Trickle-Down Economics

Out on the plains, water is Colorado's most liquid asset.

A wooden windmill looms out of the October fog along rural Weld County Road 39, thirty miles east of the Rocky Mountains. Standing guard over a rickety tub, the old windmill pumps water for a dozen head of cattle chewing mouthfuls torn from the rangeland of yucca, sagebrush and prairie grass as they stare at cars and trucks whirring past.

The scene looks just as it might have before the farmers came with their plows and irrigation ditches that made possible the uniform rows of corn standing in a field just beyond the cattle. Just as it might have, except for the traffic and the gigantic subdivision next door in various stages of construction -- from finished houses to scraped-off dirt ready for the cement mixer. When the project is finished, 800 houses will stand here, ranging in price from $250,000 to $400,000, a chunk of which represents the cost of water the developer had to purchase to win approval for his plans.

Five miles from the nearest town, LaSalle, and ten more from the nearest city, Greeley, the houses are perched on dry, treeless ground just begging for someone to cart in truckloads of bluegrass sod and evergreens to transform the prairie into another all-American neighborhood. Country homes without the farm chores: big house on the prairie.

Ted Oster wants to keep his water for his farm.David Hunt thinks the economics aren't good for agriculture right now.Division engineer Dick Stenzel oversees water in the South Platte River drainage.Steve Treadway sees farmers and environmentalists working together.
William Taylor
Ted Oster wants to keep his water for his farm.David Hunt thinks the economics aren't good for agriculture right now.Division engineer Dick Stenzel oversees water in the South Platte River drainage.Steve Treadway sees farmers and environmentalists working together.

Beyond the windmill, the cattle, the corn and the construction, a low-lying cover of gray clouds stretches in all directions. A Canadian high-pressure system has shoved cold air down the eastern side of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico, and the condition is expected to linger for a few more unseasonably chilly days. The front is a sign that nature and man should begin shutting down for the winter. The giant aluminum irrigation sprinklers rest off to the sides of the field, their work for the year finished. A week remains in the growing season, when those who own the oldest rights to Colorado water can still take it, but few still need it for crops.

Southwest of here, over by Platteville, the St. Vrain River completes its run from the Continental Divide; the flow is stronger than it has been since the spring runoff as it merges into the South Platte River. The South Platte is full to its banks, covering all but the tallest sandbars as it glides past LaSalle and on toward Greeley and points east. The reasons for the rivers' apparent abundance are interconnected: After harvest, the farmers no longer need the water, and late-summer rains and early snow in the mountains have finally brought some relief to earlier drought conditions. But more significantly, much of the water -- as much as half -- given to crops during the summer is returning to its source through a subsurface flow.

Still, the South Platte will be called on many more times before it reaches the Nebraska border. There is never enough water to fill all the demands, especially in a time of drought. So on days like today, eyes turn west, hoping for snowfall in the mountains and precipitation on the plains.

The current conditions, however, are little more than a tease. The Canadian system has brought cold and fog but not much moisture. "Hardly got a drizzle 'round here today," says Ted Oster, a 65-year-old farmer.

These days Oster farms only hay, which grew well in the exceptionally warm spring and summer. But without his shares of supplemental water from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, he would have been out of water -- and subsequently out of half of his crop -- in mid-July. With the CBT shares, though, he got through the season just fine. His hay, along with most of the corn grown in the area, is bound for the feedlots and dairy farms that keep moving farther east to escape the encroaching industrial and residential developments.

Now it's time for winter projects -- like completing the garage, the latest addition to the simple brick farmhouse where he and his wife, Elaine, raised three daughters. The original house was built in the 1880s. Oster bought it in 1963, adding a room and screened porch during the winter of 1972. He'd planned to do more, "but I ran outta money," he explains, and he isn't the sort to run up a lot of debt. Last winter, he and his two brothers finally got around to adding a spacious kitchen and dining area, as well as bricking in the porch for the sunroom his wife wanted. Today he's putting up shelves in the garage with the help of his friend, Walter Schlagel, and daughter, Susan, who, he proudly announces, recently graduated from Colorado College.

Oster was born nearby, "over on Road 49...six miles east of here and one and a half south. My dad built the house I was born in, he did." But his ties to this land go deeper.

In the "18-somethin'-or-others," he says, his paternal grandparents left their farm in Odessa, Russia, when his father, John Oster, was eight years old. The family got off the train in Hudson, about twenty miles due south of here, with very little money and even fewer words of English. "A real estate agent met them at the station, took 'em out and showed 'em a place," Oster says, "and they bought it on the spot, they did. That's how easy they were to get along with."

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