By Rio de la Vista
With Colorado’s growing population and the severe drought which began in 2002, there continues to be intense pressure for land development and with that, pressure to convert more and more water from agriculture to other uses. In response to this, the interest in and support for conserving agricultural land and its water is increasing. Conservation easements are a tool commonly used to do just that.

Conservation easements protect private land for its agricultural productivity, wildlife habitat and scenic landscapes. They do so by restricting non-compatible uses to those goals. Examples of customary restrictions include dis-allowing subdivisions so farm and ranch land and/or wildlife habitat isn’t chopped up. They also tie the water rights to the land so that the land will continue to be agriculturally productive, scenic and good wildlife habitat. Each conservation easement is tailored to the property it is designed to protect the attributes of a given property. Conservation easements are entered into voluntarily by the landowner. At the end of the day the landowner still owns the land and can lease it and or sell it. However, conservation easements run with the land, not the landowner, so all subsequent owners of that land will be subject to the terms of the conservation easement.

While there is potentially a cash benefit plus federal and state tax benefits for completing a conservation easement, those incentives are nice, but they can never adequately compensate a landowner for putting a conservation easement on their land. Therefore, landowners have to place their land into an easement for the right reasons and every landowner enters into a conservation easement for different reasons. One may decide it is the right fit for them in order to tie the water rights to the land. Another wants to protect the land from the potential of future generations subdividing the property. Another just can’t stand the thought of seeing their beloved ranch split into “ranchettes”. And that’s where a land trust, such as the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) in the San Luis Valley enters the picture.

RiGHT is a registered non-profit that began in 1999, in response to a threat of a water grab. An outside entity wanted to export water from the Valley and in response RiGHT’s founders went looking for a tool to tie water to the land. They tool they found were conservation easements. Tying water rights to the land is an important part of a bigger picture. As noted above, it helps keep agricultural land in agriculture and much of the quality wildlife habitat that exists along Valley floors exist because historic flood irrigation has created wetlands and helps our cottonwood and willow groves thrive. But it is more than that, keeping water tied to the land also helps maintain the historic hydrology of a river system which benefits every farmer and
ranch along the system. And here in the San Luis Valley, it also helps the Colorado Division of Water Resources meets its Rio Grande Compact obligations to downstream states.

Research shows that, in contrast to the highly fragmented ownership of many of Colorado’s mountainous river corridors, there is still a substantial amount of relatively intact land along the Rio Grande corridor, much of which has senior water rights associated with it.

In 2007 RiGHT launched the “Rio Grande Initiative”, an ambitious effort to protect private land along the Rio Grande River and its major tributaries, while the chance exists.

In seven years, RiGHT and other conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy have been able to triple the pace of conservation along the Rio Grande and its major tributaries, as compared to the previous 20 years. Millions in conservation has been achieved through these efforts and about half of that came into the community as direct payments to landowners. A recent Trust for Public Land study indicated that every dollar invested in conservation generates six dollars of economic return in communities through agricultural productivity, tourism, hunting, etc. Therefore those funds serve as a substantial economic driver in the San Luis Valley.

It is for these reasons that conservation easements will remain an important tool as the State and Basin press forward with the Colorado Water and Rio Grande Basin Water Plans. The collaborative process to develop a Basin Implementation Plan (Basin Plan) that identifies the water values and needs of the San Luis Valley is well underway. This plan will become the heart of the Valley’s section of the State Water Plan that Gov. John Hickenlooper initiated by Executive Order. This is an opportunity for Valley residents to work together to create an all-inclusive water plan for our collective water future. The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable is hosting this community discussion and has subcommittee teams working to gather input and draft a viable plan for current and future water needs.

San Luis Valley residents are encouraged to get involved in the water plan by attending the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable monthly meetings held the second Tuesday of each month at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 Fourth Street in Alamosa. The lead consultant and local liaison from DiNatale Water Consultants is Tom Spezze. Tom can be contacted at [email protected]. More information is available at Rio de la Vista is coordinator of the Environmental and Recreational Subcommittee and portion of the Basin Plan. She can be reached at [email protected].