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.

Some of these programs involve loaning equipment that's brilliant in its simplicity and effectiveness. For example, there's a solar-powered "surge irrigation valve" that sends water from a pipe down rows of corn in waves, so that each subsequent wave goes a little farther than the last before getting sucked back into the thirsty ground. Or they work with landowners, including Boulder County, to install overhead, movable sprinkler systems that are more water-efficient and less labor-intensive than traditional flood irrigation. Or to install gauges that measure soil moisture at different levels so that a farmer knows when to apply more water without under- or over-watering. Or to place a "bubbler," which looks like a fountain, at a junction between irrigation pipes where the water bubbles up and over a screen before returning to the pipe so that the debris -- leaves, weed seed, even the occasional crawdad sucked out of an irrigation ditch -- that can plug the small portals and traditionally has had to be cleared by hand is left behind on the screen.

Equipment such as the bubbler or surge valve is loaned to farmers for two years, after which they may buy it at a depreciated price or give up the equipment to someone else. These equipment programs are popular, especially in a year when water is more precious than ever.

"What we do isn't going to make or break someone," Carney says, watching water pour over the diversion dam. "But every little bit helps."


That Colorado might ever be conducive to farming would have surprised the first white men to explore the region, including those for whom two of the state's 14,000-foot peaks were later named. But these men came from the eastern United States, where water was plentiful. And in the West, it was water -- or the lack of it -- that most impressed them.

"...these vast plains of the western hemisphere may become in time equally celebrated with the sandy desert of Africa," Zebulon Pike wrote in 1807.

Major Stephen H. Long's 1820 description was harsher, describing the area as "a barren region unfit for the habitation of civilized man."

Criticism of the area was leveled by otherwise intelligent men who'd never traveled west of the Mississippi. "What do we want with this worthless area...this region of savages and wild beasts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs? To what use could we ever hope to put these great deserts and these endless mountain ranges?" complained statesman Daniel Webster in 1852.

But others saw the region's promise, particularly if water could be brought to the land. "Soon after sunrise I rode among the scattered ranches with fields of corn and wheat," traveler Albert Richardson wrote in 1859 of his journey through the San Luis Valley. "Irrigation makes the parched, sandy soil wonderfully productive. In most wheat-growing states a yield of fifteen fold from the seed is an excellent crop. But this seeming desert often produces fifty fold, and sometimes a hundred fold."

In those days, streams like the St. Vrain and Boulder Creek would dry up by mid-summer. Even the South Platte River got only as far as Fort Morgan before it disappeared, turning into a sandy path across the plains. And for the most part, wetlands simply did not exist; the few that did usually evaporated along with their seasonal water supply.

The land in the triangle bordered by the Cache la Poudre River to the north and the St. Vrain (with its tributary Lefthand and Boulder creeks) to the south, framing the Big Thompson River in the middle, was given over to hardy grasses and tough brush as well as the gigantic cottonwoods that signal the presence of water on the Great Plains. The climate was semi-arid, receiving only twelve to fourteen inches of rain each year. (The typical field of irrigated corn requires more than thirty inches of water every year.) But although it wasn't apparent to the untrained eye, the soil in this area was particularly suited to farming. It was a loamy soil, made up of nearly equal parts sand, silt and clay, deposited as sediments over the millennia by inland seas and washed down from both the ancestral and present-day Rocky Mountains. Its composition meant the soil was both fertile and had an excellent capacity for holding water; it was not as subject to wind erosion as sandier soils out on the eastern plains. All it needed was water.

By the mid-1800s, the land was already becoming crisscrossed with hand-dug irrigation ditches. It wasn't long after that farmers recognized they could build bigger and better ditches, as well as maintain them, if they pooled their manpower and resources, forming what would become irrigation-ditch companies. And these enterprising farmers weren't content with simply siphoning water from the rivers. Crops needed water in July, August and even September -- and so they built reservoirs to store the spring runoff and summer monsoons.

In many instances, these ditches and reservoirs were built before the towns and cities they would later supply. In fact, agricultural "colonies" -- in which lots were sold for towns or farm acreage to people living in eastern cities such as New York and Chicago -- were established to take advantage of these water systems.

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