Use Alternative Water Transfer Options to Stop Buy-and-Dry Practices

Who can implement this: State and city officials, governmental organizations, agricultural producers, and water conservancy districts

As residential and municipal development puts pressure on lawmakers to secure water rights, cities will sometimes purchase agricultural water rights and lands, transferring them away from agricultural uses. Because of this pressure from development, producers are incentivized to sell their water rights, often having to take their lands out of agricultural production.[1] Alternative water transfer options will allow cities to allocate water while still preserving agricultural lands. They will also give farmers more options of what to do when their water rights become more valuable because of encroaching development.

Alternative Water Transfer Options:

Fallowing agreements: In a fallowing agreement, farmers and water managers state that the city will pay farmers to let a certain percentage of their land go uncultivated instead of transferring (or leasing) the water that would have been used on that land to urban uses.[2] Fallowing agreements give farmers and ranchers a way to temporarily, rather than permanently, cash in on some of their water rights.

Alternative transfer methods (ATMs): ATMs are structured agreements between agricultural producers, water managers, and local lawmakers that allow water to be transferred to a new use while minimizing impacts on the local economy and providing funding to the agricultural producer.[3] These methods typically outline how to optimize the agricultural and nonagricultural benefits of remaining lands after the water has been transferred. ATMs also generally include mitigation measures to help minimize impacts on the local community and environment.

Transfer of development rights (TDR) programs: TDR programs can be used to dissuade cities from unnecessarily annexing open spaces. Some agricultural lands may be rendered dysfunctional or noncompliant through unnecessary annexation, especially when the annexation only occurs to secure water rights for new development. Utah County’s cities should only annex land when it benefits all members of a community/


  • City councils and planners should work closely with farmers and ranchers to use water transfer options that will keep agricultural lands in production. City councils should pursue alternative water transfer options rather than transferring water rights from agricultural to urban uses without exploring all options.
  • City councils and planners should identify which agricultural lands have been taken out of production through buy-and-dry practices in the past and explore ways to return water rights to farmers so they can again use the lands for agricultural production. All transfers must be under a willing-buyer, willing-seller agreement.


A Colorado bill specifically designed to combat buy-and-dry practices was signed into law after the state’s 2014 legislative session.[4] The bill allows local government to approve any development that transfers the water rights from agricultural to domestic uses. To preserve water even as some agricultural lands are developed, the bill also limits the amount of water that can be used for watering grass on residential lots that have replaced agricultural lands.