Trickle-Down Economics

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

By mid-July, the river commissioners were cutting off ditches with senior water rights dating back to the 1860s, the deepest cuts ever in some drainages. Nearly two dozen counties were declared agricultural disaster areas and sought federal relief. But those farmers with CBT water weathered the crisis.

Oster has seen droughts before. His family clung to its farm during the 1930s, "when there was nothing but dust around here." And the family held on again during the drought of 1953-'55, when those who counted on the Evans Number Two Ditch were able to irrigate for barely seven days total before they were shut off. "It wasn't as bad as the '30s, but it was tough times for everybody, it was," says Oster. "Especially on those who had to quit. Got outta farming, they did."

The third year of that drought, shareholders were told they'd probably run water in the ditch five, maybe six days, tops. They'd about used that water up when "it rained, and the drought broke," Oster remembers. The Colorado-Big Thompson Project came on line a couple of years later, and those who were wise enough to purchase shares never had to worry about water again.

Division engineer Dick Stenzel oversees water in the South Platte River drainage.
Brett Amole
Division engineer Dick Stenzel oversees water in the South Platte River drainage.
Steve Treadway sees farmers and environmentalists working together.
Steve Treadway sees farmers and environmentalists working together.

Now, though, Oster worries that shareholders eager to sell don't realize what the CBT water means. Many of them are newcomers, he says, or "suitcase farmers" who moved to the country because they liked the idea of raising their kids in the wide-open spaces. If they farm, it's a hobby; their money comes from "their jobs in the city," he complains.

These newcomers have never seen an extended drought when the reservoirs go dry and there's not enough snowfall or rain to refill them...and no Colorado-Big Thompson water to replace it. "That," Oster says, "and they don't give a shit about farmers."

In July, Hunt forced a special vote on the question of whether to sell the CBT water shares. Although the majority of the shareholders were in favor, it wasn't the two-thirds super majority needed to win; those opposed held on by only a handful of votes.

Some of those who voted to sell were farmers in "financial difficulties," says Oster. When he speaks of these farmers, his tone softens; he knows that for even the most diligent farmer, "some years you make money, some years you don't." But he still can't abide those who, because of "poor planning," are counting on their water rights as a retirement fund.

Oster reserves his real vitriol for the suitcase farmers, of whom Hunt, "the backstabber," is the worst. "He told me two years ago that he wanted to be a good neighbor and that he would never sell the water," he says. "A year later he's turned around 180 degrees and is writing me 'love letters' telling me I got to sell. Now what kind of man would do that?"

Oster says he's had his own accountants and lawyers look at Hunt's claims, and they think a more accurate figure for selling the water and investing the money would be closer to $300 an acre. And that's only if the company doesn't get hit with corporation taxes, he adds.

If the company sells its CBT water, shareholders won't be the only ones affected. Superior, a blossoming bedroom community southeast of Boulder, has too little local water to support its needs; although it has a supplemental source from the Windy Gap project, there are difficulties getting it delivered. Like CBT, Windy Gap is a mountain reservoir designed to capture Western Slope water for transport to the eastern side of the Continental Divide. Unlike CBT, Windy Gap has little infrastructure of its own and has a deal with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District to pump its water into the district's Lake Granby, and from there through that system to Front Range users. But if Lake Granby is full, as it has been for several years, the district doesn't accept Windy Gap water; its users, including those in Superior, are left high and dry, scrambling to find other water sources.

Superior has been leasing 1,500 to 1,800 acre-feet of CBT water from the Platte Valley Irrigation Company for the past three years. The money goes into the company's operating budget, removing some of that burden from its shareholders. "And there's a contract in our office right now to double what they've been paying," Oster says. If the CBT water is sold to a developer, it will be "very difficult" for Superior to find another large source of good water, he adds.

Oster claims he's not entirely opposed to selling the CBT water, but he insists that his opponents must first find a replacement in "dirty" water -- water loaded with nitrates and other substances from both farms and municipalities upstream -- for those shareholders who want to continue farming. Such water is out there, he says; the problem is that it could take half a dozen years to get through Colorado's specialized water courts, whose judges must approve transfers of historic water rights (although not for trans-mountain diversion waters, such as those from the CBT project). Hunt's group, however, wants to sell the CBT shares by January. "Don't ask me why they're in such a hurry," Oster says. "It's all about greed, it is."

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