To reduce water use, farmers in Colorado tax themselves
Duard Fix is torn.Skip to next paragraph
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On the one hand, the wells with which he irrigates his corn crop are producing lots of water on good land, and corn prices are at near-record highs. On the other, several of those wells – the ones closest to the Republican River – may soon be shut down, as this area struggles to reduce the amount of water it uses from the river.
His neighbors here in eastern Colorado have been raising money for a program to pay farmers like Mr. Fix to retire some of those wells, but it would mean giving up on productive land in a great market. If he doesn't participate, they could get shut down anyway by the state, without compensation.
"It's a tough decision to make," says Fix, who lives on the same farm where he was born more than 70 years ago. "I don't want to give up my water with no chance of ever getting it back. We're going to wait until the end of this year and see where we are."
As the once-plentiful water in the aquifer in this and other areas dwindles, farmers needing irrigation, like Fix, are beginning to see it as a limited resource. Interstate compacts like the one governing the Republican River and other competing water demands are forcing tough choices.
Against that backdrop, farmers in Yuma County are taking significant steps to voluntarily reduce the water they use. They've taxed themselves to kickstart a federal program to get farmers like Fix to retire certain wells. And they're working with conservationists and other unlikely partners to come up with the softest landing possible for farmers, who regard their wells as liquid gold in a region with frequent droughts and little rain.
"They're being very proactive," says Ken Knox, Colorado's chief deputy state engineer, who says he's been receiving calls from other Western states that would like to emulate the Republican River farmers. He is trying to help farmers in the Rio Grande valley set up a similar model, he says. "They're assessing themselves. So even at a personal cost they're trying to work with the state – which I find refreshing – and they're looking for a long-term solution. It's a bit unique."
Still, the choices can be painful. This is a part of Colorado that some mountain dwellers refer to as western Kansas – sweeping flat stretches of shortgrass prairie and dryland farms, dotted with sprinklers that in the summer turn the land into a patchwork of green corn circles. Until irrigation arrived in the 1950s, the land was mostly used for ranching or wheat farming. Now its irrigated acres are some of the country's most productive, with corn yields that occasionally top 300 bushels an acre.
Three forks of the Republican River cut through the county, though these days, they seem more like creeks. One, the Arikaree – the most ecologically valuable with an all-native fish population – rarely flows across the state line, and turns to small pools in the summer. At the Bonny Reservoir on the South Fork, once a prime recreation area, managers keep extending the boat ramp, but it's now virtually unusable.
Though some blame years of drought and exotic trees like the Russian olive for the declining water supply, most agree that heavy irrigation is partly responsible. When the US Supreme Court settled a lawsuit several years ago, determining that Colorado and Nebraska weren't fulfilling their water obligations to Kansas on the river, farmers here decided to look for their own solution.