“Do you want to see the beaver lodge?” asks Mark Beardsley excitedly as his boot plunges into the soft mud. Beardsley, a principal with the engineering firm EcoMetrics and co-founder of the Riparian Reconnect project, trudges through knee-deep water.
A mere decade ago, this private ranchland was dry and dusty, with just a narrow stream easily traversed on foot. Now, water flows wildly through a mess of willows and plants that require waders to navigate. Two beaver dams help the water pool and spill haphazardly. The goal, Beardsley says, is to return to “stage zero,” or what he calls the “blue ribbons” that would have snaked over the land before ranches and mines took over. Instead of straight, narrow ditches, Beardsley wants to “let nature do its thing.”
Riparian Reconnect’s infusion of nature to this South Park ranch in central Colorado is thanks to a partnership with Colorado Open Lands. Colorado Open Lands—one of many land trusts working across the West—works with private landowners to craft agreements known as conservation easements, forever protecting their land from private development.
Sometimes that means land becomes open space or a recreation area, other times it stays a working farm or ranch. The constant is conservation: The land will stay as it is, even past any future point of sale to a new owner.
Increasingly, land trusts like Colorado Open Lands are turning their attention to more than just the land and are working with landowners around their water assets to improve riparian systems and meet multiple water needs. Some landowners may feel comfortable protecting their land with a conservation easement but want to leave their water rights unencumbered—maintaining or exercising the option to sell the water at some future date and sever it from the land. Now in an era of shortages, land trusts are facilitating conversations about how that water can best sustain conserved land by keeping Colorado’s streams flowing or supporting farms and ranches, while also, in some cases, supplying booming municipalities or wetting dry downstream riverbeds.
“We say you can’t protect land without the water,” says Cheryl Cufre, director of land stewardship for Colorado Open Lands.
The Riparian Reconnect project crosses from private to public land with the goal of reviving Tarryall Creek back to rushing headwaters that soak the soil, store sediments, and create a robust water table. Through careful planting and stream management, not to mention some help from the beavers, Beardsley and his partners, Gillilan Associates, Inc. and Johnson Environmental, are holistically reviving riparian areas. The key is that the conserved parcels of land be linked so the water can flow freely. “The postage stamp approach just doesn’t work,” he says. That means that open space run by the state, like the nearby Cline Ranch State Wildlife Area, can link directly with private lands like this to create an ecosystem that looks like something out of the past, before the first ranch was developed here.
“You can’t get this kind of complexity in your backyard,” Beardsley says.
The Value of Private Land
Nationally, more than 1,500 land trusts have conserved some 56 million acres of private land, an amount roughly the size of Iowa, covering everything from Montana’s grasslands to Washington’s Klickitat River Canyon.
The land all remains owned by property owners who have agreed to partner with land trusts to essentially set terms for how the land will be used in the future. Landowners can get federal tax deductions and, in some states, including Colorado, tax credits as incentives to conserve their land. But they also get certainty that the land will be managed to meet their conservation objectives—for recreation and open space, farming or ranching, biodiversity or habitat restoration, or some other goal—in perpetuity.
Conservation is especially important across the West, even where public land abounds, says Amanda Hill, Southwest and California program manager for the national Land Trust Alliance.
“As the West was developed, the public lands may not have been as desirable for living, while the private lands are along stream banks and river banks that make it some of the most productive land,” Hill says. “Focusing on only conserving public lands, you’d miss the benefits of these other, potentially higher-value lands.”
In Colorado and across the West, much of the sprawling private land with valuable water rights is farm and ranchland. According to a 2020 report from the American Farmland Trust, between 2011 and 2016, 11 million acres of farmland and ranchland across the country were converted to developed land. “[When farmland is sold] new owners don’t always share the same agriculture interest. Farms are being bought up as investments and it’s not like there’s more land being built,” says Chuck Hanagan, whose produce farm near Swink, Colo., is partially under a conservation easement. “Losing that [farmland] changes the community forever.” Conservation easements can protect such agriculturally focused communities.
Colorado’s three largest land trusts—Colorado Open Lands, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, and The Nature Conservancy—each oversee some 500,000 acres. Statewide, it’s estimated that 2.2 million acres of private land are protected, either directly under a land trust or through other government work facilitated by one, according to the nonprofit Keep It Colorado.
Keep It Colorado is a coalition of land trusts, government agencies and private groups helping advance policy and public outreach on land preservation. Melissa Daruna, the group’s executive director, says their work has helped broaden the tent of what conservation looks like.
“With any conservation, there are benefits to the public like clean water, clean air and scenic views,” she says. “But where land trusts have really evolved is serving as a convening force to tackle multiple challenges.”
Increasingly, that’s meant focusing on water. In a 2015 survey by the Land Trust Alliance, 83 percent of conservation organizations nationwide said water quality and wetlands were a priority in their work, the second biggest priority behind “important natural areas or wildlife habitats.”
But with Colorado facing water shortages fueled by urbanization, agricultur , the water on that private land is increasingly in demand. As large ranches and farms pass down to younger generations, new owners may be willing to wall off the land to development and subdivision by putting it in a conservation easement, but might not want to forfeit their ability to sell a water right that grows more valuable as nearby cities become more desperate for water.
That’s led to a discussion about how to both serve growing cities and the farmers, recreationists and birdwatchers who want to keep water irrigating farms or flowing through streams.
“It takes a cultural shift around the way water rights are viewed,” says Daruna. “It takes a landowner saying ‘I’m willing to do this’ and neighbors who will partner, and a creative way of thinking.”
Thinking Outside the Box
The Palmer Land Trust holds conservation easements protecting more than 135,000 acres of working farms, ranches, scenic corridors, and public recreation spaces across southeastern Colorado, from Pikes Peak to the Lower Arkansas Valley.
But when it comes to water, the 43-year-old trust is guided by an example from the relatively tiny Crowley County just east of Pueblo. There, between the 1950s and 1980s, farmers gradually sold off some 80,000 acre-feet of water rights to the growing cities along the Front Range. As a result, only about 7 percent of the previously farmed land is now irrigated. The ditches and canals that once watered the tomato and corn fields dried, and without irrigated agriculture and the other business that it brings such as tractors, tools and workers, the county has watched its population decline and businesses struggle to stay afloat.
In years since, while farmers and ranchers may be tempted to sell their water rights to Front Range cities, Palmer Land Trust conservation director Ed Roberson urges people to be “mindful to not do what they did in Crowley County” and give up water without a plan.
That was the thought on Jim Hanratty’s mind when he agreed to put about 200 acres of his 600-acre farm under a conservation easement held by the Palmer Land Trust, as well as 185 shares of the Bessemer Ditch Company. Hanratty wanted to make sure the land would have water—he draws it from a number of sources, including the Bessemer Ditch—for any future agricultural use. So he protected it, perpetually, under the conservation easement.
“We’ve seen the effects in this area of losing the water, and farming just doesn’t look possible when the water is taken off,” Hanratty says.
But a water transfer happened again in 2009, when 78 Bessemer Ditch shareholders sold their water rights to the Pueblo Board of Water Works, which is leasing it back to the farms through 2029. That purchase offers security for Pueblo, which will have water reserves in the future, and, for the time being, keeps nearby farms producing pumpkins, onions, melons and the famous Pueblo chile.
“Down there right now it’s business as usual, the same as it’s ever been,” Roberson says. The farmers who sold their water continue to irrigate by leasing it back from Pueblo Water. But in 2029, Pueblo Water could start drying up that land—about one-third of the property irrigated by the Bessemer Ditch.
That’s where the Palmer Land Trust comes in. For the past five years, Palmer has been studying and working with the community and Pueblo Water to mitigate the potential impacts of that sale by optimizing water use along the Bessemer Ditch. The issue, according to Roberson, isn’t that Pueblo Water purchased that water.
“The biggest problem with this whole thing is that the vast majority of the land whose water was sold is also the most productive farmland,” Roberson says. He knows this because Palmer Land Trust conducted a landscape-scale analysis, viewing the area from a 10,000-foot level to assess productivity. If Pueblo Water dries up that productive land, the region’s economy could decline by much more than a third, Roberson says. The Palmer Land Trust has commissioned a study to more accurately quantify the projected economic impact.
To lessen the impact, the Palmer Land Trust and Pueblo Water have collaborated and legally added a provision to Pueblo’s water right decree that allows the land trust to move water from one parcel of less-productive farmland to a more productive parcel. “We’re saying, ‘Okay, one-third of this land is going to be dried up. How do we dry it up in a way that conserves land in the best and most effective way?’” Roberson says.
After the water is moved, the prime farmland and water are being protected with a conservation easement to “keep it as is: irrigated farmland forever,” Roberson says. Pueblo can still divert its water, it will just be drying up less productive farmland.
‘It’s not a Competition, It’s an Ecosystem’
For land trusts, conservation is the name of the game. And conserved farmland and ranchland is most valuable to the public and to landowners when accompanied by robust water resources.
Keeping water flowing and, at the same time, enhancing natural resource management under operative agreements written into conservation easements, can have additive benefits like preserved scenic views, more nutrients in the soil, flood mitigation, and more opportunities for wildlife.
Many of the lakes, rivers and streams on privately conserved property in Colorado, for example, have become migration spots for geese, ducks and other migratory birds. That’s important because, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, riparian and wetland habitat comprise less than 3 percent of the state’s land base but support more than 75 percent of all wildlife. But preserving them requires the kind of expertise, as well as the connections, that land trusts provide.
The Crested Butte Land Trust is a good example, using its assets around the Slate River for a number of restoration projects. In 2015, the trust removed an artificial berm along the river that was choking off its natural flow, resulting in new wildlife and plant growth.
Meanwhile, Colorado Open Lands’ Riparian Reconnect project has a goal of restoring 170 acres of wetlands across the South Platte River and its tributaries. (The project is now expanding across the state.) To revitalize the riparian areas, the partners needed to link conserved parcels owned by different individuals and entities. The landowners also had to be on board, where possible offering a financial contribution and day-to-day maintenance.
“There’s no point in identifying an area that merits restoration if you don’t have a landowner with that same vision,” says Cufre. “We know our landowners are interested in this kind of work because of the conservation easement, and we’re careful to maintain consistency with the land use management goals. Ultimately, it’s their responsibility to be stewarding the land.”
It can sometimes seem like conservation is at odds with serving municipalities, but Riparian Reconnect’s Beardsley says that even cities should view their work as a benefit instead of a missed opportunity for more water storage.
“These habitats don’t take away the water, they provide benefits on the way to other uses. It’s not a competition, it’s an ecosystem,” says Beardsley.
Often, the benefits run both ways. Rules crafted in 2015 to restore the vast aquifer system below the San Luis Valley left the City of Alamosa scrambling; the easiest way it could meet the requirements was to put water back in the Alamosa River to offset some of the well water it took from the aquifer. The generations-old Cactus Hill Farm in nearby La Jara had the most senior water right on the river, and the owners needed cash, setting up the possibility of a buy-and-dry arrangement.
At the same time, Elena Miller-terKuile and her father, who run the sheep farm together, were talking to the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) about the possibility of a conservation easement. The three parties worked out a creative arrangement to keep water on the farm and meet Alamosa’s needs. Through an alternative transfer method, or ATM, Cactus Hill will keep its water rights and Alamosa will lease 5 to 10 percent of the farm’s water, up to 36 acre-feet per year, allowing the city to meet its restoration needs, perpetually.
For the farm, the agreement does mean less water and fallowing parcels of land, but what water they do have can go farther. The original water rights require it to be used for crops or livestock, but now some water will fill recharge ponds on the farm to replace missing return flows. Miller-terKuile says that will help revitalize groundwater, improve soil health, and improve the effectiveness of flood irrigation across the entire property.
“This gave us a chance to do something for the whole ecosystem,” she says. “Your trees and grassland work differently than crops and benefit from groundwater. Even on a micro scale, we can see how this benefits the farm overall … even with less water.”
Broadening the Tent
As the state prepares for a future defined by water shortages, land trusts are positioning themselves as valuable partners. The Colorado Water Plan, the state’s long-range roadmap for meeting future water needs, identifies conservation easements and the ATMs they can facilitate as key to protecting agriculture and serving municipalities.
“[Buy and dry] is still the trend. Despite our best efforts to incentivize ATMs, we could still see a lot of loss [of land and water rights] in rural communities,” says Alex Funk, an agricultural water resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state agency leading implementation of the water plan. “Water resource management is a huge outside influence over land loss in the state that the land trust community should be thinking about.”
Conservation can help. With relationships in the landowner community and access to treasured water resources, land trusts are taking a leadership role in negotiating arrangements that optimize benefits for their partners.
“Conservation is a little different for everybody, and that requires a creative and inclusive approach from everyone,” says Keep It Colorado’s Daruna. “Our goal is to keep broadening the tent.”
That tent now includes everyone from city and state government bodies to farmers to energy organizations—anyone ready to work creatively. With broad benefits to water conservation that improve wildlife habitats, soil health and, yes, water supply, the organizing work of land trusts around water has grown to help almost any partner.
Scott Lorenz, senior project manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, said he has found trusts like Palmer Land Trust to be helpful as he tries to improve his city’s water supply without competing with surrounding rural communities. “The idea that we’re all just separate communities independent of each other has gone by the wayside,” he says, and land trusts can help bridge that gap between landowners and public interests—from municipal to environmental and beyond.
“[Land trusts] have people in the region with these relationships in the community, but also an understanding of what our needs are. That includes conservation,” says Lorenz. “Water and land, we’re well past the point of thinking they’re not related.”
Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver specializing in environmental policy. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Reveal, HuffPost, National Journal, and Undark, among other outlets.