Dreams of fields: Security purchase of Coaldale ranch stirs conversation
By Chris Woodka - originally published in The Pueblo Chieftain
COALDALE — From the balcony of her home, Kristie Nackord has a view of rustic splendor.
Fields of hay irrigated by center pivots, cows grazing the land, tidy farm buildings and periodic visits by elk, deer and turkeys are set in a wide valley rimmed by mountains.
Motorists who break out of the steep walls of the Arkansas River canyon on the trip from Canon City to Salida are accustomed to the gentle break in scenery as they break free from the imposing walls and reach Coaldale. The broad expanse of green in spring and summer months south of the highway is the CB Ranch.
Visitors might be left with the impression that the wide-open spaces of this tiny mountain community were always here and will stay forever.
When she moved into her home three years ago, Nackord might have thought the same.
But last year, Nackord and her neighbors became alarmed when they heard Security Water and Sanitation District had purchased the CB Ranch right across the road in late 2013. The El Paso County community is separated by 100 miles of highway, but has the means to use the water from the ranch through the Arkansas River, Lake Pueblo and pipelines connected to Pueblo Dam.
About 100 people attended a community meeting last July to passionately discuss the past and future dry-up of ag land in the Upper Arkansas Valley. The meeting, sponsored by Nackord’s employer, the San Isabel Land Protection Trust, didn’t stop or even slow the process. But it drew plenty of comments about how past land transfers had gone bad and fueled fears that this, too, could be the fate of the CB Ranch.
A handful of those neighbors were seated in her living room last week with a special guest: Roy Heald, the manager of Security Water and Sanitation.
“My hope is that when the water does move, we do it in a respectful way,” Nackord told Heald as he sat on her couch enjoying a glass of local water. She talked about several other ranches in the area that had become weed patches, even though court orders required revegetation. “Ecologically, this has an impact on other landowners. At this point I have more questions than answers.”
Heald was equally blunt.
“I’m here to learn where we go from here,” Heald said. “We want the water. To the extent we can meet your concerns we will. But I’ve never bought a ranch or revegetated one. There are requirements in water court and we’ll meet them.”
That launched a larger discussion that brought together years of other ideas that have occurred at basin roundtables, the state Interbasin Compact Committee and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s call for a state water plan.
All the elements of those theoretical talks sat together in a real-world lab.
Heald explained the need for water and stressed his customers “are people just like you.” Nackord stressed her desire to protect the local community’s values.
Tim Canterbury, a Howard rancher, pointed out that each new sale or subdivision of a ranch increased the pressures on his own operation and the community around him.
Aaron Tezak, who farmed the ranch for the former owner and stayed on after Security bought it, depends on the land as a way to make a living.
Ben Lenth, the director of the San Isabel trust, expressed the view of a wider community that wants to preserve the environmental, scenic and recreational benefits of Colorado’s landscape.
“The disconnect may be that the law requires actions, not outcomes,” Lenth said. “The city needs the water. Are there ways to work for mutual benefit?”
The ranch sale
Tezak went to work several years ago for Clint Base, a stockman from Kansas who had reconnected three ranches that had been split over the years among various members of the Hayden and Parks families that homesteaded them. About 140 acres of the 200-acre spread are irrigated hay fields.
“This was his dream,” Tezak explained.
Base died in 2009. His widow, Tammy, sold the ranch to Security in December 2013. The land was the big part: $1.25 million. The water — which Security wanted, but had to buy the land to get — will cost at least $480,000 for about 80 acre-feet (26 million gallons) annually.
Tezak stayed on as the ranch foreman. The urban thirst
Security had hired a water broker to research properties for sale on the Arkansas River upstream from Lake Pueblo after deciding that would be a good step to solidify its water resources. The search included a tour of several other properties.
It took nearly four years until the deal on the CB Ranch was closed.
“It seemed like a good fit for what we were looking for,” Heald said.
It’s not likely Security will look for more water up in the valley any time soon.
“We don’t have any immediate plans,” Heald said.
Security also has an agreement to lease water from the Arkansas River Super Ditch, but it’s still in the pilot program stages and not proven to be a reliable source of water.
“This is the only Arkansas River water we own,” Heald said of the CB Ranch. “There’s a lot of flexibility. This is not water we need in the near future.”
So, for now the water is staying put.
Part of the reason for Heald’s visit last week was to go over this season’s plans for the ranch with Tezak.
In addition to the farming, one of the ranch buildings is leased to a construction contractor. Security also makes some money from leasing to grazing cattle.
Heald is still interested in recovering Security’s investment in the land as well as the water.
“We want to recoup what we have in the real estate, not necessarily to make money but certainly not to lose money,” Heald said
During the conversation at Nackord’s home, the group suggested a conservation easement for the land or an interruptible supply of water to give all parties what they want from the sale.
“Can Security do that as a way of taking care of the rural community?” Nackord asked.
“I can’t answer that,” Heald responded, noting that on a personal level he is a contributor to the Palmer Land Trust. “It’s up to the board, and they hold the purse strings.”
Heald also explained that the costs associated with buying and using the water — those assigned by water court or voluntary assumed — are picked up by ratepayers.
“One thing we know about customers is that when they turn on the faucet, they expect water to come out,” Heald said.
By the end of the meeting, he invited Nackord to a future Security board meeting to explain the goals of groups like the San Isabel trust.
What it boils down to: One newcomer and one long-time rancher want their lives uninterrupted.
Nackord came to Westcliffe from Sonoma County, Calif., in 2006, as she put it, “to live the dream of wide-open spaces, big mountains, clean water and abundant wildlife.”
Three years ago, she bought her own place in Coaldale where she keeps four horses, three dogs and three cats. She appreciates the low- key lifestyle in a place where you can still leave notes for your neighbors on the post-office chalkboard.
“I was drawn to Coaldale for various reasons,” she said. “In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful, open valleys in the Upper Ark Valley. The irrigated fields are beautiful!”
Tim Canterbury proudly notes that his family came to Fremont County in 1869 and he is the fifth generation on the land. He wants some to be left for the sixth generation.
He knows there is a threat from other water providers who come into the valley — a course of action plainly stated in the Pikes Peak Regional Water Authority’s plan to acquire water rights on the Arkansas River. He doesn’t have to look far to see how other places have been mistreated, in his opinion. He wants Aaron Tezak to continue to have a job.
“Maybe there’s a way to bring all this talk down to Coaldale, Colorado, and find a way to make it work,” Canterbury said.
Last week, they came away with no guarantees that her chosen lifestyles will survive, but they did get an invitation from Heald to start the conversation with Security on how they might do that.