States and we want to maintain their vitality.

The question is how can we sustain those highly important and high-producing soils with good water rights, knowing that cities are only going to continue to grow? It is no big secret that cities will continue expanding. My role, when I first joined Palmer Land Trust, was to help this effort that was in its infancy. I was fortunate, I moved here in ’87 and married a wonderful gal from Crowley County who I met in Utah where I was living at the time. She wanted to practice medicine back in Colorado and we moved back to Crowley where her family was all living. My skillset didn’t apply terribly well with what was going on in Crowley County. My background was much more centered around engineering and land development, and when we first moved here we bought a farm. We then started farming with her father and her brother’s help, and here we find ourselves 33 years later. We were very fortunate to have the help of Karen’s father and brother. They were great farmers, had a great name, and because of that, I was able to get involved in things. In doing so, I learned quite a lot about Colorado water and water in our region. Karen’s dad was very renowned in water circles in this state, serving on different boards, and he truly understood the future on Colorado’s water. In a way, I tutored under him a bit, and because of much of this, I was able to take on other roles, serving as a County Commissioner for 12 years.

Palmer was looking for a local person to talk to farmers and ranchers about using conservation easements as a way to tie their water rights to their land for their families and future generations. We wanted to know what that might look like, how it might come about, and what would ultimately be in it for them, both long-term and in the immediate future. Personally, I felt comfortable enough talking about that and Palmer Land Trust gave me a chance, and I think I’m working on six years of this. My role was really to go out and meet people, talk about these concepts, tell farmers that there are other people out there who think that growing food is important and that they want to see that preserved. In the beginning, and even to this day, a fair amount of that work is telling that story. It wasn’t something that I was looking for, but I’m incredibly happy that I’ve been able to do this work.

Besides working for Palmer Land Trust, what sparked your initial interest to get involved with water in Colorado?

I think so much of has to do, quite frankly, with where we settled when we moved to Colorado. When I first moved to Colorado, I quite honestly, did not know the Eastern Plains existed. When I first met Karen, she let me know that she was from Colorado, and I thought, ‘well that’s kind of cool I’ve been to Aspen, I like that area’. Then when the plane landed and we didn’t head west but went east, it was kind of like entering a different world. In a crazy way, I enjoyed it. It was just so different than any of my other experiences that it rang a bell with me.

What ultimately got me the most interested was that our county was one of the largest irrigated counties in Colorado. There were nearly 50,000 acres of irrigated farmland here and we had a portfolio of water rights that were valuable, but like a lot of areas in Colorado, the ditch system was overdeveloped and there simply was not enough water to go around. Luckily, Crowley had a valuable water right on the Western Slope and eventually that water right was sold in the mid-1970s. And the cities of Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and Aurora now own most of that water right. That made a big impact on what was going on here because it was the most reliable water right. Then, as things started to downhill slide, people got very discouraged, which only made things worse when in the 1980s another large water right sale happened with the city of Aurora. That ended up taking out another large chunk of irrigated farmland. It struck me that it doesn’t take long for you to live here before you realize how important water is. Especially when you are farming and you don’t have water. There are so few things in the world that create wealth. Your ingenuity can do it or if you own land it can do it, but in the West, it’s water that creates wealth. If you own water rights and understand the intrinsic value and the future value of those rights, it just seems to me that it is truly one of those golden geese that are constantly laying eggs.

My father-in-law deserves some credit because unlike many others, he didn’t sell his water right. He decided to stay, and we are still here. I’m not sure if that is our stubbornness that rubbed off, but it is our home. It seems to me that although the cities need water, there are smarter ways to do water transfers or adjustments. Frankly, there are some new mechanisms that we are looking into, but it is difficult to break old habits, especially, in Colorado where everything is so regimented, and the status quo is so important. In many ways, it has to be this because of the nature of the beast. That is really what got me interested in water: understanding its value.

What was the motivation for joining WEco’s board?

I knew a little bit about the organization from reading the publications, but when I got involved with Palmer Land Trust I had an occasion to be introduced to a different group of people. However, it was at the Colorado Watersheds Conference that I was able to see all of the great work that WEco was doing and from there I had an opportunity to sit down with Jayla. Right away I was very impressed with her. Also, a dear friend, Scott Lorenz, was leaving the WEco board and he encouraged me to apply so that the Lower Arkansas Valley would have someone representing the region. I was ecstatic when the board decided to accept my application. That must have been back in 2019.

Before joining I had done some research on my own about WEco. To be a good board member you really should know what you are getting yourself into. The days of having someone simply write your name down for something doesn’t fly with me, so I wanted to gather some information for myself. What I did know about the board before even joining was that everyone on the board was well-regarded in their field. All of the people I knew on the board before joining were people who I enjoyed spending time around. Many of these things weighed into the decision, but I think it’s amazing to see what WEco tries to do. WEco’s mission of trying to relay the scope and importance of Colorado’s place in the West’s development is vital. It’s amazing to see how Colorado has shepherded and managed those resources over the last two centuries and how we are trying to preserve them well into the future. This is very important, and I think that if people want to get involved, as they should, they need to be informed, and WEco is there to help in that process. 

I‘ve heard that the Palmer Land Trust’s project on the Bessemer Ditch is doing some unique conservation work, can you describe the project? 

The Bessemer Ditch Project is a landmark project in many respects. We were a bit unfortunate that we came to the table late. The Pueblo Board of Waterworks, which serves the citizens of Pueblo under their charter to deliver potable water to its citizens and industries, had made a major purchase about a decade ago and purchased around 5,500 acres of land. In the Bessemer system, you also give one share of the Bessemer Irrigating Company along with your land title. Pueblo, like most municipalities, was only interested in the water right, so they bought the shares and then put a dry-up covenant. However, they leased the land and water back to the farmers for at least a twenty-year period.

It was very attractive to a number of families on that ditch. They were compensated well and had a chance to keep farming to make a transition over the twenty years. No one knows what is going to happen after the twenty-year period, but ultimately if Pueblo wants to put that water into use, then land needs to be dried up. The question then becomes: what happens to the dried-up land and what happens to the physical landscape? I can speak to personal experience, that irrigated land generally works best when there is continuity in the landscape. Being the only irrigated farm in an area where nothing else is green is not a great thing. That is nothing but an invitation to every pest in the area….it certainly brings repercussions.

The question then became, could Palmer do something practical during this period of time to make a transition, when and if it comes, better for everyone. Not only for the farmers but for the surrounding neighbors and the citizens of Pueblo. As you know, Pueblo has this great history of irrigated agriculture in its backyard, and because of that, the city is tied to its agriculture. Palmer integrated itself when it joined the water court case, and with some great attorneys and some help from the Bessemer Irrigating Company, we joined that case and had the water decree language modified to include being able to substitute lands that still had water rights with lands that didn’t have water rights. What we proposed was that under some very rigid conditions, Farmer X, if he has a farm that has water rights, and Farmer Y, who sold his water rights, decide to get together and the farmer with water rights would like to move it to land without water rights, the court will allow that to happen. Again, you have to jump through some hoops, but at the same time, that could help keep water in the ditch.

When these water sales happen, they are done simply to look at the water supply. The social or ecological dimensions are not even glanced over, so our thinking is that in the future that is what should be happening. At Palmer Land Trust, we found both the money and the experts, and did an extensive analysis of the entire Bessemer irrigating ditch system and found the most productive lands, the lands that could benefit from having buffers, contiguous land, ownership: overall a very thorough review was done. The ambition was to provide good information for a city like Pueblo, that in the future will look to continue to dry-up land, and we want to make sure they understand the complete effects of that. I don’t know of anyone doing anything quite like this. We as a land trust are trying to bring information to the table to allow for people to make better decisions, and that seems very cutting edge. There are many other layers to the project, but as it pertains to water specifically, this is what we are doing.

If there was any single thing that differentiated this project from any other like it, what would that be?

I think it’s the concept of being able to figure out how to move water from land that has a water right to land that doesn’t have a water right and making sure that the dry-up is done properly, but that the most highly productive lands stay in production. That is the cornerstone of the project. At least, that is what it is at this moment in time.

Does the Palmer Land Trust do other projects that are as focused on water rights? 

We are still doing individual type transactions with people that are interested in protecting their existing farms, or because farms are so expensive, mainly because of the water rights, a lot of the times people will contemplate putting easements on a newly acquired bit of land. Typically, there will be some remuneration to make this restriction on their property right. There is a payoff for them, and we will still do that type of work and encumber those water rights as part of that transaction so that they will stay on that land forever. We do allow language in the easements that allow for some short-term leasing, which would allow some gaps to be filled in the event of a big drought.

It seems to me that Colorado is only going to continue to grow. It is a great place to live, diverse economy, incredibly rich resource base, centrally located, but the one thing that is limiting is how we as Coloradans decide to use our water. I mean it is the state’s water, and as a water right holder I have the right to divert it and use it for a particular purpose, but once it finds its way back into the stream it becomes the state of Colorado’s and is reallocated to other water right holders. We want to preserve the mechanism of private property for its positive features, but as citizens of the state, we understand and appreciate that there are farms that need water, ecologies that need water, and recreational activities that need water. What we want is to balance all these different uses. Without a proper balance of water use, we don’t get any of these things. As a headwaters state, we have obligations to everyone downstream. We have to exist in a complex world and be very contemplative about how this resource is being used and what it means for the future.