High and Dry

Even in the best of times, farmers and developers fight for Colorado's water. And this summer's drought is far from the best of times.

 Summer, Hygiene to Platteville

Eight in the morning, and already the day promises to be another hot one as the men climb down from their pickups and clomp up the stairs of the Hygiene Cafe. There's not a cloud in the bright-blue sky, not a hint of an afternoon storm gathering behind the brown mountain peaks to the west.

From the outside, the cafe isn't much to look at. It's a weathered, wood-sided shack that stands on the road leading back out to state highway 66, which runs between Hygiene's nearest neighbors: the town of Lyons at the base of the mountains and Longmont, a half-dozen miles further east.

The Anderson corn maze is the largest in the world.The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago; today it stands in the midst of development.Dan Graffis checks an evaporation gauge -- and the news isn't good for farmers along the St. Vrain River.Laborers picking potatoes at a Longmont farm in 1966; Ewell Culbertson and his broccoli today.Jeff Rasmussen is a tenant farmer on Boulder County open-space land.Betty Ann Newby rides herd on horses and an alfalfa crop.
The Anderson corn maze is the largest in the world.The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago; today it stands in the midst of development.Dan Graffis checks an evaporation gauge -- and the news isn't good for farmers along the St. Vrain River.Laborers picking potatoes at a Longmont farm in 1966; Ewell Culbertson and his broccoli today.Jeff Rasmussen is a tenant farmer on Boulder County open-space land.Betty Ann Newby rides herd on horses and an alfalfa crop.
The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago.
The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago.
Part 1: Going With the Flow

Inside, the cafe is just as plain. Owner Vickie Russell stands ready by the hot griddle while her waitresses take orders from the farmers sitting at a half-dozen tables. This is a place where they can take a break after their morning chores out in the fields, maybe wolf down a hearty breakfast or a homemade doughnut while nursing a cup of strong coffee and shooting the breeze with other farmers.

The talk in these dog days of early August is all about water. "Who gets it," Russell explains as she cracks a couple of eggs, "and who doesn't."

The town of Hygiene was founded between 1882 and 1885 and earned its rather curious name because it housed a sanatorium for people suffering from "consumption," as tuberculosis was called. Back then, it was commonly believed that the dry, rarefied air of Colorado was good for those afflicted with lung ailments.

The sanatorium has long since been torn down, replaced by a post office, and today Hygiene could be any small town surrounded by farmland at the end of the twentieth century. The streets are lined by ancient cottonwoods that grow toward one another until only patches of sunlight make it through the towering branches. Kids ride their bicycles down the middle of the streets below and play in the irrigation ditches that pass by and through the town.

But the world outside Hygiene is changing rapidly as the surrounding farmland gives way to housing developments and ranchettes. But so far, Russell says, the changes in town have been subtle. There are more commuters who like the small-town atmosphere and who drive to work in Longmont or even south to Boulder. And there are fewer farmers, as hard times combine with escalating land and water values to force them off the land -- or encourage them to sell out to the developers. "Though there seemed to be more of that last year than this year," she adds. "I don't know why...Maybe those who wanted to sell got out, and the rest are hanging on."

Russell's landlords, the Sidar family, recently sold the last dairy farm in all of Boulder County. "I think they just got tired of trying to keep hired hands and gettin' up at two in the morning," she says. Rumor has it that Boulder County wants to add the property to its open-space lands to help create a buffer between Hygiene and Longmont, which is spreading from the east like an amoeba constantly reproducing itself.

Those who stay on the farms generally find their way to Russell's place, where they give each other a good-natured hard time, bitch about the price of corn and barley and sugar beets, and wonder aloud when it might rain. The cafe has been in existence for at least 45 years, says Russell, who was born in Fort Collins, raised in Longmont, and moved to Hygiene in 1994. She bought the cafe four years ago.

Russell opens her doors at 6:30 a.m. The farmers begin to trickle in about seven, after many have already worked for a few hours. "Then I got to put up with them for a good two hours," she says, and laughs. "And a lot of them will come back for lunch."

As she speaks, the last two stragglers of the morning, a couple of older guys in overalls and ag-equipment caps, pay their tab and wander out the door into the gathering heat. "Have a good Friday," she calls after them.

"Day's half over," one jokes, although it's not yet nine and, if the truth be known, most farmers around here don't get done with their work until well after sundown -- especially if they still have access to water and can irrigate their fields.

But most can't, not in the middle of one of the worst droughts in years. "It's been so dry," Russell says, shaking her head. "One guy yesterday told me he had to sell his cattle because he couldn't get them any water."

Now the ditch riders, men who work with river commissioner Bill Gambrell, who determines who gets water from the St. Vrain based on "first in time, first in right" priority numbers, are coming into the cafe. They have nothing else to do.

It's frustrating. The St. Vrain River flows just south of the cafe. But a lot of these farmers can't touch the water; it belongs to someone downstream, some other farmer with an older priority number, or -- worse -- some guy building half-million-dollar homes with half-acre bluegrass lawns in Longmont who bought the water rights for more money than they were worth to a farmer.

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