Weld County ag communities feel 30-year impact of Thornton buy-and-dry
The Fence Post Editor
Thornton is not the only municipality to have purchased agricultural land for its municipal water supplies, and Weld County is one of just many areas to have been impacted by buy-and-dry practices. The economically devastating impact of water sales in Crowley County and Sugar City in southern Colorado serves as an iconic example of how dryup can permanently change a community.
“We in Colorado water collectively learned a lot from when the Sugar City area got dried up in the ‘70s by Aurora buying water. There was no revegetation clauses and they lost the properties,” said Brain Werner, communications manager for Northern Water. “It’s a perfect example of how not to do it.”
A recent example of municipal buy-and-dry in Weld County was the 2014 purchase by the town of Castle Rock of 2,500 acre feet of water to be diverted from the Box Elder Creek Basin. The details and stipulations of the diversion are still being planned, but will likely be influenced by lessons learned from past buy-and-dry controversies.
For more on the Castle Rock purchase, visit here.
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Acreage owned by Thornton in Weld and Larimer counties
Revegetated acres (removed from irrigation): 6,941
Total acres: 17,750
Revegetated acres: 788
Total acres: 1590
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Assessed, taxable values of agricultural acreage in Weld County
Irrigated - $840
Dryland - $88
Grazing - $65
To calculate tax value, the assessed value of agricultural acreage is divided by 29 percent and multiplied by the mill levy.
Source: Christopher Woodruff, Weld County Assessor
The farmland around Pierce spreads out like a patchwork quilt, alternating between plots of irrigated, productive cropland and remnants of what once was.
The 160 acres that Charles Tucker, owner of Tucker Dairy in Pierce, once leased to plant small grains and corn for feed have sat idle for nearly a decade.
On the corner of Weld County roads 88 and 39, the corral and home that previously stood here, along with the irrigation water that sustained life, are gone.
The trees lining the dirt road will not join the coming spring bloom that soon promises to brighten northern Colorado. Without water, these trees stand as a monument for Tucker of what his life, and his community’s life, was like before 1986 when the city of Thornton, almost 70 miles to the southwest, shocked northern Colorado with the purchase of nearly 20,000 acres of irrigated farmland in Weld and Larimer counties.
In those days, Thornton, like many other metropolitan communities, already knew it would need additional water to satisfy a growing population. Farmland, such as that leased by Tucker, provided the needed resource.
The case, beginning 30 years ago this year, marked a new era for northern Colorado’s water community, explained Brian Werner, Northern Water’s communications manager.
“I think our antennas went up with Thornton and they’ve been up ever since. There are still other schemes and operations we’re dealing with. Think United Water,” he said.
While the case sounded the alarms, Werner recognizes the continued possibility of similar buy-and-dry. Whether purchases occur little by little or in one big chunk, such as the Thornton purchase, the larger impact spells trouble for agriculture and the communities that rely on it.
“Collectively, none of it is good if you take it to the ultimate conclusion for ag. This is what we keep saying. This is why we are trying to build water storage projects, create some alternatives, so the only alternative isn’t to buy and dry,” Werner said.
Tucker, looking out at his former tenant plot, now revegetated with native grasses, said while some may call this progress, to him, as a farmer, it means something entirely separate.
“To me, it’s nothing,” he said.
In 1996, Thornton pulled Tucker’s acreage out of production, diverting the water back to the Water Supply and Storage Company ditch.
Eventually, the water from Tucker’s former plot, just like that of Thornton’s additional 17,750 acres of land spread across 104 Weld County farms, will be diverted south, through a pipeline into the city’s municipal supply system.
Thornton still does not know when that will happen, but is currently in the consultation process to etch out a route. The city’s water supply director Mark Koleber indicated Thornton will need some water from its Weld properties in the mid-2020s. The city should divert the full supply by 2060.
With over a third of the acreage in Weld already dried, residents of Pierce and Ault, where the bulk of Thornton’s Weld County farmland is located, are uneasy. What will their futures in this farming region look like once the water is gone?
There are already signs that the future does not look bright.
Around the town of Pierce, where most of the 6,941 acres of dry-up have already occurred, growth has stagnated.
The city of Thornton has adhered to stipulations set out for it — re-vegetating land and paying Weld County taxes of $4.4 million since 1986, an average of $8 an acre a year. Yet while those tax dollars and property management cover Thornton’s bare minimum responsibilities, they cannot remedy the identity crisis created when a farming community loses its farms and the residents who tend its land.
Mayor M. Sue Spurgeon-Paris gestured to the town’s more than 100-home subdivision, Walkabout Acres, to demonstrate the difficulty in attracting long-term residents here. With fewer than 20 homes currently occupied, Walkabout has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
And it hasn’t been just the homes. Businesses have found it difficult to set up shop in a community with a cloudy future.
“We have had businesses come and ask, but since there’s nothing here anymore, they don’t want to come,” she said. “If you want to build here, you better bring an acre-foot of water with you.”
The loss of farms, Spurgeon-Paris pointed out, represents a loss of business as well.
“Any time a farm ceases to operate, somebody loses a job, even if it’s just the farmer,” she said, explaining that the farmer will take his family and his investment with him when he leaves. “Without farmers, we’re basically just screwed.”
Census statistics paint another grim picture for Pierce’s future. As the town’s neighbors and other Weld County communities have grown in recent decades, some by leaps and bounds, Pierce’s population has declined.
In 1980, the town had 878 residents. At the 2010 census, the population had dropped to 834, a 5 percent decline. Any decline, in an era when many Weld towns have exploded, is not a good sign.
Even established dairyman Tucker knows the land he manages no longer holds the appeal it did when his family purchased the property in 1966. Although he has considered relocating to Wyoming, a state he considers friendlier to agriculture, but he doubts his property, now surrounded by dryland, would garner much market interest.
The signs in Ault aren’t much better. The town’s grain elevator shut down long ago, and fertilizer company Simplot Soil Builders moved out. Ault-Pierce Fire Chief Scott Wagner remembers when Ault’s main street had bustling businesses and restaurants. These days, he said the strip is mostly filled with antique shops.
“If you can move your business to a place where you are going to stay in business and sell a lot of fertilizers and chemicals, why would you stay here when you know long term this is going to get dried up?” he said, sitting in the fire house that symbolizes the tense relationship between Ault and Thornton.
“If you look around, there are not a lot of places where Ault can grow because Thornton owns the property all around Ault.”
When Ault’s school district, and later the fire district, needed land for their expansions, the town turned to Thornton to purchase property.
“The purchase was a little tough,” Wagner said.
Weld County Commissioner Mike Freeman agreed, describing the purchase as a prime example of the frustrations felt by Ault and Pierce when it comes to working with Thornton on development projects.
“I think they’ve been absolutely the most difficult people to deal with in that community, not only for the school district, but also for the fire district,” he said. “I don’t understand why it is that Thornton through all of that period of time refused to just be good neighbors.”
Freeman, who sat on the Highland Re-9 District school board from 1997-2005, began speaking with the city’s farm office manager Brian Foss in 2001 about purchasing the plot.
After four years of delays, Freeman decided to go over the staff’s head to get the project moving. He went directly to then-Thornton Mayor Noel Busck
“I said, Mayor Busck … ‘I would like to have a conversation with you, elected official to elected official. Do you have a few minutes?’ And he said, ‘absolutely,’ ” Freeman said. “When I got to the end, he said, ‘Mr. Freeman, I had no idea that any of this was going on.’”
Within the week, the sale was approved by the Thornton City Council.
When he experiences delays now, Freeman no longer hesitates to bypass the city staff and meet directly with the mayor.
Koleber described the property sale as an example of when the city has worked to benefit Ault.
“The Ault-Pierce Highland School District needed property a number of years ago,” he said, “and we helped them with that property.”
The 68 acres now house the fire department and additional property for the school.
Unfortunately, the conflict over the property did not end with the purchase, extending several more years over Ault’s right to access the mineral rights that came with the property deed.
“The property was bought with mineral rights and they didn’t want us to exercise our mineral rights or lease them out or anything,” Wagner said. “They thought we were going to make money on it.”
Koleber explained that the town may now access those rights, but initial fears that they might use the property other than for the originally established purpose created the delays.
Ault Mayor Bruce White expressed similar frustration over development projects involving Thornton. As the town works to attract new industry to cover its losses in agriculture, White said Thornton has not made progress easy.
“Since I’ve been on the board or been the mayor, any time we’ve approached Thornton about anything, it has been difficult,” he said.
White pointed to a recent conflict over sewer and water lines that needed to run through a Thornton property to reach an 80-acre plot annexed by Ault for industrial development by C&H Excavation. White said Thornton forced Ault to turn to more extreme negotiation tactics after the city threw up repeated roadblocks.
“When we sent them a letter of intent to condemn the ground, it was the only time they paid attention,” White said. “When they showed up here, they showed up with three lawyers.”
In the end, Ault paid Thornton $14,247, according to town clerk Sharon Sullivan, for the 40-foot easement and to remedy crop damages on the city’s leased and irrigated farmland.
Since the resolution of the C&H Excavation dispute, White said he has not seen the relationship evolve.
“You have to push them so far before they’ll agree to do something. I would say they don’t do business like we do around here,” White said. “I feel being surrounded by Thornton has hindered us. Thornton won’t sell the land up here.”
Scott Twombly, Thornton’s real estate manager, described the C&H Excavation negotiations much more amicably.
“They needed sewer and water to that property and they approached us about getting an easement,” Twombly said. “We worked with their engineers, we worked with the town and with the attorneys and eventually granted them easements, and they are in the process now of installing those water and sewer lines.”
It’s this kind of disconnect that worries and continues to frustrate residents of Ault and Pierce.
Foss works from Thornton’s Farm Management Office in Ault, where those with land questions come to him with requests and concerns. Foss also oversees the mandatory revegetation of land once it is removed from irrigation.
While White said Foss’ office has been known to respond to calls and questions quickly, something gets lost in the process, delaying a resolution for years.
Foss feels good about his relationship with Ault.
“I don’t have any issues talking with or dealing with any of the community members,” Foss said. “I feel we have done a wonderful job of being good neighbors, good stewards and contacting anybody that has any problems or issues with us.”
His interactions with Pierce officials have been limited, although Foss said no qualms or issues exist in that community either.
Spurgeon-Paris, on the other hand, said that while she might wave or even smile at Foss on the street, they do not speak.
Werner of Northern Water said that while the relationship may appear tense now, it has in fact improved. He described the Thornton of today as a kinder, gentler version of its 1980s self.
“You couldn’t even mention Thornton’s name for a number of years. They were the bad guys. They were wearing the black hats up in northern Colorado,” he said.
Werner said better staff, such as Koleber, have allowed the town to become more collaborative and conciliatory.
Freeman said a 2009 visit to Pierce and Ault, organized in large part by Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, marked a turning point in the relationship. Before then, Freeman said no relationship existed between Thornton and Weld County.
The farm tour with then Mayor Erik Hansen was one of the first visits by an elected city of Thornton official since the 1980s, Freeman said.
The visit allowed the city to establish a dust abatement plan and led to the annual reports that Thornton now makes to Weld and Larimer counties on its farm properties. This year’s meeting in Weld County is scheduled at 1:30 p.m. March 23 at 1150 O St., Greeley.
Kenny Lamb, a Pierce resident who has lived in a rented Thornton home since 1986, said he has found the city responsive and attentive. When something requires repair, Lamb will fix it himself and Thornton will deduct the cost from his rent.
Even so, Barry Wingfield of the Ault-Pierce fire board said the legacy of Thornton as a poor property manager persists.
“You can tell a Thornton property from a non-Thornton property,” he said.
In the minds of many area residents, Thornton is responsible for the decay of many historic homes. Tucker even called the city slumlords, as many of the homes are rented from the city.
The rentals have also diminished the sense of community, White said.
“You don’t have families that have roots here anymore,” White said. “A lot of them are transient. They rent for a few years and they’re gone.”
Occasionally rental homes, no longer worth the investment of repairs, will be donated to the fire department to be burned down as part of live training exercises, Wagner said.
Koleber said the plots these homes occupy are eventually slated to be sold back to private landowners. But even this may not solve the larger issue. While this transition will mean more families settling in, they won’t be the farming families of the past. As White and many others in the community fear, they will be urban families in search of affordable homes on divided parcels of land no longer fit to farm.
When this transition finally happens, Freeman said Ault and Pierce will never be the same.
It starts with less water in the ditches for farmers still holding water rights to pump and ends with the sales of land worth a fraction of its earlier value.
“If they would sell any of these houses back, they’re not worth nearly what they would have been if you had had someone maintaining them,” Freeman said, adding, “If they do decide to sell some of this farm ground back, well it went off of the tax roll as irrigated farm ground and it’s coming back on the tax roll as dryland farm ground, which is substantially less tax revenue.”
County tax assessor Christopher Woodruff said dryland tax valuations come in at around a tenth of irrigated acreage, while grazing land can come in at a thirteenth of the value.
Woodruff said the taxable value of irrigated acreage currently sits at $840 an acre, while dryland and grazing sit at $88 and $65, respectively.
In the end, White said the substantially lower tax contribution from dryland and grazing acreage will hurt school and fire districts that depend on those dollars as a main source of income.
“I think they’re getting away with murder on them, personally,” he said.
While much of the damage is done, and future damages appear inevitable, White said the relationship shows potential for improvement. He encouraged Thornton to take a page out of landfill operator Waste Management’s book. No one really wants a landfill in town, and yet, the company’s involvement in community events and sponsorships of things like a school crossing guard have given it a positive reputation.
With an abundance of FFA and 4-H events, community fairs and the annual fall festival, opportunities abound for Thornton to show its commitment as a good neighbor.
“In Ault’s case, I don’t think we really want anything,” White said. “I guess what we would like is if we have an idea, or need help on something, or if we can help them on something, if we could talk about it instead of getting lawyers. No one pays attention until the lawyers get involved.” ❖