May 18, 2011
by John Kiljan
The Arvada Gardeners have used the City-owned Arvada Community Gardens at the intersection of Garrison Street and 57th Avenue for the last 36 years. Each year, the City of Arvada provides the Arvada Gardeners with all the free ditch water they can use during the growing season.

What is not widely known is how much all that free water is costing the City of Arvada. Nor is it known how much the gardeners are typically saving on water bills at home by using the Community Gardens instead of building garden plots in their own back yards.

To find out, I recently spoke with Arvada’s Deputy Director of Utilities, Jim Sullivan. It seems that the answer to both of these questions is, “Not very much at all.”

What follows here is a short recounting of that conversation:

Mr Sullivan has a gift for making what is a complicated subject easy to understand. He told me that ditch companies in Colorado use a 19th-century method of measuring ditch water flow in units called ‘miner’s inches.’ Each miner’s inch is equivalent to a flow of about 12 gallons per minute. A miner’s inch is a lot of water — about twice the flow I can get out of my own garden hose without a nozzle on it. Arvada gives the garden club the rights to use ten miner’s inches of water each season.

I asked how the garden club could possibly use that much water. He replied that they didn’t. He said it was better to think of the ten miner’s inches as shares of stock in a company rather than so many gallons per minute.

However, this company doesn’t pay you an annual dividend. Instead, the ‘shareholders’ have to pay the company a little each year to continue to own the stock. The ditch company adds up all its operating costs each year and sends a bill to the users in proportion to the number of inches of water they have the rights to.

Lately, that bill has been running about $35 per inch per year. The cost to the City for the water is only $350 for the whole garden for the year. That’s equivalent to about $2.50 for each of the 143 plots in the gardens.

Jim said the City acquired the rights to the ten inches when it bought the land for water storage and treatment in the mid 1950’s. The water allocation was purchased with the property. Some of the allocation is also being used to water the North Jeffco Park and Hoskinson Park on the north side of Ralston Road.

He said that if the gardeners were using regular City tap water for irrigation, they would be charged the same rate as any residential user — about $3.00 per thousand gallons. Any new tap fees would be extra.

I asked the Arvada Gardeners’ past president, Bill Orchard, about the garden’s actual water usage. He gave me the size, watering rates, expected rainfall and the length of the growing season. With that information, I was able to make an estimate of the cost of using treated tap water for irrigation. If the gardens used regular metered City tap water instead of ditch water, it would work out to about $2730 for the year, or $19 per plot for the growing season. Ditch water is a lot cheaper than regular tap water.

Are the garden club members saving that amount by not keeping their garden plots in their own backyards? Apparently not. Jim Sullivan said that it was his experience with the City’s parks that lawns typically use more water than agriculture. The growing season is longer and the grass tends to use more water on very hot days. A home gardener may not save any water costs by taking out a vegetable or flower garden and replacing it with bluegrass.

Jim said that the amount of water available from the ditch varies from year to year, depending on the stream flows. The amount of water needed for growing vegetables also varies depending on it being rainy or dry. The value of the garden water is worth more during times of drought than in rainy years.

The real value of ditch water is also reflected in the market value of each inch of water rights. Like shares in a company, they can be bought and sold. Currently, the market value is running about $3000 per miner’s inch, or about $30,000 for the rights to the ten inches the City now holds as a part of the Community Gardens’ land.

If the City’s ditch rights were sold, it would bring a one-time $30,000 benefit to the City. Using a 30-year US Treasury Bond as a benchmark, I calculate that would equate to $1270 annual benefit to the City’s budget.

If that amount were divided among the 143 plots in the Community Gardens, it would amount to $9 per plot per year. But even that seems to be stretching things a bit. Since the gardens can only use a part of their water allocation, the City could probably continue giving the same amount of water to gardens, even if they sold off most of its ten inches to someone else.

In the end, the water subsidy each member of the garden club gets for the water being donated to the Arvada Gardeners only amounts to a few dollars a year at best. However, if the gardens were to be moved to a site or sites where the members had to pay for treated irrigation water, the annual costs to the members could rise enough to affect community participation — particularly if new tap fees were also required.

The Arvada City Council expects to hold a public hearing on AURA’s outline development plan (ODP) for the Triangle sometime in June or July. The Citizens for a Livable Ralston Community (CLRC)’s website at http://www.ralstoncommunity.org/ will provide updates as they become available.

The Arvada City Council held a study session on January 24th that had an active discussion about the importance of the gardens as a neighborhood asset while balancing the need to make as attractive an offer as possible to potential commercial developers of the blighted Triangle shopping center. You can see the streaming video of that discussion by clicking on this link http://arvada.org/media-services/council-meetingsand then clicking on the City Council Meeting 01/24/11 identifier near the bottom of the page. Slide the play indicator over to the 1 hour 37 minute mark to see and hear the discussion.
John Kiljan, CLRC News: 303-423-9875 or jpkiljan@yahoo.com
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