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Trickle-Down Economics

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

Treadway decided he needed a crash course in Colorado water law and started attending meetings where he learned about such things as "first in time, first in right" water rights. His involvement in water issues grew from there.

Treadway was one of the original founders of the Lower South Platte Conservancy District, which promoted the Narrows reservoir project. "I thought we were making a mistake when we pushed it as a supplemental source of agricultural water," he says. "We should have concentrated on the recreational aspects."

Once again, he was ahead of his time. Now, with the Front Range booming and everyone looking for recreational opportunities, those who wanted the Narrows project sigh as they watch boaters, and their money, whiz by on Interstate 76 on their way to Lake McConaughy, which also supplies agricultural water for farmers, just on the other side of the Nebraska border.

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.

Treadway ran the Sigman feedlot for fifteen years, while also farming 160 acres of river bottom he purchased and several other parcels of land he rented. After that he ran three small feedlots of his own, while continuing to farm. It was hard work. There was always something to contend with -- bugs, market forces and the weather, particularly winter days when he and his crew might be out in temperatures 20 degrees below, trying to figure out how to get 50,000 head of cattle fed and watered. But they got it done, and that gave him a great deal of satisfaction.

Still, it was tough listening to the accusations of environmentalists, who always seemed to be attacking farmers and feedlot owners for polluting the land and river with chemicals and waste. While some of that criticism might have been fair, farmers certainly weren't any worse than the towns and cities where the environmentalists lived, fertilized their lawns and flushed their toilets. The farmers Treadway knew considered themselves stewards of the land. After all, it was their livelihood, the place they raised their children, the legacy they'd leave their children.

Not all environmental and legal issues involving Colorado's water come from in-state. Other states have rights to some of the water coming out of the South Platte, and a compact was created between Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and the U.S. Department of Wildlife regarding the amount of water each state will have to provide for endangered species in the Central Platte area of middle Nebraska.

While details of that compact are still under discussion, a coalition comprising the Lower South Platte Conservancy District, GASP, the Platte River Group (representing Front Range cities, including Denver) and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District came together as the South Platte Lower River Group, with Treadway as its president, to deal with the compact and also a new Department of Wildlife river-augmentation concept.

The DOW owns 10,000 acres known as the Tamarack Ranch, east of Brush and past the last ditch on the river that supplies the Sterling reservoir. After this point, there are no calls on the South Platte, and water can be taken freely. DOW's idea was to take water as it flowed past the ranch and move it through a series of ditches to areas away from the river, where the water would soak into the ground and, according to the Stream Depletion Factor lines, flow back to the South Platte.

The theory is essentially the same as recharging groundwater for well augmentation and, in fact, the DOW project could satisfy some of those augmentation requirements, in the process showing how augmentation some day might work up and down the entire river corridor. Ideally, the project would also help Colorado meet future responsibilities under the three-state compact for endangered species.

There are two more potential rewards. Under Colorado law, water can't be sent to another state without having first been used for some beneficial purpose here. When the project takes water from the river, it places it in depressions, creating wetlands for wildlife; as the water flows back to the river, it also raises the water table, creating more wetlands and wildlife habitat. The state engineer's office, through division engineer Dick Stenzel, has taken the position that these wetlands satisfy the beneficial-purpose requirement.

But like almost anything dealing with water in Colorado, the DOW project is controversial. The technology involved in recharging groundwater is new, and not everyone believes it will work long-term. And if it does, critics point out that raising the groundwater level can ruin farmland near the river by making it too wet to work and increasing salinity. Still other water users, reluctant to let Nebraska have precious South Platte water for endangered species, of all things, may contend that creating wetlands is not a beneficial use. Somewhere down the line, all of these issues will no doubt wind up in water court.

In the meantime, Treadway is once again ahead of his time -- only in this instance, it's worked out to his benefit. About four years ago he was approached by Partners in Wildlife, a joint effort of the federal and state wildlife departments and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service to create wetlands. The agencies wanted Treadway to take his river-bottom land out of agricultural production and turn it into wildlife habitat; they'd even pay him for the experiment and allow him to rent the area out to hunters and fishermen.

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