Trickle-Down Economics

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

The river-bottom land was never much good, but Treadway was hesitant to take the deal. He said he might consider taking 40 percent of it out of production - but then the river flooded and wiped out his corn crop. "I said, 'Okay, how about 100 percent?'" he remembers, laughing, as he drives his truck north of Brush to his land.

Out here, where cattle herds were once pushed across the river, the land has been turned over to wild grasses. Steadway now uses his irrigation wells to flood small depressions he calls scrapes, which become weed-filled ponds for migratory waterfowl.

When a flood washed out the bridge east of his property, he offered to let the highway department dig a hole on his land for the gravel it needed to rebuild the bridge. Treadway filled that hole with water and five species of game fish. Treadway rents the land and the pond to a group from Denver, which comes out to hunt ducks, pheasants, turkeys and deer, and to fish for cutthroat trout and bass where he formerly grew corn and hay.

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's agreement with Partners in Wildlife, since joined by Ducks Unlimited, runs for thirty years, and it's been more profitable than farming this land ever was. He could have signed up in perpetuity, but didn't want to stick his eighteen-year-old son with the responsibility of maintaining this land. "He's more interested in girls, beer and football right now," Treadway says, exiting his truck.

Eagles circle over the fields. Treadway points out the furrows his plow had made, now mostly overgrown or underwater. He laughs when a dozen ducks bolt out of a scrape.

On a clear day, Treadway can see the tip of Long's Peak far to the west, where some of the water that runs through the South Platte begins its trip. Today the river is strong and wide where it crosses his land. In another three-fourths of a mile, it will be drained dry again at the headgates of the Sterling ditch. "But three miles down, there'll be some water in it, a little more five miles down, and running real good in ten," he says. "That's the water coming back to the river."

When Treadway accepted the Partners in Wildlife proposal, some of his neighbors called him a "traitor to agriculture," he remembers. "I guess I kinda got converted into an environmentalist," he admits, as though it's a dirty secret. But then he laughs again. "Others tell me it's the smartest damn thing they ever heard of."

Treadway expects that many other farmers along the river will soon join in the project. "The conservationists tell me that a long time ago, the river used to flood and create wetlands as it receded," he says. "So in a way, except this is more managed, it's like I'm helping give the river back to the way it was.

"And you know, I feel kinda good about that."

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