Trickle-Down Economics

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

Oster knows that his side could soon be out-voted. "They say they'll have me out next year," he says, "and they're gonna get rid of the board. But they won't get rid of me completely. I'm still a shareholder, and I'll show up at every one of the meetings and make sure they do it legal."

He has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. For starters, he says, the suitcase farmers who want to sell are being misled about Colorado water law. Some, including Hunt, seem to believe that they can meet their water needs with irrigation wells; that's because they've been allowed to get away with it so far, Oster explains, and don't understand that those wells fall under Colorado's water priority rights -- and that almost all wells are far junior to the rights owned by the ditch companies and the reservoirs. According to a law passed in 1969, the owners of wells are legally bound to replace water they take from the ground, he points out. If they can't or don't, they're supposed to be shut down by the state engineer's office, which has jurisdiction over water rights. Although so far the office has been reluctant to shut down wells, Oster predicts that the state could take action soon, especially if the drought continues.

But Oster figures his best chance is in water court. Colorado water law protects those who use a ditch from "injury" -- injury having been determined by the Colorado Supreme Court a century ago to mean so much as a drop of water. Selling off his share of CBT water without replacing it would certainly injure him, Oster says. "So they'd better get a good lawyer," he adds. "I don't understand why these people moved here, if all they want to do is change things. We didn't invite them."

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.

Moving Oster will be tougher than trying to uproot one of the cottonwoods that line the South Platte. His grandparents and his parents are buried in the local cemetery. And he intends to remain a farmer, passing the land and the legacy on to his daughters if they so desire. He doesn't take government subsidies like many of his fellow farmers, nor does he whine about the price of crops.

"I don't need a welfare check," he says. "I need my water."

David Hunt says he's no suitcase farmer. His family homesteaded in western Kansas and owns the Number Two well permit in that state. "I've been in farming all my life," he adds.

Hunt might still be in Kansas if his wife, who's from the Greeley area, hadn't "got tired of all the dust." So they moved, first to a farm near Windsor, then ten years ago to the feedlot operation where he has 10,000 head of cattle and farms another 1,000 acres.

Selling the CBT water is "the most prudent use of the resource at this time," Hunt says. "It's all about economics." Some years the ditch shareholders never even use the CBT water, he adds: "Surveys show that only two out of every ten years are we very dependent on it." Hunt admits that he doesn't ever need the CBT water; the ditch's river water is enough for the 1,000 acres he farms, and the rest of his needs are met by irrigation wells that belong to associations formed to meet the water-replacement requirements.

"You have to ask yourself: Why do I farm? Well, the reason I farm is I grew up farming and know how," he says. "It provides a living for my family and a way for me to be my own boss. But the simple fact of agriculture economics is that in the last three or four years, crop agriculture is not very feasible."

Three years ago, when the issue of selling the CBT water was first raised, the economics weren't right. "It was going for $3,000 a share, and it didn't make sense," Hunt says. But today it does.

He isn't saying everyone has to sell, Hunt points out. Some people believe the price of the water may shoot up over $20,000 a share if they wait a few more years; others, like Oster, want to keep the water as an insurance policy for farming. But there's some question as to whether individuals have the right to break away from the company and sell their shares. Hunt's lawyers think they can.

But that interpretation is in dispute. And Hunt concedes that there's another point of contention: whether the ditch would be able to operate without the CBT water. Ditches lose a portion of the water as it soaks into the ground, so it takes more water than is actually needed to water the crops to ensure that enough gets to the headgates of a shareholder. The amount that's lost is the same no matter if the ditch is running full or partly full, so removing the CBT water could result in the ditch not working in the late summer months, when CBT shares normally keep it running full.

Right now, though, most of the debate focuses on personalities, not numbers. "I told the others when we first started researching this that I shouldn't be the spokesman, because the issue of me being a newcomer would come up," Hunt explains. "But there was no one else to do it." And something had to be done, he says, because the Platte River Valley is feeling new pressures every year.

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