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 worse out east on the plains. In mid-July, the Colorado Drought and Flood Task Force was reporting low stream flows, poor dryland crop yields and abysmal rangeland conditions, with pasture conditions "bad and getting worse." Water users started calling on their stored reservoir water much earlier than usual.

Already, farmers and ranchers in three counties had been granted permission for emergency haying and grazing on Conservation Preserve Program property, private lands set aside for ten- to fifteen-year periods to allow their soil to recover; requests in two more counties are pending. An "agricultural disaster declaration" is also pending in sixteen counties, with another dozen in the process of applying for emergency relief funds through the USDA.

Hardest hit were the San Luis Valley, the northwest and the northeast areas of the state, particularly along the South Platte River basin from Greeley out to Julesburg on the Nebraska border. Unlike in the fertile triangle watered by the Poudre, the Big Thompson and the St. Vrain rivers, where most farms are irrigated, many farmers on the eastern plains work "dryland" crops that either depend on the beneficence of nature or rely on return flows from other farms into the South Platte, which by mid-July was at its lowest level in recorded history. Precipitation on the eastern plains was less than 50 percent of normal, according to the task force's report. But even irrigated crops were showing "signs of stress...due to rapid evaporation," which makes plants susceptible to disease and lowers crop yields; hundreds of farmers had already used up all of their rights to reservoir and underground-aquifer water.

Laborers picking potatoes at a Longmont farm in 1966.
Laborers picking potatoes at a Longmont farm in 1966.
Ewell Culbertson and his broccoli today.
Ewell Culbertson and his broccoli today.
Part 1: Going With the Flow

The hope was for the monsoon rains that normally swing up from the Gulf of Mexico during late July and August. But even then, according to the task force's report, additional precipitation "will not help many of this year's crops, only benefit the soil moisture conditions for next year." Without significant rainfall, the report added, "blowing soils could be a problem this winter and spring" -- a line that conjures up nightmares for those who lived through the terrible drought of the 1930s.

After that report was issued, the drought marched on through day after day of temperatures in the 90s. The monsoons have not cooperated, either, held off by the high-pressure system. And even when they made a brief foray into the state, as they did the week before Carney and Graffis visited the diversion dam, the rains came in the form of localized thunderstorms with heavy downpours that exceeded the soil's ability to absorb them. The water ran off as "erosive flow" that was more damaging than helpful.

And yet, this drought is as natural to Colorado as snowfall in winter -- if harsher than average. According to the Colorado Climate Center, the state shows no trend of increasing temperatures since the 1800s; this dry spell is not the result of any "global warming." And even if over the next few years it approaches the level of the drought in the 1930s, most farmers and ranchers along the South Platte basin will survive, in part because of the Colorado-Big Thompson project, which brings water from the western side of the Continental Divide to the east.

But the drought has accelerated the changes already occurring in traditionally agricultural communities along the Front Range north of Denver. Development is driving up not just the price of land, but also the price of water, until it's no longer economically feasible to farm. Those who continue hang on for love and tradition -- not money, and certainly not respect from many of the new neighbors who view farmers as a nuisance, even a danger.

Some farmers have managed to carve out a specialized niche. Others work as tenant farmers on government-owned lands. While intended to preserve a portion of the area's agricultural tradition and encapsulate urban sprawl, these parcels have also contributed to escalating land and water prices, until the tenant farmers are more like caretakers of museums than independent stewards of one of the most productive regions in the most agriculturally diverse state in the nation outside of California.

Still, development hasn't been all bad for farmers in the St. Vrain Valley. After years of toil and losses, they can get out, selling their last two cash crops -- their land and water -- to developers or Boulder County for far more than they were ever worth for growing corn or barley or sugar beets. Some farmers have taken the money and moved farther east, to farm where the land, if not the water, is considerably cheaper (though as newcomers with cash in hand, they're often no more welcome in those struggling farm communities than carpetbaggers were in the South after the Civil War).

For scientists like Carney and Graffis and others who work with farm-oriented government agencies in the district, it's a matter of doing what they can to put off the inevitable or to assist those who've found a niche -- like the echinacea farmer across the highway from the diversion structure. Much of their work revolves around water, whether it's gathering snowpack information high in the mountains during the winter or helping farmers with programs designed to conserve the most valuable assets in these parts: water and labor.

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