Trickle-Down Economics

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

If the drought continues next year, the ripple effect will get worse. The reservoirs may not be able to fill at all, meaning the junior surface water rights owners will be damaged. The well users may find it impossible to buy scarce water and, unable to implement recharge programs, could face the very real possibility of being shut down. In GASP alone, that translates to the owners of as many as 3,000 wells unable to irrigate if they are farmers, or supply water to households if those owners are developers or municipalities.

The impact could be devastating, and Stenzel doesn't even want to think about what could happen if the drought continues into a third year. But in his position, he must think about it. This year has been hard enough as his water commissioners play South Platte "water police," telling those who are cut off that they can't put water on their crops, pay their bills, support their families.

Some of the commissioners even came to Stenzel with concerns about their safety. Earlier in the summer, there'd been trouble at a town meeting in Ward, when representatives of the state engineer's office told illegal water diverters that they couldn't put small pumps in the river to irrigate their lawns. The commissioners worried what desperate acts farmers -- hurt much worse in a drought -- might be driven to.

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.

Stenzel can only hope that farmers will somehow weather the drought with their usual stoicism. He offers this example:

A water commissioner had gone out to visit a farmer who hadn't submitted a plan for replacing his well depletions. The commissioner told the farmer he would have to shut off the well if a replacement plan was not submitted to Stenzel immediately. The farmer started shouting that without water he was ruined. He grew angrier by the second, even as the commissioner kept talking, explaining that this was how the system it had worked for a hundred years and more...that it worked for everyone or it would work for no one.

After the commissioner finally turned to leave, the farmer fired one last shot. "The sweet corn's gonna be ready in a week," he yelled. "Make sure you come back and get some."

East of Greeley, Highway 34 shadows the thick cottonwood trees that line the banks of the South Platte River. Farther from the mountains, the stretches of rangeland -- short, scrubby, gray and tough -- between the cultivated fields grow larger. By late October, except for a few last stands of dry corn stalks, most of the fields have been shorn to stubble. Large round wheels of hay, or hay bales stacked in cargo-container-sized walls, are destined for nearby dairy farms, or more distant feedlots.

Out here, the swells of the prairie roll on more gently, with greater distance between their crests, than where they crash up against the mountains in the west. This is a drier land than the fertile triangle where the St. Vrain, Big Thompson and Poudre rivers rush out of the hills. On its own, the region would never support this intensity of farming and ranching, not without the irrigation ditches that run out of the river and the wells sunk into the underground flow of water. And without the nearby farms, many of the small towns on the plains would dry up and blow away.

Brush, located where the South Platte ends its southeast run from Greeley and curves northeast to Sterling, Julesburg and the Nebraska border, is an exception -- in part because of its fortuitous and historic positioning on the river, in part because it's taken the lead in innovative approaches to water problems. Years before the farmers arrived, cowboys driving cattle from Texas to Montana would come up Beaver Creek and cross the South Platte a few miles north of the present town, always following water. Then the Burlington Northern railroad discovered an underground source of extraordinarily pure water in the area, water it needed for its steam engines, the only such source between Denver and Lincoln, Nebraska.

A town sprang up, named for a Greeley man who ran a cattle feedlot out here to take advantage of the railroad stop. When Burlington began using diesel trains, the town fathers were wise enough to purchase the land containing the water source, making Brush one of the few municipalities in Colorado that doesn't need to treat its drinking water. As the town grew, immigrants from Denmark who had tuberculosis established a sanatorium here, hoping the dry air of the plains would cure the disease. Many settled permanently, establishing businesses or becoming farmers.

The farming wasn't always easy. During spring, the South Platte would flood, sometimes ruining crops -- but when the water receded, it left behind wetlands that attracted migrating waterfowl and deer. By mid-summer, the river would be so dry that a child could walk across its sandbanks without getting his boots wet. Describing the river in his book Roughing It, Mark Twain wrote, "We came to the shallow, yellow, muddy South Platte, with its low banks and its scattering of flat sandbars and pygmy islands -- a melancholy stream straggling through the center of the enormous flat plain, and only saved from being impossible to find with the naked eye by its sentinel rank of scattering trees standing on either bank. The Platte was 'up,' they said -- which made me wish I could see it when it was down, if it could look any sicker or sorrier."

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