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Drops In The Bucket

A Denver company makes it easier to turn water rights into gold—without selling the farm.

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If you’ve lived in Colorado for more than a hot minute, you’re aware of our complex water rights system. Kevin France had an up-close look at it and didn’t like what he saw. From 2003 to 2009, France worked as a consultant leading investors to water rights for sale in northern Colorado. Some of the investors would package the rights and sell them to municipalities. Cities got water they needed to sustain growth, and farmers made as much as seven figures on the deals, enough to subsidize their retirements.

But once sold, a farm’s water rights are gone. The land will likely lie fallow forever. The concept is called “buy and dry,” and it affects more than the farmer: The local feed and equipment proprietor has fewer customers, which means he has less to spend at the diner, and so on. France figured there had to be a way to get cities the water they needed without drying up Colorado agriculture. So in 2009, France and three partners collaborated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Fort Collins (and later with Colorado State University and Utah State University) to develop SWIIM System (Sustainable Water and Innovative Irrigation Management), a platform that plans, manages, and tracks water usage. Those functions make it easier to temporarily transfer water rights—or in other words, to rent water.

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Renting water is legal but complex—and therefore rare. The complication rests in determining and monitoring what farmers are permitted to market. Water rights may entitle them to a set amount from a river for irrigation. But they are only allowed to sell (or lease) their consumptive use—the quantity their crops actually use plus the part that evaporates. So while a farmer might get 1,000 acre-feet, he can profit from only the, say, 600 his plants consume. As you might imagine, it’s difficult and costly to compute consumptive use; a farmer has to hire a water engineer and a lawyer. When you’re selling your water rights, that’s a one-and-done expense. But when you’re a farmer who wants to keep 300 acre-feet for his peach orchard and lease the other 300 to a city, you’ve got to track water usage every day and report your findings once a month. (State regulators need proof that Old MacDonald isn’t doubling up on his allotment.)

When SWIIM debuted in 2014, monitoring water got cheaper and more precise. It uses historical and real-time weather data, remote sensing from planes and satellites, and in-ground instruments to track and measure water on a field. SWIIM’s genius also comes from its patented info-crunching process, which provides analyses of where water goes. Its software makes tracking water usage—and thus the ability to lease it—easier.

SWIIM has facilitated a handful of leases in Colorado. But it’s focusing most of its resources on California, where the Golden State’s parched cities provide a fertile market. This month SWIIM begins deploying in Southern California’s Imperial Valley. In early 2016, it will launch a pilot program in the state’s Central Valley with the Western Growers Association (WGA), whose members produce half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts. The idea is to show WGA members that SWIIM can help them reap big benefits, such as opening new revenue streams through leasing water.

Back in the Centennial State, France expects SWIIM to cover about 10,000 Colorado acres by the end of next year and eventually expand into other Western states. It might take some time for SWIIM to disrupt a water rights system that has existed basically unaltered for more than a century. Nevertheless, Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at CSU, insists technology like this will play an immense role in making sure that when it comes to the West’s most precious resource, everyone gets a taste.


It’s Not Easy Being Green…
…but it’s lucrative, according to a U.S. Green Building Council report on the projected impact of green and LEED construction from 2015 to 2018. Here’s how Colorado stands to fare.

$24 billion Contribution of green building to Colorado’s GDP, from the construction itself to worker spending

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$281 thousand Jobs supported by green building

$369 million Tax revenue generated by the construction of LEED-certified buildings

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