To reduce water use, farmers in Colorado tax themselves

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Duard Fix is torn.

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.

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"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.

The vehicle the local water conservation district has chosen is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) under the US Department of Agriculture. Local farmers contributed $5.50 per irrigated acre to make up 20 percent of the funding; the rest comes from the federal government. Farmers who sign up get a certain amount per year – depending how close their well is to one of the forks of the river – to keep the land fallow for 15 years. After that, they could use it for dryland farming, but never again irrigate it. The district hopes to enroll 30,000 irrigated acres in the initial CREP program and just started a second one.

"We're looking at a very diminishing resource," says Dennis Coryell, president of the Republican River Water Conservation District. While the program was started because of the compact obligations – despite the fact that they're difficult to enforce – Mr. Coryell has hope for other benefits. "A consequence, we believe, will be sustaining the aquifer.'

For some farmers – those who were already looking to retire or who had wells that were drying up or had less productive land – enrolling their wells was an easy decision. The district nearly hit its acreage target in terms of people who initially signed up last summer, though fewer have taken the final steps to commit.

Robin Wiley, a Yuma County commissioner and fourth-generation farmer, enrolled one of his lower-producing wells away from the river in the CREP program. But he acknowledges that although these kinds of wells make up the majority of the ones enrolled, they don't do much to solve the problem, since retiring them has less impact on the rivers' surface flow.

Still, like Fix, he says it's much harder to make the decision to stop irrigating highly productive land. "We've struggled for years with commodity prices, and now we finally have a spike. Producers see an opportunity to make a little money, and it's hard to enroll in a program that will take that away from them," he explains.

He, like everyone here, would like the solution to be voluntary. But a recent state lawsuit verdict increases the likelihood that the state may simply draw a boundary along the rivers and shut down all wells within it.

That possibility haunts farmers like Fix with wells near the rivers, who wonder why they should have to pay for everyone's unsustainable use. Others worry about the damage it could do to small towns like Wray.

"You take the water away, and the economies change," says Brad Rock, who runs a feedlot and farms 5,200 acres near Wray, nearly 900 of them irrigated. He figures close to 200 wells are within three miles of the North Fork. But he's aware that much of the water is being used up on its own. "I'm sure that in 20 years, my son will be a dryland farmer. We figured the water would go away, I just didn't think it would be in my lifetime."

Meanwhile, conservation groups have become partners with the farmers, who they acknowledge were initially distrustful. The Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Water Trust have started a program to pay farmers who retire wells near the Arikaree a premium over what they'd get from the CREP program.

"Our goal is to come in and make the pie bigger for everyone," says William Burnidge, The Nature Conservancy's northeast Colorado director. He figures that if just four key wells near the Arikaree are shut down, the river's flow will double. "Right now, just one summer without water and the Arikaree dries up, and you lose an entire native fish population."

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