To reduce water use, farmers in Colorado tax themselves
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."