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 bounty that Richardson had noted in 1859 in the San Luis Valley was even more pronounced in the basins of the Poudre, the Big Thompson and the St. Vrain, which in the years since have produced corn, cabbage, peppers, onions, red beets, sugar beets, pumpkins, cucumbers, peas, alfalfa, barley, oats, dry beans and pasture grasses. The ready supply of forage grasses supplied dairy farms.

As people kept moving into the area, they changed the land. Streams that had run dry in summer received water from storage through the fall and winter in order to supply the growing population, and in the process, new fish habitats were created. Wetlands appeared, attracting migrating waterfowl and creating whole new ecosystems. A portion of these waters even made their way to the South Platte, which, while never a mighty waterway in the winter, in most years now contained enough water to at least make it to the border.

Long before the theory of global warming gained credence, some believed man was changing Colorado's atmosphere. Noticing what seemed to be a trend toward more moisture, people attributed it to divergent causes such as the advent of the railroads and steam locomotives that poured their effluent into the air, or even God favoring Western expansion and therefore commanding that "rain follow the plow."

The Anderson corn maze is the largest in the world.
The Anderson corn maze is the largest in the world.
Part 1: Going With the Flow

Even the most educated were bamboozled -- in part by insufficient data, particularly during the abnormally wet 1860s and '70s. "Since the territory has begun to be settled...towns and cities built up, farms cultivated, mines opened, and roads made and traveled, there has been a gradual increase in moisture," professor Cyrus Thomas, a member of Western survey teams, explained. "I therefore give it as my firm conviction that this increase is of a permanent nature, and not periodical, and that it has commenced within eight years past, and that it is in some way connected to the settlement of the country, and that as population increases, the moisture will increase."

The truth of the matter was that over a period of many years, the climate of Colorado could fluctuate wildly. It still does, and the wise farmer takes that into consideration. Now, as then, water is the most precious of commodities, and it has inspired more battles in the West than precious metals or good rangeland.

In 1901, an armed guard had to escort a river commissioner to close off the headgates of the Highline Canal, which took water from the South Platte River near Denver. A delegation of Fort Lupton farmers who depended on the ditch had talked about "sending an armed delegation up the river" to deal with what they felt were the commissioner's high-handed methods. An armed party was seen passing by, but no shots were fired.

Just two years ago in Montrose, a newcomer from New Jersey assaulted his neighbor with a shovel after the neighbor tried to get to the headgates of a ditch they shared. The ditch was on the New Jersey man's property, but he didn't understand that state law allowed his neighbor access.

Ignorance of the law and a bad temper earned the New Jersey immigrant a ten-year prison sentence. A hundred years after the Highline Canal incident, Coloradans continue to fight over water.

The changes sweeping across the land around Hygiene are as pervasive as the "For Sale" signs that sprout like some noxious weed from both cultivated and fallow fields. Smaller farmhouses are replaced by huge homes with three-car (and an RV) garages that sit like castles in the middle of mini-ranches, surrounded by whitewashed fences that pen sleek horses and, in one case, a herd of buffalo.

Not far from IBM Drive and a pair of microwave antennae that perch like champagne glasses on top of a hill, a weathered sign announces the existence of Pachamama Organic Farm. Up the drive is an even more battered gray house sitting next to a newer, prefab home; across a gravel parking area is a large metal barnlike structure.

Over by the barn, a forty-something man in a sporting goods ball cap, tattered rugby shirt, shorts and running shoes leans under the hood of a boxy refrigerator truck. After tinkering with the battery connections, he climbs into the driver's seat and, using a screwdriver instead of a key, cranks her up. "I didn't know how to do any of this stuff when I first started," says Ewell Culbertson. "I never knew I was mechanically inclined, but I was."

By "this stuff," Culbertson means the vast array of occupations that comes with being a farmer -- including mechanic when a piece of equipment breaks down. And he approaches "this stuff" with a missionary zeal.

A decade ago, Culbertson, a North Carolina native, was a manufacturer's rep for a sporting goods company. "I was big into the mountains -- rock climbing, skiing. It's what brought me to Colorado. I had a beautiful wife and family, was making six figures with a big, beautiful house in north Boulder." He pauses for dramatic effect. "And I was miserable."

In an effort to spend more time at home with that beautiful wife and family, Culbertson began a backyard garden and discovered a new love -- a love of growing things. "The more I got into it, the more I got into it," he says, walking over to an old Ford tractor to which he's attached a beat-up mowing machine. He plans to use the mower on last season's broccoli plants, which stand in their blue-green rows down the hill from the barn and houses.

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