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.

The only good news is that the growing season is just about over. Thanks to reservoirs and trans-mountain diversions such as the CBT, most farmers -- at least those west of Fort Morgan -- will be able to harvest their crops this year. The concern is what will happen if the drought becomes extended. If runoff is less than normal after the coming winter, the depleted reservoirs will not be refilled, and farmers will have to rely on what flows occur naturally next summer. If that runoff is equal to or less than this year's runoff, it could be disastrous for agriculture along the lower South Platte River.

A few miles shy of Platteville, just past a large dairy farm, the St. Vrain River crosses beneath Highway 66, headed north. It appears to have more water in it than does the South Platte, which also passes beneath the highway just before the road reaches Platteville. Although South Platte's banks are fifty yards apart, the water trickles through a channel a quarter of that width.

In Platteville, a water users' association is locked in debate over whether to sell some of their shares of CBT water for a guaranteed yearly income. It's a tempting deal, but the drought has those who want to stay in farming worried. What if they need the water in the future and can't rent any? What good will the money do them then?

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

As they debate, the rivers flow on, meeting at a point a few miles north of town where mountain man Ceran de Hault de Lassus de St. Vrain built a trading post in the early 1800s. Ask the locals where the rivers join, though, and you get a lot of shrugs.

"There's so damn many little irrigation ditches around here that it's hard to tell what's a ditch and what's a river," ventures a farmer transplanted here from Texas. "Beside, what they call a river 'round here, we call a crick where I'm from."

Coming in October: From Greeley to Fort Morgan, farmers along the South Platte River must decide whether to flee or fight in the face of a drought and rapid development.

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