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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.

"It's the worst I've seen it since I've been here," Russell says. "They're all worried they won't make it through August, especially if we don't get some rain."

She's learned to block out a lot of the worry that fills her cafe in the morning. Tough as times are, some things don't change: The farmers may be on the edge of going under, but their camaraderie remains strong. "I wouldn't live any other place," Russell says. "Folks around here do for each other. We'll get through it."


Pushing through a thicket of brush and poison ivy beneath a gnarled, overladen apple tree, Tim Carney and Don Graffis arrive at the north bank of the St. Vrain a few miles from Hygiene.

Scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the men -- the first a native of Queens, New York; the latter from the eastern Colorado farm community of Seibert -- have come to see what is known as the South Branch Diversion Structure, essentially a small dam. Water pools up, then pours over the top of the structure or cascades down a specially constructed "fish ladder" that lets trout migrate up and down the St. Vrain.

Today the St. Vrain looks like the energetic trout stream it is in the mountains a few dozen miles away. Although less than perfectly clear because of recent summer storms in the high country, the water takes on the gold-brown hue of the stones beneath the surface and flashes in the mid-afternoon sun. By this point, though, these waters are no longer the domain of fishermen and kayakers, but a valuable commodity -- like oil or natural gas -- coveted by farming, industry and housing interests.

Nothing spells that out quite as clearly as a separate structure across the stream from Carney and Graffis, the sole reason for the diversion dam: two concrete pillars, between which sits a thick metal sheet that can be raised to let the pooled water behind the dam spill into a ditch.

In any given year, 7,000 acre feet of water pass through this gate. (An acre foot, the standard unit for measuring large quantities of water, is the amount needed to flood an acre twelve inches deep -- enough water to put the infield at Coors Field under five and a half feet of water.) The ditch supplies nine smaller ditches and two reservoirs with water for municipal and industrial uses, as well as thousands of acres of highly productive cropland south of Longmont. Of the water that goes to the farms, about half will flow back into a return ditch or the river, only to be diverted again through other gates, then be used and returned, used and returned, again and again as the river flows east.

But many would-be users of the water flowing through this gate no longer have a right to the St. Vrain under Colorado's "first in time, first in right" doctrine, despite having senior water rights dating back to May 1865. Normally, they would have expected to receive water well into August, maybe even September, when the farmers would no longer need it for irrigation. But the drought has forced the local river commissioner to cut off their rights to St. Vrain water early and, for those lucky enough to own some, call upon supplemental "insurance policy" water supplied by the trans-mountain Colorado-Big Thompson water project. Some of that water can be dumped into the river upstream near Lyons. Without it, the St. Vrain would be hardly more than a trickle.

The list of users being cut off from St. Vrain water has climbed higher than at any time since the 1950s, when Colorado suffered through its last multi-year drought. The drought this time got started with a dry, warm winter and spring. Then June began with two weeks of temperatures in the 90s, contributing to wildfires that burned thousands of acres and destroyed homes near Pine and Loveland before a cold front finally moved in and helped extinguish them. Less dramatically, but of more concern to farmers, the high temperatures helped finish off an already early spring runoff that had peaked by the end of May, more than a month ahead of normal.

The irony is that the previous winter, spring and summer, Colorado had experienced above-normal precipitation, filling the reservoirs and other storage sites to capacity. That meant that what runoff couldn't be used immediately also couldn't be saved for later this summer and so rushed on down to the South Platte River and, a couple hundred miles later, out of Colorado.

The relief in June temperatures was short-lived. July was just plain hot, one day shy of tying a 1901 record for eighteen consecutive days of 90-degree-plus temperatures. To make matters worse, there was no precipitation to speak of before a high-pressure system again took control of the skies and forced temperatures back into the 90s.

The drought's effect has been felt from the mountains to beyond Colorado's borders. In June, landowners in the foothills near Lyons were complaining that their wells were dry. The culprit was partly the lack of rain and partly conservation efforts by ditch and reservoir owners who were lining their systems in order to prevent loss of water through seepage -- when historically, that seepage is what has kept those wells filled. Unfortunately for the well owners, they have no legal right to that water.

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