What is a temporary water leasing agreement?

by Grace Harmon, ’20

A temporary water leasing agreement is the sharing of a water right between two consumers as a method of water conservation. A temporary water leasing agreement is also referred to as an Alternative Transfer Method (ATM) by the Colorado Water Conservation Board grant program. This research focuses on the temporary leasing of water from agricultural irrigation districts to urban water utilities. A municipality is able to use water from an agricultural irrigation district or ditch company every three out of ten years under current legislation known as an Interruptible Water Supply Agreement (IWSA).[1] When this pre-arranged acre-foot quantity of water is used to augment an urban utility’s water supply, the agricultural producer receives monetary compensation for fallowing their land.

1) Water is diverted from the Arkansas River to the irrigation ditch. This is known as the head gate.


2) Ditch water is monitored for its flow rate and quantity.


3) Depending on whether a utility decides to take water, the box divider channels water to either the irrigator’s field, or the utility’s water treatment facility.Photos of Diamond Farms, a participating farm in the Catlin Canal pilot project temporary water leasing agreement.

Photos by author, 2019.


Why are temporary water leasing agreements used?

  • Climate change and rapid population growth have led to increased water scarcity. Colorado experiences frequent drought and only receives 15 inches of precipitation per year.[2] Climate change has further exacerbated aridity — Colorado has received below-average precipitation since 2000.[3] 96 percent of Colorado’s population growth between 2010 and 2015 occurred in the Front Range.[4] This pits municipal interests against agricultural producers, ditch companies, and irrigation districts. Agricultural and municipal entities can reframe competition for water rights as cooperation and collaboration toward a water-secure for both agricultural and urban water rights providers.
  • “Buy and Dry” is the permanent transfer or agricultural water rights to municipal use, resulting in large-scale dry up of previously irrigated land.[5] Buy and dry purchases were the status quo for Front Range cities that began to outgrow their water supplies during the 1980s and still continue today.[6] These sales occur between a willing seller and buyer, but these transactions in aggregate destabilize entire communities (i.e. Crowley County, CO) that depend on agriculture for income, employment, and cultural identity.[7] Temporary water leasing agreements can prevent economic decline in rural communities.
  • Temporary water leasing agreements provide public benefits by maintaining the viability of irrigated agricultural land. These public benefits include the conservation of open space, community buffers, and wildlife corridors, which can also serve as a local food source. Temporary water leasing agreements can play a role in reducing overall consumptive water use on the micro scale.

Where are temporary water leasing agreements (ATMs) occurring?
All of the agreements examined in this study are each marked by the geographic coordinates of the ditch where water is expected to be leased.

Which agreements have been completed?

  • Larimer County Department of Natural Resources-owned Little Thompson Farm and City of Broomfield
  • The Catlin Canal and Town of Fowler, City of Fountain, and Town of Security
  • Rocky Ford Highline Canal Company and City of Aurora

Which agreements are still pending?

  • Bessemer Ditch and City of Pueblo
  • Lower Arkansas Water Management Association and City of Colorado Springs

How was this research conducted?
The research was grounded in a qualitative review of preexisting literature on ATMs within the last 20 years and a series of interviews. Eighteen confidential interviews were conducted with key stakeholders and experts between June and September 2019. The majority of the interviews occurred through a phone conversation, and several interviews were conducted in-person or over email. The interviews were examined for similar themes and perceptions toward ATMs. The following table illustrates the breakdown of the entities interviewed: 

Water Utilities (water resource managers, project managers, project engineers) Third Party Entities (directors, project specialists) Regional Entities (general managers and program coordinators)
Arkansas River Basin: Cities of Colorado Springs, Fountain, and Aurora Nonprofit land trusts: Palmer Land Trust and Colorado Open Lands Program Water districts: Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District (Arkansas River Basin)
South Platte River Basin: City of Broomfield For-profit entities: Western Water Partnerships and WaterNow Alliance Irrigation ditch companies: Lower Arkansas Management Association
Government land management agency: Larimer County Department of Natural Resources Statewide water management agency: Colorado Water Conservation Board


Agricultural entities: Colorado Ag Water Alliance and Colorado Cattlemen’s Association State-commissioned water management work group: Southern Platte Regional Opportunities Work Group

What are the findings for this research?
By embracing the flexible definition of a temporary water leasing agreement, these agreements are an opportunity to maximize shared communal benefits. They will become more widely adopted and successful if:

  1. Conservation easements or local government-sponsored land conservation are coupled with Interruptible Water Supply Agreements (IWSAs).
    • Agreements that are at least 50 years in length take into account a utility’s need for certainty and long-term supply. Shifting from short-term projects, such as the Catlin Canal pilot project, to sustained programs will increase the likelihood that temporary leasing agreements are adopted.
    • Agreements that are multi-parcel or are incorporated in large-scale storage projects will increase the scalability of agreements. This will make agreements more replicable and long-lasting.
  2. Socio-normative and political barriers can be overcome through greater coordination between water providers and agricultural ditch companies.
    • Definition of a socio-normative barrier: “water managers either lack the capacity or incentives to try to new approaches to water management. Water managers may not feel compelled or empowered to implement ATMs that have broader economic, social, and environmental benefits, but make their primary difficulties more difficult or do not align with their primary goals.”[8]
    • Definition of a political barrier: “the mobilization of constituencies that find other water-supply policies that better match their interests,”[9] and the unequal distribution of responsibilities in fulfilling the terms of an agreement
    • Both socio-normative and political barriers prevent the maximization of temporary water leasing agreements. While these barriers are entity specific, they can interfere with the adoption of agreements across the Front Range.
  3. Further education and outreach target and inform municipal officials about the broader public benefits of ATMs.
    • Water providers should consider marketing the benefits of temporary water leasing agreements provide for community planning, open space conservation, and food security, in order to justify the potential increases in costs to ratepayers.[10]
    • Greater streamlined coordination between land and water planning agencies will enable temporary water leasing agreements to be more impactful.
    • Targeted strategizing and information sessions will enable citizens to engage and learn more about water scarcity 

Final Takeaways
Some buy and dry purchases, or the permanent transfer of water rights from agricultural to municipal use,[11] are inevitable due to climate change and rapid urbanization. Temporary water leasing agreements where water is purchased by a municipality and then leased back to a farmer are a retroactive way to mitigate buy and dry. While buy and dry is a valid concern for rural communities, temporary water leasing agreements are a deviation from Colorado’s standard water law framework. They mark a new chapter for water management in Colorado because they are an opportunity to place value on the communal benefits of consumptive water use. Temporary water leasing agreements both augment municipal supplies and can enhance water conservation between interstate water users across the entire Colorado River Basin.


[1] Kenney, Doug. “Improving the Viability of Alternative Water Transfer Methods (ATM) in Colorado: A Synthesis of Research and Findings from the Getches-Wilkinson Center, 2014-2015.” University of Colorado. Last modified 2015. http://www.waterpolicy.info/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Summary-of-GWC-ATM-research-projects.pdf.
[2] Stern, Charles and Pervaze Sheikh. “Management of the Colorado River: Water Allocations, Drought, and the Federal Role.” Management of the Colorado River: Water Allocations, Drought, and the Federal Role. Congressional Research Service. Last modified in 2012.  https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45546.pdf.
[3] Beaujon, David, Meghan MacKillop, Matt Becker, and Juanita Hill. 2018. “State Water Policy A Legislator’s Guide to Colorado Water Issues.” Colorado General Assembly Legislative Council Staff.  Last modified in 2016. http://leg.colorado.gov/sites/default/files/2017state_water_policy_handbook_update_to_print.pdf
[4] U.S. Department of Commerce. “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Colorado.” Census Bureau QuickFacts. Last modified January 21, 2020. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/CO.
[5] Ag Water NetWORK. “2016 Ag Water Right Holder Survey Results Summary.” Last modified in 2016. https://www.coloradocattle.org/CMDocs/ColoradoCattlemen/2016 Ag Water Survey Results Report.pdf.
[6] Devine, Brian, “Moving Waters: The Legacy of Buy-and-Dry and the Challenge of Lease-Fallowing in Colorado’s Arkansas River Basin” Environmental Studies Graduate Theses & Dissertations. (2015): 27. https://scholar.colorado.edu/envs_gradetds/27
[7] Environmental Defense Fund. “Alternative Water Transfers in Colorado.” Last modified in November 2016. https://www.edf.org/sites/default/files/alternative-water-transfers-colorado.pdf
[8] Colorado Water Conservation Board. “Water Supply Initiative Update Technical Table of Contents.” 2019. https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cowaterplan/analysis-and-technical-update. https://waternow.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Alternative-Transfer-Methods-A-Guide-for-local-Leaders-in-Colorado-WNA.pdf
[9] Brown, Kate and Hess, David. “The Politics of Water Conservation: Identifying and Overcoming Barriers to Successful Policies. Water Policy. (2017): 304-321. DOI: 10.2166/wp.2016.089
[10] Interview with program coordinator, August 9, 2019.
[11] Devine, Brian, “Moving Waters: The Legacy of Buy-and-Dry and the Challenge of Lease-Fallowing in Colorado’s Arkansas River Basin” Environmental Studies Graduate Theses & Dissertations. (2015): 27. https://scholar.colorado.edu/envs_gradetds/27