Mack acreage, associated water rights preserved through easement

The Daily Sentinel, February 24, 2023- A local landowner has partnered with the Colorado West Land Trust to protect 320 acres of irrigated cropland and natural habitat in the Mack area from the possibility of future development by placing it in a conservation easement, which also ensures the water rights will forever remain with the land.

Jim McCurter realized shorty after buying the property in 2021 that there was frequent waterfowl and wildlife activity there and he wanted to make sure that habitat was protected for the enjoyment of future generations, the land trust said in a news release. He also wanted to improve the existing land and ensure the availability of the region’s water.

To accomplish these goals, he filed for additional water and storage rights, used the new water rights to construct seven shallow ponds fed by stream diversions, and planted food and cover, attracting heavy bird use. Besides serving as wildlife habitat, the ponds can be used for irrigation, stock watering, fire protection, and recreational hunting, according to the land trust.

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In addition to preserving water and wildlife habitat, McCurter wanted to restore the property’s farmland. The land was previously used for hemp production, and he had to remove plastic sheeting and drip tape that was used to limit weed growth.

“The farm was littered with plastic which looked terrible, and it was a tremendous project to get that all cleaned up and removed,” McCurter said in the release. “It took us several months and I don’t even know how many hours, but it was important to get it cleaned up and get the land back into farm production.”

The fields were then furrowed to support gravity-fed irrigation, and corn, milo and wheat were planted. Waterfowl including duck, geese and sandhill cranes use the ponds, and songbirds also nest and forage on the property. The land partly borders other lightly developed private lands and Bureau of Land Management land, adding to regional habitat quality for many species of wildlife seeking shelter and food. Elk seek out the dense vegetation along a creek on the property in the winter, and the property also attracts mule deer, coyotes, red foxes, bobcats, badgers, white-tailed prairie dogs and other animals.

The property, known as Green Valley Ranch Estates, is crossed by East Salt Creek and a second creek, and along with riparian areas and 240 acres of irrigated cropland contains semi-desert shrubland and grassland. The easement protects the property from development in perpetuity, which also protects scenic views of it from M 8/10 Road, Interstate 70 and nearby public land.

“We greatly appreciate Jim’s efforts to clean up the property and improve the wildlife habitat while keeping in mind the importance of Grand Valley’s water,” said Ilana Moir, director of conservation of the land trust. “His efforts and commitment to conservation ensure the preservation of scenic views and wildlife habitat for future generations to enjoy.”

Rob Bleiberg, executive director of the land trust, said in the release, “As out-of-state investors snap up West Slope land and water rights, we are grateful to partner with Jim McCurter to ensure that the lifeblood of our community will not be auctioned off to the highest bidder.”

Purchases of land and associated water rights by out-of-state investors in the Grand Valley and elsewhere have raised fears about potentially drying up West Slope agricultural land as investors look to make money off their water rights.

Moir said Wednesday that the land trust, like so many locally, thinks it’s important to make sure water rights stay with property in the Grand Valley “so we can have the agricultural economy, the wildlife habitat that we’re used to having in the Grand Valley.”

As a standard practice, the land conservation easements that the land trust works on include a provision preventing the landowners from selling the water rights separately from the property, so agriculture on a property remains viable permanently. Moir said the McCurter easement does allow leasing of the water, however. She said the land trust has learned over the years that it helps to have agreements that prohibit the separate selling of the water rights but allow flexibility for water to be leased for circumstances such as use by another producer needing water in a certain year, or to boost instream flows for river habitat.

The land trust has conserved more than 127,000 acres of land in six counties, including 64,940 acres in Mesa County. But relatively little of that has been in the lower Grand Valley north of the Colorado River. Moir said she hopes some other landowners in that area can see “what conservation looks like on the ground” in the case of the McCurter property, leading to other nearby conservation successes.

This isn’t McCurter’s first time working with the land trust to conserve local property. Moir said they partnered maybe a dozen years ago to conserve more than 700 acres in the heart of Unaweep Canyon by Thimble Rock.

By Dennis Webb

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