As executive director of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, Michael Hannigan is tasked with staying on top of all the projects and programs under the organization's broad umbrella. And one of the foundation's most visible endeavors has been running Venetucci Farm — the last working farm, as Hannigan notes, in the Colorado Springs metro area.
For generations, thousands of area kids have visited Venetucci's idyllic 190 acres and come away with free pumpkins, though the south-side farm is also known for its sustainable farming and community education.
"We're the last source of chemical-free food in town — the last of the Mohicans," Hannigan says. "And it's important that we can teach thousands of kids every year about food, health and nutrition. They come to the farm, see real animals and real food, and learn the value of what that means."
But when a piece of mail came a few weeks ago, Hannigan couldn't believe what he was seeing. For decades, Venetucci has been buying what's known as "augmentation water" for its many agricultural undertakings from the Colorado Water Protective and Development Association.
That's because, despite having ample water underneath the farm itself, the PPCF (like the Venetucci family before it) must purchase rights to match every drop of water used for agricultural purposes. It's the complicated result of a long-ago lawsuit won by the state of Kansas, requiring Colorado to send Kansas its share of water via the Arkansas River.
It was never a major problem until that letter slapped Hannigan and Venetucci in the face with one sentence: "Here's your water allotment for the year: ZERO."
You can blame the ongoing drought, which is disrupting water supplies across Colorado. But for Hannigan, this disruption could double as a death knell. Unless the farm can secure new augmentation-water rights, the legendary Venetucci Farm will shut down. The state will tag its wells, preventing the farm from using them.
Hannigan recently described the worst-case scenario in a sobering note on the foundation's website: "We will have no vegetables, no grass-fed beef, no pastured pork, no free-range chickens and no eggs, no grain, no hay, no Venetucci Pumpkin Ale [courtesy Bristol Brewing Co.] and, worst of all ... no pumpkins for kids!"
After several weeks of scrambling, now Hannigan feels hopeful about acquiring sufficient temporary water rights for Venetucci to operate as usual in 2013. "But we can't take anything for granted," he says, "because there are about 300 other people and groups like us out there hunting for groundwater. I've been working like a crazy man, trying to get people to lease us some surface-water shares."
And that's just a fix for 2013. Beyond this year, Hannigan and Venetucci must find a new solution, with the drought showing no sign of letting up. Buying permanent water rights would cost as much as $2 million, which is likely not feasible.
"We can't just let this happen," Hannigan says. "We have to do whatever we can to save this farm. And it's not just us. What happens in times like this is that small and family-owned farms have to close or sell their water rights. Once they're sold for development or industry, they never come back to agriculture. This could be death to agriculture in the state."
Hannigan hopes Colorado's Legislature might step in and create an agricultural "water bank," for small farms in particular. But the rights will cost more, regardless, than what Venetucci had been paying. So Hannigan is appealing to the region for help, via ppcf.org/products/wfff.
"If everybody who ever got a pumpkin could give us $10, we'd have all we need," Hannigan says.
That's not likely, but the foundation has to do something. Venetucci had also recently launched a $300,000 campaign to build a new barn for the farm operations and education programs, "and we still want to go ahead with that. We can't let it slip away. But it'll be more of a challenge now.
"We all knew there was a drought, but it's like the whole state has been sleepwalking into the future," Hannigan says. "I was sleepwalking myself, too. But this will affect everybody now. It's scary. We just have to hope the community around us won't let Venetucci Farm die."