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.

One attractive site was where Lefthand Creek and the St. Vrain River met a dozen miles east of the foothills. Burlington had been established near there in 1862, but it wasn't much more than a way station on the stagecoach line, subject to periodic flooding by the St. Vrain. Newspapers back east began running ads urging interested parties to go to Chicago to hear about the benefits of settling in this spot. In Chicago, they learned that for only $150 they would receive a business and home lot in the new town or farmland on the outskirts.

The venture was called the Chicago-Colorado Colony, and it was an immediate success. In 1873 the settlement took the name Longmont, in honor of the explorer who'd once deemed the area "unfit for the habitation of civilized man."

The town, platted to cover one square mile, was everything its founders had envisioned: self-sufficient, prosperous, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with the area's farmers, many of whom actually lived in town and traveled to their fields. And although the town would attract other businesses and industry, that relationship between the town and its surrounding farms would continue for well over a century -- albeit to an ever-shrinking degree.

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

The changing relationship is reflected in two massive buildings that stand on former farmland off a main road between Hygiene and Longmont. One houses a computer disk storage manufacturing plant, the other is the new Amgen Inc. facility. The California-based drug company recently made headlines in the Longmont paper for violating its water-discharge permit.

Still, Boulder County fights to retain the agricultural heritage of the Chicago-Colorado Colony.

One goal inspiring the county's open space policy was to provide buffers, or physical separations, between communities, helping to preserve their identities. Another was aesthetic, as Boulder County residents have repeatedly voiced their approval of maintaining the agricultural feel of the region through conservation easements and buyout-to-lease policies. They've done so putting their money where their mouths are -- last year voting 70 percent in favor of extending the sales tax that funds open-space programs for another ten years.

And still another reason for the preservation of agricultural lands is the growing recognition that farmlands -- long criticized as environmental menaces -- are actually instrumental in cleaning up the effluence of cities and towns, particularly their water discharges. Municipalities put far more nitrogen into the water than farmers, for example, although farmers often take the heat for it; the only effective way to remove nitrogen from water is to let plants, which love the stuff as a fertilizer, do it. And before they were given the name "wetlands" by environmentalists, farmers recognized the importance of these uncultivated areas in both conserving and filtering the water they used to irrigate their fields. They also saw them as a "canary in a coalmine" indicator of the health of their land: If wildlife in the wetlands was healthy, then their animals and children would be, too.

Longmont officials have long understood the value of water, aggressively buying historic water rights as well as 5,000 shares of CBT water in the beginning, when shares sold for $1.50 each. In the 1960s, Longmont bought the rights to build Button Rock Reservoir on the north fork of the St. Vrain from the town of Lyons, which in turn received the right to 300 acre feet per year when the reservoir went online in 1967. And in 1986, Longmont obtained controlling interest in Union Reservoir east of town, which had previously been used as a supplemental water supply for farmers near Greeley.

Also in the 1960s, Longmont instituted a subsequently much-copied policy of requiring developers to deed over to the city any historic water rights of land they wished to have annexed; the requirement was for the right to three acre feet per year for every acre of land. Because most farmland does not come with such a large amount, it meant developers had to add non-historic water, usually CBT shares.

But despite Longmont's aggressive water policy -- designed to protect the city from a more extensive drought than in the 1930s, as well as meet future growth demands -- city officials have also been conscious of the public's concern that the agricultural heritage of the area be preserved. "We won't dry up farms," says Dale Rademacher, son of a local farm family and manager of Longmont's water department.

Some Colorado cities, particularly those surrounding Denver, in the past have purchased water rights from farms outside of their boundaries. In one 1986 case, Thornton, using a third party, secretly purchased 103 farms covering 21,000 acres in the Fort Collins-Greeley area -- where residents then worried that the land would be rendered useless for farming. After a public outcry, Thornton smoothed things over by leasing some of the land back to the farmers.

The purchase made Thornton, which is located in Adams County, the largest landowner in Weld County, where most of the purchased farms were located. "In some ways, it woke up the community to what could happen," says the water district's Werner. A resident of Fort Collins, he belonged to a committee formed by the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce to look at ways of protecting area water suppliers from interlopers.

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