Trickle-Down Economics

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

The land the Hunts had farmed near Windsor recently sold again -- for $12,000 an acre to a developer, six times what it's worth to a farmer. "The common belief out here is that in twenty or thirty years, there'll be nothing but houses," Hunt says. He isn't sure that will be the case -- "this area still depends on agriculture," he notes -- but change is definitely coming, and it's going to be harder, not easier, to keep farms going.

"They worry that they might not be able to do what they've been doing with the land," Hunt says of Oster and other old-timers. "And I understand that." Oster is "a fine man with the best interests of the ditch at heart," he adds. But the current board, including Oster, is on its way out.

Hunt must sell his CBT water if he's to protect his way of life, he explains. The cost of the well replacement water is going to be "horrendous" in coming years. "You look at those who survive in farming these days, and it's because they are businessmen, period. That's what this is -- a business decision. I'm not trying to tell another farmer what to do...I just want to be able to sell what's mine."

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.

For Platte Valley Irrigation Company shareholders, the biggest challenge will be to keep any sale out of the courts. "The only ones who win in that deal are lawyers, who see the money involved and think there's a big payday for them if they can get it into court," Hunt says. Lawyers and others who salivate over the water are "sharks, and they've been circling around us for some time."

When water fights can't be resolved peaceably, the opposing sides often duke it out in one of the most specialized justice systems in the country: a Colorado water court.

Attempts to control the area's limited water supplies have been a part of the landscape since man's first days here as a farmer. The pre-Colombian Anasazi, who lived in the dry region that's now the southwestern corner of Colorado, terraced their hillsides so that water running off the mesas above would pool up behind stone dams before spilling over onto the next terrace, leaving soaked ground as well as fresh, mineral-rich silt in which to plant maize. They also constructed irrigation systems, digging trenches around fields in order to direct what little rainfall there was toward their crops; archaeologists suspect that ditches leading to depressions on top of the mesas may have been man-made reservoir systems.

In the 1500s, the Spanish brought irrigation ditches to the San Luis Valley. Taking a lead from their success, three centuries later American fur trappers settling around Bent's Fort also adopted irrigation as the only way to make the desert blossom.

After the Civil War, agricultural "colonies" flourished, with entrepreneurs and visionaries alike enticing people from the crowded East to move to sparsely populated Colorado. They sold them on the idea of working together to build agricultural ditches, with some people living in a central location and operating businesses while others farmed the outlying area in a symbiotic relationship.

The colonies varied widely. The Quaker Oats Company established one that was based on an early form of socialism. Workers were brought in to farm a large area for the company, and in return they received their own small parcel on which to grow crops. But the colony failed because its land was poor, requiring intensive maintenance of ditch systems that had been constructed in very erosive soils.

The Salvation Army got into the act with its Amity Canal, located west of Lamar, and built a colony for poor, former urban dwellers alongside it. The idea was to give people a better life by teaching them how to irrigate and farm. But although the Amity Canal is still in use today, that colony also failed -- this time because the immigrants lacked farming experience.

Other colonies were far more successful, including a couple that became leaders in the state's agricultural industry and evolved into the modern cities of Longmont and Greeley. The Union Colony was the brainchild of newspaperman Horace Greeley, who'd come to Colorado from New York and then returned to urge young men to go west. He made that possible by building an irrigation ditch before the colony's first settler -- who would later give Greeley's name to the town -- stepped foot on the land. (Even so, some of the first would-be colonists, who'd paid $155 for a city lot and parcel of farmland, took one look at the arid, cactus-studded land and got right back on the train.)

The Union Colony's ditch was so successful that colony residents become irrigation-ditch ambassadors across the state and established other settlements, such as Fruita, on the Western Slope. One resident, Nathan Meeker, was sent into the mountains by Colorado's governor to convince the Utes to give up the nomadic life of hunters in favor of a settled existence as farmers. Meeker, who'd been the agricultural editor of Greeley's New York Tribune, had immigrated to Colorado, where he was named president of the colony (and also founded the Greeley Tribune). He was successful at teaching the Indians irrigation skills, but made the mistake of tearing up their horse-racing track -- and they killed him for it at the start of what became known as the "Meeker Massacre."

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