High and Dry
The Anderson corn maze is the largest in the world.The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago; today it stands in the midst of development.Dan Graffis checks an evaporation gauge -- and the news isn't good for farmers along the St. Vrain River.Laborers picking potatoes at a Longmont farm in 1966; Ewell Culbertson and his broccoli today.Jeff Rasmussen is a tenant farmer on Boulder County open-space land.Betty Ann Newby rides herd on horses and an alfalfa crop.
Summer, Hygiene to Platteville
Eight in the morning, and already the day promises to be another hot one as the men climb down from their pickups and clomp up the stairs of the Hygiene Cafe. There's not a cloud in the bright-blue sky, not a hint of an afternoon storm gathering behind the brown mountain peaks to the west.
From the outside, the cafe isn't much to look at. It's a weathered, wood-sided shack that stands on the road leading back out to state highway 66, which runs between Hygiene's nearest neighbors: the town of Lyons at the base of the mountains and Longmont, a half-dozen miles further east.
Inside, the cafe is just as plain. Owner Vickie Russell stands ready by the hot griddle while her waitresses take orders from the farmers sitting at a half-dozen tables. This is a place where they can take a break after their morning chores out in the fields, maybe wolf down a hearty breakfast or a homemade doughnut while nursing a cup of strong coffee and shooting the breeze with other farmers.
The talk in these dog days of early August is all about water. "Who gets it," Russell explains as she cracks a couple of eggs, "and who doesn't."
The town of Hygiene was founded between 1882 and 1885 and earned its rather curious name because it housed a sanatorium for people suffering from "consumption," as tuberculosis was called. Back then, it was commonly believed that the dry, rarefied air of Colorado was good for those afflicted with lung ailments.
The sanatorium has long since been torn down, replaced by a post office, and today Hygiene could be any small town surrounded by farmland at the end of the twentieth century. The streets are lined by ancient cottonwoods that grow toward one another until only patches of sunlight make it through the towering branches. Kids ride their bicycles down the middle of the streets below and play in the irrigation ditches that pass by and through the town.
But the world outside Hygiene is changing rapidly as the surrounding farmland gives way to housing developments and ranchettes. But so far, Russell says, the changes in town have been subtle. There are more commuters who like the small-town atmosphere and who drive to work in Longmont or even south to Boulder. And there are fewer farmers, as hard times combine with escalating land and water values to force them off the land -- or encourage them to sell out to the developers. "Though there seemed to be more of that last year than this year," she adds. "I don't know why...Maybe those who wanted to sell got out, and the rest are hanging on."
Russell's landlords, the Sidar family, recently sold the last dairy farm in all of Boulder County. "I think they just got tired of trying to keep hired hands and gettin' up at two in the morning," she says. Rumor has it that Boulder County wants to add the property to its open-space lands to help create a buffer between Hygiene and Longmont, which is spreading from the east like an amoeba constantly reproducing itself.
Those who stay on the farms generally find their way to Russell's place, where they give each other a good-natured hard time, bitch about the price of corn and barley and sugar beets, and wonder aloud when it might rain. The cafe has been in existence for at least 45 years, says Russell, who was born in Fort Collins, raised in Longmont, and moved to Hygiene in 1994. She bought the cafe four years ago.
Russell opens her doors at 6:30 a.m. The farmers begin to trickle in about seven, after many have already worked for a few hours. "Then I got to put up with them for a good two hours," she says, and laughs. "And a lot of them will come back for lunch."
As she speaks, the last two stragglers of the morning, a couple of older guys in overalls and ag-equipment caps, pay their tab and wander out the door into the gathering heat. "Have a good Friday," she calls after them.
"Day's half over," one jokes, although it's not yet nine and, if the truth be known, most farmers around here don't get done with their work until well after sundown -- especially if they still have access to water and can irrigate their fields.
But most can't, not in the middle of one of the worst droughts in years. "It's been so dry," Russell says, shaking her head. "One guy yesterday told me he had to sell his cattle because he couldn't get them any water."
Now the ditch riders, men who work with river commissioner Bill Gambrell, who determines who gets water from the St. Vrain based on "first in time, first in right" priority numbers, are coming into the cafe. They have nothing else to do.
It's frustrating. The St. Vrain River flows just south of the cafe. But a lot of these farmers can't touch the water; it belongs to someone downstream, some other farmer with an older priority number, or -- worse -- some guy building half-million-dollar homes with half-acre bluegrass lawns in Longmont who bought the water rights for more money than they were worth to a farmer.
"It's the worst I've seen it since I've been here," Russell says. "They're all worried they won't make it through August, especially if we don't get some rain."
She's learned to block out a lot of the worry that fills her cafe in the morning. Tough as times are, some things don't change: The farmers may be on the edge of going under, but their camaraderie remains strong. "I wouldn't live any other place," Russell says. "Folks around here do for each other. We'll get through it."
Pushing through a thicket of brush and poison ivy beneath a gnarled, overladen apple tree, Tim Carney and Don Graffis arrive at the north bank of the St. Vrain a few miles from Hygiene.
Scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the men -- the first a native of Queens, New York; the latter from the eastern Colorado farm community of Seibert -- have come to see what is known as the South Branch Diversion Structure, essentially a small dam. Water pools up, then pours over the top of the structure or cascades down a specially constructed "fish ladder" that lets trout migrate up and down the St. Vrain.
Today the St. Vrain looks like the energetic trout stream it is in the mountains a few dozen miles away. Although less than perfectly clear because of recent summer storms in the high country, the water takes on the gold-brown hue of the stones beneath the surface and flashes in the mid-afternoon sun. By this point, though, these waters are no longer the domain of fishermen and kayakers, but a valuable commodity -- like oil or natural gas -- coveted by farming, industry and housing interests.
Nothing spells that out quite as clearly as a separate structure across the stream from Carney and Graffis, the sole reason for the diversion dam: two concrete pillars, between which sits a thick metal sheet that can be raised to let the pooled water behind the dam spill into a ditch.
In any given year, 7,000 acre feet of water pass through this gate. (An acre foot, the standard unit for measuring large quantities of water, is the amount needed to flood an acre twelve inches deep -- enough water to put the infield at Coors Field under five and a half feet of water.) The ditch supplies nine smaller ditches and two reservoirs with water for municipal and industrial uses, as well as thousands of acres of highly productive cropland south of Longmont. Of the water that goes to the farms, about half will flow back into a return ditch or the river, only to be diverted again through other gates, then be used and returned, used and returned, again and again as the river flows east.
But many would-be users of the water flowing through this gate no longer have a right to the St. Vrain under Colorado's "first in time, first in right" doctrine, despite having senior water rights dating back to May 1865. Normally, they would have expected to receive water well into August, maybe even September, when the farmers would no longer need it for irrigation. But the drought has forced the local river commissioner to cut off their rights to St. Vrain water early and, for those lucky enough to own some, call upon supplemental "insurance policy" water supplied by the trans-mountain Colorado-Big Thompson water project. Some of that water can be dumped into the river upstream near Lyons. Without it, the St. Vrain would be hardly more than a trickle.
The list of users being cut off from St. Vrain water has climbed higher than at any time since the 1950s, when Colorado suffered through its last multi-year drought. The drought this time got started with a dry, warm winter and spring. Then June began with two weeks of temperatures in the 90s, contributing to wildfires that burned thousands of acres and destroyed homes near Pine and Loveland before a cold front finally moved in and helped extinguish them. Less dramatically, but of more concern to farmers, the high temperatures helped finish off an already early spring runoff that had peaked by the end of May, more than a month ahead of normal.
The irony is that the previous winter, spring and summer, Colorado had experienced above-normal precipitation, filling the reservoirs and other storage sites to capacity. That meant that what runoff couldn't be used immediately also couldn't be saved for later this summer and so rushed on down to the South Platte River and, a couple hundred miles later, out of Colorado.
The relief in June temperatures was short-lived. July was just plain hot, one day shy of tying a 1901 record for eighteen consecutive days of 90-degree-plus temperatures. To make matters worse, there was no precipitation to speak of before a high-pressure system again took control of the skies and forced temperatures back into the 90s.
The drought's effect has been felt from the mountains to beyond Colorado's borders. In June, landowners in the foothills near Lyons were complaining that their wells were dry. The culprit was partly the lack of rain and partly conservation efforts by ditch and reservoir owners who were lining their systems in order to prevent loss of water through seepage -- when historically, that seepage is what has kept those wells filled. Unfortunately for the well owners, they have no legal right to that water.
It's worse out east on the plains. In mid-July, the Colorado Drought and Flood Task Force was reporting low stream flows, poor dryland crop yields and abysmal rangeland conditions, with pasture conditions "bad and getting worse." Water users started calling on their stored reservoir water much earlier than usual.
Already, farmers and ranchers in three counties had been granted permission for emergency haying and grazing on Conservation Preserve Program property, private lands set aside for ten- to fifteen-year periods to allow their soil to recover; requests in two more counties are pending. An "agricultural disaster declaration" is also pending in sixteen counties, with another dozen in the process of applying for emergency relief funds through the USDA.
Hardest hit were the San Luis Valley, the northwest and the northeast areas of the state, particularly along the South Platte River basin from Greeley out to Julesburg on the Nebraska border. Unlike in the fertile triangle watered by the Poudre, the Big Thompson and the St. Vrain rivers, where most farms are irrigated, many farmers on the eastern plains work "dryland" crops that either depend on the beneficence of nature or rely on return flows from other farms into the South Platte, which by mid-July was at its lowest level in recorded history. Precipitation on the eastern plains was less than 50 percent of normal, according to the task force's report. But even irrigated crops were showing "signs of stress...due to rapid evaporation," which makes plants susceptible to disease and lowers crop yields; hundreds of farmers had already used up all of their rights to reservoir and underground-aquifer water.
The hope was for the monsoon rains that normally swing up from the Gulf of Mexico during late July and August. But even then, according to the task force's report, additional precipitation "will not help many of this year's crops, only benefit the soil moisture conditions for next year." Without significant rainfall, the report added, "blowing soils could be a problem this winter and spring" -- a line that conjures up nightmares for those who lived through the terrible drought of the 1930s.
After that report was issued, the drought marched on through day after day of temperatures in the 90s. The monsoons have not cooperated, either, held off by the high-pressure system. And even when they made a brief foray into the state, as they did the week before Carney and Graffis visited the diversion dam, the rains came in the form of localized thunderstorms with heavy downpours that exceeded the soil's ability to absorb them. The water ran off as "erosive flow" that was more damaging than helpful.
And yet, this drought is as natural to Colorado as snowfall in winter -- if harsher than average. According to the Colorado Climate Center, the state shows no trend of increasing temperatures since the 1800s; this dry spell is not the result of any "global warming." And even if over the next few years it approaches the level of the drought in the 1930s, most farmers and ranchers along the South Platte basin will survive, in part because of the Colorado-Big Thompson project, which brings water from the western side of the Continental Divide to the east.
But the drought has accelerated the changes already occurring in traditionally agricultural communities along the Front Range north of Denver. Development is driving up not just the price of land, but also the price of water, until it's no longer economically feasible to farm. Those who continue hang on for love and tradition -- not money, and certainly not respect from many of the new neighbors who view farmers as a nuisance, even a danger.
Some farmers have managed to carve out a specialized niche. Others work as tenant farmers on government-owned lands. While intended to preserve a portion of the area's agricultural tradition and encapsulate urban sprawl, these parcels have also contributed to escalating land and water prices, until the tenant farmers are more like caretakers of museums than independent stewards of one of the most productive regions in the most agriculturally diverse state in the nation outside of California.
Still, development hasn't been all bad for farmers in the St. Vrain Valley. After years of toil and losses, they can get out, selling their last two cash crops -- their land and water -- to developers or Boulder County for far more than they were ever worth for growing corn or barley or sugar beets. Some farmers have taken the money and moved farther east, to farm where the land, if not the water, is considerably cheaper (though as newcomers with cash in hand, they're often no more welcome in those struggling farm communities than carpetbaggers were in the South after the Civil War).
For scientists like Carney and Graffis and others who work with farm-oriented government agencies in the district, it's a matter of doing what they can to put off the inevitable or to assist those who've found a niche -- like the echinacea farmer across the highway from the diversion structure. Much of their work revolves around water, whether it's gathering snowpack information high in the mountains during the winter or helping farmers with programs designed to conserve the most valuable assets in these parts: water and labor.
Some of these programs involve loaning equipment that's brilliant in its simplicity and effectiveness. For example, there's a solar-powered "surge irrigation valve" that sends water from a pipe down rows of corn in waves, so that each subsequent wave goes a little farther than the last before getting sucked back into the thirsty ground. Or they work with landowners, including Boulder County, to install overhead, movable sprinkler systems that are more water-efficient and less labor-intensive than traditional flood irrigation. Or to install gauges that measure soil moisture at different levels so that a farmer knows when to apply more water without under- or over-watering. Or to place a "bubbler," which looks like a fountain, at a junction between irrigation pipes where the water bubbles up and over a screen before returning to the pipe so that the debris -- leaves, weed seed, even the occasional crawdad sucked out of an irrigation ditch -- that can plug the small portals and traditionally has had to be cleared by hand is left behind on the screen.
Equipment such as the bubbler or surge valve is loaned to farmers for two years, after which they may buy it at a depreciated price or give up the equipment to someone else. These equipment programs are popular, especially in a year when water is more precious than ever.
"What we do isn't going to make or break someone," Carney says, watching water pour over the diversion dam. "But every little bit helps."
That Colorado might ever be conducive to farming would have surprised the first white men to explore the region, including those for whom two of the state's 14,000-foot peaks were later named. But these men came from the eastern United States, where water was plentiful. And in the West, it was water -- or the lack of it -- that most impressed them.
"...these vast plains of the western hemisphere may become in time equally celebrated with the sandy desert of Africa," Zebulon Pike wrote in 1807.
Major Stephen H. Long's 1820 description was harsher, describing the area as "a barren region unfit for the habitation of civilized man."
Criticism of the area was leveled by otherwise intelligent men who'd never traveled west of the Mississippi. "What do we want with this worthless area...this region of savages and wild beasts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs? To what use could we ever hope to put these great deserts and these endless mountain ranges?" complained statesman Daniel Webster in 1852.
But others saw the region's promise, particularly if water could be brought to the land. "Soon after sunrise I rode among the scattered ranches with fields of corn and wheat," traveler Albert Richardson wrote in 1859 of his journey through the San Luis Valley. "Irrigation makes the parched, sandy soil wonderfully productive. In most wheat-growing states a yield of fifteen fold from the seed is an excellent crop. But this seeming desert often produces fifty fold, and sometimes a hundred fold."
In those days, streams like the St. Vrain and Boulder Creek would dry up by mid-summer. Even the South Platte River got only as far as Fort Morgan before it disappeared, turning into a sandy path across the plains. And for the most part, wetlands simply did not exist; the few that did usually evaporated along with their seasonal water supply.
The land in the triangle bordered by the Cache la Poudre River to the north and the St. Vrain (with its tributary Lefthand and Boulder creeks) to the south, framing the Big Thompson River in the middle, was given over to hardy grasses and tough brush as well as the gigantic cottonwoods that signal the presence of water on the Great Plains. The climate was semi-arid, receiving only twelve to fourteen inches of rain each year. (The typical field of irrigated corn requires more than thirty inches of water every year.) But although it wasn't apparent to the untrained eye, the soil in this area was particularly suited to farming. It was a loamy soil, made up of nearly equal parts sand, silt and clay, deposited as sediments over the millennia by inland seas and washed down from both the ancestral and present-day Rocky Mountains. Its composition meant the soil was both fertile and had an excellent capacity for holding water; it was not as subject to wind erosion as sandier soils out on the eastern plains. All it needed was water.
By the mid-1800s, the land was already becoming crisscrossed with hand-dug irrigation ditches. It wasn't long after that farmers recognized they could build bigger and better ditches, as well as maintain them, if they pooled their manpower and resources, forming what would become irrigation-ditch companies. And these enterprising farmers weren't content with simply siphoning water from the rivers. Crops needed water in July, August and even September -- and so they built reservoirs to store the spring runoff and summer monsoons.
In many instances, these ditches and reservoirs were built before the towns and cities they would later supply. In fact, agricultural "colonies" -- in which lots were sold for towns or farm acreage to people living in eastern cities such as New York and Chicago -- were established to take advantage of these water systems.
The bounty that Richardson had noted in 1859 in the San Luis Valley was even more pronounced in the basins of the Poudre, the Big Thompson and the St. Vrain, which in the years since have produced corn, cabbage, peppers, onions, red beets, sugar beets, pumpkins, cucumbers, peas, alfalfa, barley, oats, dry beans and pasture grasses. The ready supply of forage grasses supplied dairy farms.
As people kept moving into the area, they changed the land. Streams that had run dry in summer received water from storage through the fall and winter in order to supply the growing population, and in the process, new fish habitats were created. Wetlands appeared, attracting migrating waterfowl and creating whole new ecosystems. A portion of these waters even made their way to the South Platte, which, while never a mighty waterway in the winter, in most years now contained enough water to at least make it to the border.
Long before the theory of global warming gained credence, some believed man was changing Colorado's atmosphere. Noticing what seemed to be a trend toward more moisture, people attributed it to divergent causes such as the advent of the railroads and steam locomotives that poured their effluent into the air, or even God favoring Western expansion and therefore commanding that "rain follow the plow."
Even the most educated were bamboozled -- in part by insufficient data, particularly during the abnormally wet 1860s and '70s. "Since the territory has begun to be settled...towns and cities built up, farms cultivated, mines opened, and roads made and traveled, there has been a gradual increase in moisture," professor Cyrus Thomas, a member of Western survey teams, explained. "I therefore give it as my firm conviction that this increase is of a permanent nature, and not periodical, and that it has commenced within eight years past, and that it is in some way connected to the settlement of the country, and that as population increases, the moisture will increase."
The truth of the matter was that over a period of many years, the climate of Colorado could fluctuate wildly. It still does, and the wise farmer takes that into consideration. Now, as then, water is the most precious of commodities, and it has inspired more battles in the West than precious metals or good rangeland.
In 1901, an armed guard had to escort a river commissioner to close off the headgates of the Highline Canal, which took water from the South Platte River near Denver. A delegation of Fort Lupton farmers who depended on the ditch had talked about "sending an armed delegation up the river" to deal with what they felt were the commissioner's high-handed methods. An armed party was seen passing by, but no shots were fired.
Just two years ago in Montrose, a newcomer from New Jersey assaulted his neighbor with a shovel after the neighbor tried to get to the headgates of a ditch they shared. The ditch was on the New Jersey man's property, but he didn't understand that state law allowed his neighbor access.
Ignorance of the law and a bad temper earned the New Jersey immigrant a ten-year prison sentence. A hundred years after the Highline Canal incident, Coloradans continue to fight over water.
The changes sweeping across the land around Hygiene are as pervasive as the "For Sale" signs that sprout like some noxious weed from both cultivated and fallow fields. Smaller farmhouses are replaced by huge homes with three-car (and an RV) garages that sit like castles in the middle of mini-ranches, surrounded by whitewashed fences that pen sleek horses and, in one case, a herd of buffalo.
Not far from IBM Drive and a pair of microwave antennae that perch like champagne glasses on top of a hill, a weathered sign announces the existence of Pachamama Organic Farm. Up the drive is an even more battered gray house sitting next to a newer, prefab home; across a gravel parking area is a large metal barnlike structure.
Over by the barn, a forty-something man in a sporting goods ball cap, tattered rugby shirt, shorts and running shoes leans under the hood of a boxy refrigerator truck. After tinkering with the battery connections, he climbs into the driver's seat and, using a screwdriver instead of a key, cranks her up. "I didn't know how to do any of this stuff when I first started," says Ewell Culbertson. "I never knew I was mechanically inclined, but I was."
By "this stuff," Culbertson means the vast array of occupations that comes with being a farmer -- including mechanic when a piece of equipment breaks down. And he approaches "this stuff" with a missionary zeal.
A decade ago, Culbertson, a North Carolina native, was a manufacturer's rep for a sporting goods company. "I was big into the mountains -- rock climbing, skiing. It's what brought me to Colorado. I had a beautiful wife and family, was making six figures with a big, beautiful house in north Boulder." He pauses for dramatic effect. "And I was miserable."
In an effort to spend more time at home with that beautiful wife and family, Culbertson began a backyard garden and discovered a new love -- a love of growing things. "The more I got into it, the more I got into it," he says, walking over to an old Ford tractor to which he's attached a beat-up mowing machine. He plans to use the mower on last season's broccoli plants, which stand in their blue-green rows down the hill from the barn and houses.
As Culbertson gardened in his backyard, he began to read books about growing specialty crops, particularly vegetables, to sell to urban markets, and a plan began to form. He wanted to be a farmer. "I was tired of living in a suit, riding in airplanes, being away from my family and talking to phonies on the telephone," he says. "I realized that I was living a meaningless existence. I wanted a better life for my family and maybe do my part to make this a better world."
Culbertson didn't want to be just any kind of farmer; he wanted to be an organic farmer, one who grew his crops without the use of pesticides or herbicides. He was ready to quit his job and jump right in, but his wife was less enthusiastic about the change in lifestyle and insisted that he get some experience before they took the plunge. So Culbertson worked as an apprentice on another farm, and then as a sales representative for an organic dairy. At the same time, he read everything he could get his hands on about organic farming, watched all the videos and visited farms across the country.
He also kept his eye out for farm properties up for sale, and even put notices in rural mailboxes asking owners to contact him if they ever wanted to sell their property. Most of the land he heard about was too expensive. And then he learned of the farm outside Hygiene.
"This place had a lot that was wrong with it," Culbertson remembers. It was a "dump," littered with everything from old appliances and broken-down equipment to mounds of trash. And because of zoning restrictions, there was no possibility of erecting a "prairie palace" to take the place of the old gray house and newer prefab home.
But Culbertson saw beyond the problems. He saw that part of the land was covered with trees, and below the nearby foothills, the fields opened up and drained into a wetland of cattails.
The retired couple who owned the place had decided that farming wasn't for them; the land had been farmed by a tenant until he died. They wanted the property to stay agricultural, though, and they liked what they saw and heard from Culbertson. He brought his wife to the property, and she agreed it was time to make the move. They bought the 38-acre site and moved into the prefab.
Then Culbertson started the hard work of turning it into an organic vegetable farm. For all of his studies, he was unprepared for many aspects of farming, such as a shortage of affordable labor. An organic farm is more labor-intensive than a traditional farm, because neither herbicides nor pesticides can be used to get rid of weeds or insects. Both have to be removed by hand -- and labor is tough to come by. Culbertson finally settled on offering apprenticeships to people who wanted to learn organic farming -- mostly young, idealistic sorts who live in the gray house and get to eat all the vegetables they can, like Kendra Ferencak, a 24-year-old Denver woman now working in the fields below.
But of all the difficulties Culbertson encountered, none were as daunting as those involving water. Some were simply mistakes; for instance, he spent too much on an irrigation system that didn't work. More shocking was the realization that water was such a precious commodity that practically every drop had to be accounted for.
When Culbertson bought the land, it came with shares in the Lefthand Ditch Company, which had senior water rights dating back to June 1863, as well as additional junior rights picked up over the years. The Lefthand Ditch draws most of its water from Lefthand Creek, which flows from the mountains south of the St. Vrain River, which it joins near Longmont.
The Lefthand Ditch was the focus of one of Colorado's earliest court battles over water rights. In the 1870s, farmer George Coffin got upset when a drought left him with too little water for his crops, so he tore down a diversion dam used by the ditch company to take water from the St. Vrain and transfer it across a mountain ridge into Lefthand Creek. After the ditch company complained, the Colorado Supreme Court studied the matter and sided with the company -- determining that being the first one to use water for "beneficial purposes" was more important than actual physical presence on a watershed. This decision set the precedent for trans-basin diversion, which in the future would allow such projects as the Colorado-Big Thompson.
Culbertson quickly discovered that arguments over water were not a thing of the past. He was accused of using too much water, of taking more than his fair share, and it took him some time to resolve those issues. "Some people will talk things over," he says with a shrug. "Some people assume the worst and want to fight."
Today Culbertson is enjoying a modicum of success as a small-acreage farmer. He currently has seven and a half acres in production, the fields where Ferencak is picking yellow squash and baby artichokes. He plans to expand that to twelve acres.
Culbertson attributes part of his success to "community-supported agriculture," which in this case means 65 families who at the beginning of the season put up money and risk losses from weather and insects. Their reward comes every Tuesday, when they arrive at Pachamama (a South American Indian word he says means "earth mother") to pick up a box of "fresh picked, wonderful, tasty vegetables," certified by the Colorado Department of Agriculture to have been grown and harvested organically. He also takes his produce to farmers' markets in Longmont, Boulder and Cherry Creek, "where we sell directly to the consumer, without the middleman."
Having found a niche, Culbertson may survive even as traditional farmers are driven out. He doesn't have much in common with his farming predecessors; he doesn't approve of their chemicals and fertilizers. But like any other farmer, organic and traditional, Culbertson farms because he loves it. He looks out over his land, watching a redtail hawk swoop over the wetlands.
Colorado is the only state in the lower 48 that has no water flowing into it from outside, and yet this state supplies the majority of the water for the area west of the Missouri River, as well as the Southwest and California. But while 80 to 90 percent of Colorado's water falls on the western side of the Continental Divide, 80 to 90 percent of its population is on the east. That's why trans-mountain diversions have been critical -- and the granddaddy of them all is the Colorado-Big Thompson water project, which supplies about 75 billion gallons of water annually to towns, industries and farms in northeastern Colorado.
The idea of transferring water from the upper Colorado River to the eastern side of the Divide dates to 1889, when the state legislature allocated $25,000 for a feasibility study. The consultant whom lawmakers had hired, however, quickly decided that such a transfer couldn't be done and promptly returned $23,500 of the appropriation.
"Can you imagine a consultant today actually 'returning' unused money and not finding some way to spend it?" asks Brian Werner.
Werner is the public-information officer for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which, along with the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation, built the Colorado-Big Thompson project, the largest of what are now 32 trans-mountain diversions of water in the state.
The original consultant's opinion did not discourage legislators from the concept of transferring water across the mountains. But it took two disasters -- one natural, one man-made -- to get a project to completion.
Although Colorado has frequently experienced dry spells, the drought that started in the mid- to late 1920s and continued for another ten years created particular hardships. Huge dust storms swept across the land, choking plants and animals alike. Reservoirs were drained, and there was no water to refill them. Thousands of farmers in northeastern Colorado were forced off their land, sending a ripple through nearby agricultural communities. Farmers and their suppliers joined the ranks of others unemployed during the Great Depression.
Out of this chaos came the Colorado-Big Thompson water project, the brainchild of the Greeley Chamber of Commerce. Led by Charles Hansen, publisher of the Greeley Tribune, the chamber envisioned a large water project that not only would provide a supplemental water "insurance policy" against future droughts, but would also employ large numbers of people as it was built.
Northeastern Colorado had already lost out on one potential source of water. In June 1933, the federal government had approved a project in Wyoming that drastically reduced Colorado's plan to take 180,000 acre feet from the North Platte River system. The Laramie River, which gets its start in Colorado, is a tributary of the North Platte that flows predominantly through Wyoming; after the feds announced their decision, the Greeley businessmen realized they'd have to look within Colorado to find more water.
The Northern Colorado Water Users Association was established in 1935; although Hansen was named president, its membership expanded beyond Greeley to include representatives from Longmont, Loveland and Fort Collins, as well as agricultural interests. The group's goal was to convince the federal government -- particularly the Bureau of Reclamation, founded in 1902 to build water projects in the West -- to commission a study and, if feasible, build a trans-mountain diversion that would bring water from the Colorado River across the Divide.
Forty years after a consultant had returned Colorado's money, saying such a project couldn't be done, a new study now determined it could. And although the water users' association didn't have the authority to raise the money needed to pay its share of the cost back to the Bureau of Reclamation, that problem was solved in 1937, when the legislature passed the Water Conservancy District Act, allowing a district -- upon voter approval -- to raise money through a property tax and contract to build a project.
At the time, about 75,000 people lived in the Northern Colorado Water Users' proposed district boundaries, which encompassed almost 1.5 million acres in portions of Boulder, Larimer, Weld, Morgan, Logan, Washington and Sedgwick counties. Those boundaries include a fanlike area encompassing the Cache la Poudre, Big Thompson, St. Vrain, Lefthand Creek and Boulder Creek watersheds, then run in a four- to six-mile-wide corridor along the South Platte to the Colorado border. The tax -- a 1 mil property tax -- passed by a whopping 94 percent.
"Nowadays, it's easy to criticize all the dams and diversion projects," Werner says. "But there was a different perspective back then from people who had lived through the Depression and the drought. It was a time when civic leaders and politicians still looked a ways down the road instead of worrying about whether they were going to get elected next year."
The new Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District would be responsible for the operation and maintenance of a project that was authorized to deliver 230,000 acre feet, or about 75 billion gallons, of water to the Front Range each year. Construction was estimated to cost $44 million, with taxpayers within the district responsible for a maximum of $25 million; the difference was to be made up by selling electricity generated by six proposed hydroelectric power stations.
But the first phase of the project, which broke ground in 1938, did not directly benefit the water users of northeast Colorado. The Colorado Supreme Court had ruled that taking even a "single drop" of water to which someone else had a claim constituted "harm." So in order to provide for the rights of water users downstream on the Colorado, the Green Mountain Reservoir was built on the Blue River between Kremmling and what is now Silverthorne, to catch spring runoff and feed those waters into the Colorado to make up for what would be taken out farther up.
The next phase was to build Lake Granby, the second-largest reservoir in the state, adjacent to Grand Lake -- to which it was connected via a canal and the Shadow Mountain Reservoir. The Alva B. Adams Tunnel, named after the Colorado senator who persuaded Congress to fund the project, was built to transport water under the Continental Divide from Grand Lake to East Portal Reservoir, and then by pipeline to Mary's Lake. At 13.1 miles, at the time it was one of the longest trans-mountain tunnels in the world.
Another pipeline brought the water from Mary's Lake to Lake Estes, where the two forks of the Big Thompson River joined. A second tunnel and another pipeline connected Lake Estes to the Pinewood Reservoir, which was linked by more pipeline to the Flatiron Reservoir.
Up until the point at which the water reached Flatiron Reservoir, gravity did all of the work. There, however, the water was either pumped south to Carter Lake, and from there to Boulder Reservoir, or flowed north to Horsetooth Reservoir west of Fort Collins. From Boulder Reservoir, the water was diverted east into another canal, then sent through Erie to the South Platte River near Fort Lupton.
All told, the Big Thompson project consisted of twelve reservoirs, 35 miles of tunnels, 95 miles of canals and 700 miles of transmission lines. Today it provides supplemental water to thirty cities and towns, more than a hundred ditch and reservoir companies, and irrigates about 620,000 acres of farmland. Completion of the project took twenty years, with inflation and delays driving its cost up to $163 million. However, the money from the generated electricity not only covered the cost difference beyond the taxpayers' $25 million commitment, but the project became one of the bureau's few moneymakers.
The final years of the project's construction coincided with the last multiple-year drought in Colorado, from 1953 to 1956. Even though it was not yet complete, the CBT project was able to deliver water to desperate farmers. "Without the water, we would have basically been back to the 1930s, when everyone boarded up their farms and moved elsewhere," says Werner. "We saved the region. We couldn't have timed it better. People really saw the benefits."
Although the district's boundaries stretch from the mountains to the Nebraska border, all CBT shares are owned by people upriver, or west, from Kersey, just east of Greeley -- except for the city of Fort Morgan and one ditch company. The water users downriver from Kersey, who also pay the district tax, receive their benefits from return flows of the CBT water that is applied to fields by the shareholders. In other words, only the shareholders can call for a release of water from Horsetooth or Boulder reservoirs; the others get what's left over.
When the project was completed in 1957, about 150,000 people were living in the district's boundaries -- more than double the population when the project began. Agricultural concerns owned 85 percent of the shares and used 98 percent of the water. The other 15 percent was owned by municipal and industrial -- M&I -- concerns. The cities owned more shares than they could use as a hedge against drought, and often rented back the excess to farmers .
In 1999 there were an estimated 650,000 people living in the district's boundaries. Today, 54 percent of the shares are owned by M&I interests. Although agriculture continues to use most of the water, M&I concerns use 30 percent, reflecting the increasing development of land within the district's boundaries.
As that development continues, the buying and selling of water will become an even bigger business in Colorado.
Those who took the initial risk and purchased shares of CBT water back in the '30s for $1.50 apiece made the investment of a lifetime. By 1993, shares were selling for $1,300 apiece. By the end of 1999, they were selling for $7,000; just a few months later, there were confirmed sales at $15,500 a share. There is no other commodity in the world -- not gold, not platinum, not plutonium -- that has seen such a wild rise in value in the past forty years.
The March 21 Loveland Reporter-Herald included an ad offering two shares for $20,000 apiece. "I don't think they ended up selling for that much," Werner says, "but it gives you an idea of what the frenzy has been like."
Werner is quick to point out that the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District has nothing to do with the price of the shares. In Colorado, water is a property right that can be rented, leased, bought and sold, just like any other piece of property. The details of the sales are between the seller, the middlemen -- or water brokers-- and the buyer. The district's primary purpose is to operate and maintain the delivery system. And while the district will sometimes release more water to encourage cities to rent their excess to farmers, it otherwise has little to do with the water commodities market.
Still, Werner can speculate as to what's been driving the cost of water so high. Some people believe that deep-pocket speculators are gambling that the price of water will continue to go up. Others, including Werner, note that the high-priced water coincides with the advent of anti-growth measures, one of which will appear on the November ballot. All cities and towns in Colorado require developers to "bring water" to the table when applying for annexation. Some water-rich cities will accept "cash in lieu" of water, although the trend is toward insisting on actual water rights. The anti-growth push may actually be speeding up the process and inflating the price of water as developers rush to get their projects approved before voters can stop them.
CBT water isn't the only water that's escalated so wildly -- historic water rights on a river such as the St. Vrain can be equally valuable -- but it's the benchmark by which other water rights are measured. And CBT is particularly popular for two important reasons: It's easy to transfer the rights from one type of use to another, and they can be transferred anywhere within the district's boundaries.
Transferring historic water rights from one use to another, or from one place to another, usually requires going to a water court specifically set up to deal with water issues. And there's no guarantee that a judge will allow agricultural water to be sold for industrial uses, or that a farmer in one county can sell his water for use in another county. But CBT water transfers simply require filling out a form and paying a nominal fee. That's one reason the cost of CBT water has gone through the roof, says Werner, who heard of one developer who asked a water broker to find 500 shares of CBT water "and was going to pay whatever it took."
Such a buying frenzy has several impacts. Developers have claimed that the price of water in some areas adds as much as $15,000 to the price of a new home. Farmers are affected both positively and negatively. On the one hand, CBT water has been a great investment. About 43 percent of the original shareholders still hold on to shares bought at $1.50 each, Werner says; many of these people own hundreds of shares, which would make them instant millionaires if and when they decided to sell.
Some already have, including people who sold shares and then rent water back from cities to continue farming. "Of course, there's the danger that in a drought, they may not be able to rent that water," Werner notes. Or they may get caught by the escalating cost of the water.
As the cost of water goes up, the cost of land in farm country along the northern Front Range has jumped as well. Land with senior water rights, or that comes with shares of trans-mountain water, is worth even more -- often more than it's worth as farmland, which hurts young farmers trying to get started. Even those who already own their land but need to supplement their historic water rights with trans-mountain water find themselves competing with developers for every last drop.
These days it's popular to criticize dams and diversion projects, which in the past drowned entire towns, forests and ecosystems. But most of the current population along the eastern side of the Divide, including those who criticize water projects, couldn't live here without trans-mountain diversions. The environmentalist who works to protect the wetland and waterfowl habitat, the fisherman who argues for more water for trout -- neither would have anything to protect or argue over without the added water.
"Fifty years ago, if you had put a goose on the Fort Collins city logo, they would have laughed at you," Werner says. "There weren't any geese."
Jeff Rasmussen sits in the tiny kitchen of a small yellow farmhouse just off Highway 287, five miles south of Longmont, wondering where he's going to get enough water to finish his crops come late August. Without water, his yields will be halved, and another bad year -- following several previous years of lousy prices for his crops -- may "crush" his operation, he says.
After rising at 5 a.m., he'd gone out to irrigate his fields. Now he's taking a break from the midday heat. In the evening, he'll go back out with his farmhand and flood his fields again. In the hours in between, he'll fix broken equipment, or harvest, or plant, or do one of the innumerable other jobs a farmer must do on any given day. During the spring, summer and fall, Rasmussen will not finish his work until 10 p.m.
Inside, the house appears much like it must have when the first farm family occupied it some seventy years ago -- except for the computer sitting on a wooden table in the dining room. Outside, a small fenced-in backyard is cluttered with children's toys. Thirty feet away, across the dirt driveway, stands row after row of corn, the stalks six feet high and heavy with golden-tasseled ears.
The sight of the toys and the cornfields reminds Rasmussen of those people who suggest that he and other farmers are careless with their chemicals -- as though he would ever do anything to endanger his children. But these days, such unfounded criticism is just part of being a farmer in Boulder County, an area undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis from farmland to gentrified suburbia.
When Rasmussen was growing up on his father's farm several miles to the south and west, Highway 287 was just a two-lane country road that ran past farms like this one for mile after mile. There was so little traffic on the side roads back then that a farmer and his children might not see another car as they drove the tractor to the fields.
This morning, cars and trucks blast by one after another, riding each other's bumpers as they rush past golden fields of Coors malting barley waiting to be cut, the stands of corn and one-ton bales of hay ready for shipment to the cattle feedlots east of Greeley. While farmland still dominates the scenery, there is less and less space between the housing developments and industrial parks on the outskirts of Boulder and Longmont and Loveland. Along this corridor, Highway 287 is being expanded into a four-lane thoroughfare.
As the county's population moves out into the country, farmers often find themselves in conflict with their new neighbors. Rasmussen recalls one time when a woman stopped to watch a crop duster at work. When a little overspray landed on her car, the woman was irate -- even though the chemical was sulfa, harmless to both her person and her car's paint. "She wouldn't accept the pilot's apology or offer to clean the car," he says. "Instead she took him to court, I guess to make an example of him."
Newcomers may like the idea of living in farm country, but they don't understand it -- or don't care to. They call and complain when farmers burn the dead grasses and other debris in irrigation ditches, although state water law requires water users to keep the ditches free and clear. They sneer at the use of herbicides and pesticides and accuse farmers of being careless with the chemicals, when simple economics require farmers to use as little as possible. "And we're the ones who live here," Rasmussen points out. "My kids play out there."
Although Rasmussen tries to take his farm machinery to the fields when traffic is light, he'll invariably get "the ol' one-finger salute" from some cranky motorist in a hurry. "What cracks me up is that they're probably rushing to get to a restaurant to eat," he says, "and they have no idea that food may have come from some guy like the one they just flipped off." He forces a laugh, but the smile quickly fades.
He represents the third generation of Rasmussens to farm in the St. Vrain Valley. His grandfather came from Iowa in 1902. "He had some sort of lung problems and moved here for his health," Rasmussen says. The old man worked for years as a farmhand, he adds, pointing to two dilapidated sheds off in the distance, on another man's property. "He used to sleep in one of those when he was working on this farm."
Rasmussen grew up on the farm his grandfather had built. It was a good life for a child, one filled with farm-kid activities such as 4-H, raising prize animals to be auctioned off at the county or state fair. That was a hard lesson when he was young, but it's part of the cycle of life that every farmer learns.
And no lesson was more important than learning about water. Rasmussen saw this firsthand when he went with his father and uncle to meet a train bringing in a load of sheep. The poor animals had been stuck in a car without water; some were no longer capable of standing. He'd always remember his uncle cutting the lid of a soda can to fetch water for the traumatized animals and how it seemed to bring them back from death's door. His earliest memories of life on the farm are of going with his father to irrigate the fields, watching the cool water run into the rows of cracked and thirsty ground. He could almost hear the corn drinking.
"We were just little shavers," he says. "But I was taught an appreciation for water." Without water, crops didn't grow. Without crops, the family could not survive. Waste water in June and you'd regret it when the river commissioner cut off your ditch in late summer, saying you'd used your allotment.
Rasmussen grew up wanting to be a farmer. He could imagine no other life, partly because he had known no other life. But his father insisted that he go to college. Education wasn't going to hurt him, he said; farming was changing, getting more sophisticated, and farmers had to know about computers and spreadsheets.
So Rasmussen went on to Adams State College in Alamosa, itself an agricultural community, as a business major. For a time he thought he might follow a career other than what his father and grandfather before him had pursued -- but when he heard there was land in the area where he'd grown up that could be leased for a good price, he knew that was the only place he wanted to be. He moved back home, bringing along his new wife, Sherri, and his degrees in finance and economics.
That was ten years ago -- ten years of sweat and long hours with little in the bank or anywhere else to show for it. Rasmussen doesn't even own the land he farms, but leases it from Boulder County in a unique arrangement designed to keep open space and preserve agricultural lands.
In the late 1980s, Boulder County's open-space department began purchasing conservation easements on farmlands. Essentially, the easements paid the farmer to give up his right to develop his property; in return, he got cash based on the market value of his place, often a substantial sum, and could continue farming the land he owned. Today the county owns conservation easements on 13,000 to 15,000 acres.
But conservation easements didn't appeal to every farmer; some wanted to retire or move on, and they didn't have heirs interested in working the family farm. So the county began purchasing farmland outright. Rather than turning the land into a park or over to its supposed "natural" state, though, Boulder County leased the land to tenant farmers. Jeff Rasmussen is just one of sixty farmers who now lease a total of 19,000 acres from the county.
The program is not without its critics, most of them from urban centers like the city of Boulder itself. They don't like the use of chemicals on "county land," or that some farmers grow genetically altered crops. They want to see the land returned to its "natural" state, even though the native grasses, brush and animals have long since disappeared, replaced by new ecosystems, new animals that live in farmlands.
The open-space policy is problematic for tenant farmers, too. By buying land, Boulder County is reducing the available supply, making what's left even more scarce, and therefore more valuable, to developers.
As farmland, an acre in this area is worth $1,000, maybe $1,200, Rasmussen says. But a developer or even the open-space program might pay ten to fifteen times that much.
Rasmussen knows he'll never be able to buy a farm in the valley where his grandfather settled. The house where he and his family live was not part of the deal with the county and could be sold out from under them overnight, only to be torn down and replaced with a half-million-dollar dream home. Without his father and uncle, who still farm in the area, loaning him their equipment, he wouldn't have been able to farm even on leased property -- and even with their help, he's not optimistic about how much longer he'll hang on.
Commodity prices are no better than they were forty years ago and actually lower than they were just a few years ago, when farmers could at least make a living. "My grandfather got $4.10 for a hundred pounds of cracked corn in the 1950s," Rasmussen says. "Last year, I got $3.25 for a hundred pounds."
There's plenty of blame to go around. While some critics point out that many farmers would be out of business without government programs, Rasmussen counters that American farmers are not allowed to compete fairly with foreign markets. "Every time we get mad at someone like Saddam Hussein, we use food as a weapon of foreign policy," he says. "And, of course, the American farmer is the one who suffers."
U.S. immigration policies make it difficult for farmers to hire migrant workers, particularly those from Mexico. But Americans won't put up with the long hours and hard work, not when fast-food restaurants pay more or they can get welfare. Social activists complain that when migrant workers are allowed in, the farmers don't pay them enough. But at the same time, the government has made agreements, like NAFTA, that allow the importation of cheap food from Mexico -- produced by workers there who are paid even less.
Rasmussen considers himself lucky to have found a farmer from Mexico, here legally, who wants to work the land rather than at a McDonald's, where he would get higher wages. Rasmussen pays the man what he can afford -- $1,600 a month "and he gets the winter months off," when he can go home to his family in Mexico. "He shows up on time and works hard," Rasmussen says. "But I'm right there with him, working just as hard...and probably making less."
The cost of food in America does not come close to reflecting the cost of producing it. Americans get cheap food, in part because of government cost controls, and in part because farmers are paid almost nothing for their produce. For instance, a farmer collects less than a single cent from the sale of a loaf of bread. In a way, part of the problem is their own fault: American farmers are too good at what they do, and they're too independent to form effective unions to demand better prices and a level playing field with other countries.
High land prices, low food prices, a labor shortage -- farmers have dealt with those dilemmas for years. What's new is what has happened with water.
When Boulder County buys farmland for open space, it's careful to make sure the water rights are included (it learned that lesson the hard way). And so Rasmussen has fairly senior rights to water from the Boulder and White Rock Ditch, which draws its water from Boulder Creek. But not senior enough to give his crops that final week or so of moisture they need to mature, particularly in a drought year when there's increased evaporation and no rain to supplement the irrigation ditch water.
Normally, he could rent excess water from Longmont or find someone with CBT water to spare. But that water has become so expensive that he can't afford to use much -- and during a drought year, people are holding on to what they have anyway, fearing the dry spell may continue.
Rasmussen hopes that Coors will take most, if not all, of the barley he's about ready to harvest; that may hold off the creditors for a bit. He banks at First National Bank of Longmont, the last independent bank in town and one that traditionally has been supportive of farmers. "I still have a good relationship with my personal banker," he says. "He's from a farm family and understands what it's like. But the people he has to answer to, they're good people, but they're getting farther and farther removed from the farm..."
Rasmussen's voice trails off as he contemplates the future. Asked where he sees himself in ten years, he pauses and looks out the window at the land he loves. He and Sherri have already pondered this question, asking themselves at what point would they walk away while they still have a little to show for all their hard work.
"In town," he says quietly. "Probably in town."
Sherri enters the house with their girls. It's her day off from the USDA office in Longmont, where she took a job to help make ends meet. "It'd be hard to leave," she says after her husband excuses himself. "This is a wonderful place to raise children.
"And I always know where to find him. The hours are real long, and that can be tough, but I can take the girls out to meet him in the field when I take him his dinner. They know where food comes from and have an appreciation for it."
Sherri's eyes grow wet as she considers leaving the farm. "I was from the town, not a farm," she says. "But I love it here, especially the people. They're still independent and stubborn, but they still all do for each other...somebody gets sick, they get together and cut his hay. Rich or poor, they all know what it's like, and no one looks down on anyone because they're having a hard time."
Old-timers and young men alike are suffering. At Sherri's office, she's seen eighty-year-old farmers, as tough as the ground they've worked all their lives, break down into tears because it's no longer economically feasible to keep the family farm or pass it on to a younger generation.
Sherri looks at her husband as he walks across the yard, silhouetted against the rows of corn, the 90-degree-plus day sucking the moisture from every living thing. "I feel sorriest for him," she says. "He's young and he's a good farmer. It's not his fault, and this is what he loves. But I think we're going to have to leave."
In the fall of 1870, a banner headline in the Chicago Tribune pronounced: "Chicago going to hold her own with New York in the colonization of the West."
The Civil War was over, but the country was still feeling the effects economically, particularly in the East. Men moved west to seek their fortunes in the gold fields of the Rocky Mountains, but when they saw what outrageous prices miners were willing to pay for food, some men moved back along the Front Range to make their fortunes farming.
By now, the Homestead Act had been in effect for ten years and most of the area settled, but to many it was still Webster's "region of savages and wild beasts." Colorado was six years away from becoming a state, only seven removed from the slaughter of white settlers that precipitated the massacre of Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne Indians, mostly women and children, at Sand Creek.
The Front Range had good soil and, in places like the St. Vrain River valley, established irrigation ditches and reservoirs to supply water. But it needed larger population bases to create a market for the farmers and ditch companies. And so those interested in promoting the area for settlement came up with the idea of bringing in whole communities, or "colonies," and plunking them down in likely areas. Instead of settling a family at a time, or even a wagon train at a time, the idea was to lure folks with a broad base of talents -- bakers and farmers, bankers and ironsmiths, storekeepers and teachers -- to create self-sufficient towns.
One attractive site was where Lefthand Creek and the St. Vrain River met a dozen miles east of the foothills. Burlington had been established near there in 1862, but it wasn't much more than a way station on the stagecoach line, subject to periodic flooding by the St. Vrain. Newspapers back east began running ads urging interested parties to go to Chicago to hear about the benefits of settling in this spot. In Chicago, they learned that for only $150 they would receive a business and home lot in the new town or farmland on the outskirts.
The venture was called the Chicago-Colorado Colony, and it was an immediate success. In 1873 the settlement took the name Longmont, in honor of the explorer who'd once deemed the area "unfit for the habitation of civilized man."
The town, platted to cover one square mile, was everything its founders had envisioned: self-sufficient, prosperous, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with the area's farmers, many of whom actually lived in town and traveled to their fields. And although the town would attract other businesses and industry, that relationship between the town and its surrounding farms would continue for well over a century -- albeit to an ever-shrinking degree.
The changing relationship is reflected in two massive buildings that stand on former farmland off a main road between Hygiene and Longmont. One houses a computer disk storage manufacturing plant, the other is the new Amgen Inc. facility. The California-based drug company recently made headlines in the Longmont paper for violating its water-discharge permit.
Still, Boulder County fights to retain the agricultural heritage of the Chicago-Colorado Colony.
One goal inspiring the county's open space policy was to provide buffers, or physical separations, between communities, helping to preserve their identities. Another was aesthetic, as Boulder County residents have repeatedly voiced their approval of maintaining the agricultural feel of the region through conservation easements and buyout-to-lease policies. They've done so putting their money where their mouths are -- last year voting 70 percent in favor of extending the sales tax that funds open-space programs for another ten years.
And still another reason for the preservation of agricultural lands is the growing recognition that farmlands -- long criticized as environmental menaces -- are actually instrumental in cleaning up the effluence of cities and towns, particularly their water discharges. Municipalities put far more nitrogen into the water than farmers, for example, although farmers often take the heat for it; the only effective way to remove nitrogen from water is to let plants, which love the stuff as a fertilizer, do it. And before they were given the name "wetlands" by environmentalists, farmers recognized the importance of these uncultivated areas in both conserving and filtering the water they used to irrigate their fields. They also saw them as a "canary in a coalmine" indicator of the health of their land: If wildlife in the wetlands was healthy, then their animals and children would be, too.
Longmont officials have long understood the value of water, aggressively buying historic water rights as well as 5,000 shares of CBT water in the beginning, when shares sold for $1.50 each. In the 1960s, Longmont bought the rights to build Button Rock Reservoir on the north fork of the St. Vrain from the town of Lyons, which in turn received the right to 300 acre feet per year when the reservoir went online in 1967. And in 1986, Longmont obtained controlling interest in Union Reservoir east of town, which had previously been used as a supplemental water supply for farmers near Greeley.
Also in the 1960s, Longmont instituted a subsequently much-copied policy of requiring developers to deed over to the city any historic water rights of land they wished to have annexed; the requirement was for the right to three acre feet per year for every acre of land. Because most farmland does not come with such a large amount, it meant developers had to add non-historic water, usually CBT shares.
But despite Longmont's aggressive water policy -- designed to protect the city from a more extensive drought than in the 1930s, as well as meet future growth demands -- city officials have also been conscious of the public's concern that the agricultural heritage of the area be preserved. "We won't dry up farms," says Dale Rademacher, son of a local farm family and manager of Longmont's water department.
Some Colorado cities, particularly those surrounding Denver, in the past have purchased water rights from farms outside of their boundaries. In one 1986 case, Thornton, using a third party, secretly purchased 103 farms covering 21,000 acres in the Fort Collins-Greeley area -- where residents then worried that the land would be rendered useless for farming. After a public outcry, Thornton smoothed things over by leasing some of the land back to the farmers.
The purchase made Thornton, which is located in Adams County, the largest landowner in Weld County, where most of the purchased farms were located. "In some ways, it woke up the community to what could happen," says the water district's Werner. A resident of Fort Collins, he belonged to a committee formed by the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce to look at ways of protecting area water suppliers from interlopers.
According to Rademacher, Longmont's policy is to not buy water rights from farms outside its growth boundaries, which are set to remain within a thirty-square-mile area. On another front, the city has spent millions of dollars over the past decade cleaning up the banks and water of the St. Vrain as it passes through the city limits, he points out, establishing a greenway with walking paths and picnic areas. The city also entered an agreement to lease 1,000 acre feet of water in Button Rock to be released during winter months in order to provide at least a minimal streamflow for aquatic habitat.
"We are trying to be good citizens," Rademacher says, "and trying to preserve our heritage as an agricultural colony. Growth is going to happen. Colorado is a beautiful place with a great climate and a good workforce... Our job is to be prepared for that growth and plan for it without destroying why people want to be here in the first place."
And yet, the end of traditional farming in the St. Vrain Valley is inevitable, according to Dave Macy. He was born on a farm near Hygiene in 1939, 22 years after his father moved out here from Illinois.
Macy understands what's happening to farmers better than most. "My dad bought a place in 1958 from an old guy whose family had been there a hundred years," he recalls. "I remember him telling my dad about sitting at his headgates with a shotgun to make sure other people didn't steal his water.
"Water was the number-one priority. No matter how good the land was, if it didn't have good, senior water rights, it was no good."
Dave kept farming "a bit," even after he began a career as a banker for the First National Bank of Longmont, on whose board he still sits. But as the city of Longmont grew up around some of the family properties, Macy got into the development business -- which, he says modestly, has been "good financially" for the family. Many of the "For Sale"signs planted on nearby properties and in surrounding fields bear the name of his real estate company.
He's also a water broker, the middleman between sellers and owners. And he does appraising.
Macy has a good reputation with farmers in the area -- in part because they consider him honest, and in part because he comes from a longtime farm family and is sensitive to the area's heritage. "We've always worked with good land-use planners," he says, "trying to find a balance between development, which is going to happen whether anyone wants it to or not, and being compatible with the community rather than trying to get every last buck out of it."
Still, land and water prices will eventually force out all but the most creative, and specialized, farmers, Macy says. "The infrastructure for farming around here has already left, for the most part," he points out. "They have to ship their produce so far now, and the chemical and equipment distributors have moved east."
It's while appraising property for estate sales or estate planning that Macy sees the emotional side of the changing landscape. Farmers are usually cash-poor, and their heirs often have to sell the place to pay the taxes. "It's hard on them, especially when the farm may have been in the family for generations," he says.
The farmer who has been forced off the land through no fault of his own must deal with the burden of "having been [the one] who 'lost' the farm the family had for a hundred years or more."
Although he's had a hand in the transformation of the area, Macy says he feels a certain sadness about it. In his office is a large, leather-bound ledger that was heading for the junkyard when he saved it. It dates back to 1880, when the bank was the Emerson & Buckingham Bank, and in thin, blue cursive lettering outlines the deposits and withdrawals of many of the area's founding families, "some of whom still have people around here today." Many of those same names can be found in a 1920 ledger that contains the water-right decrees for the local irrigation ditches and reservoirs.
But times have changed, Macy says, and as land and water around Longmont go to the "highest and best use," farmers will have to go elsewhere.
"The ones I feel sorry for," he adds, "are the young fellas whose families have farmed here before them. I'm afraid it's going to be tough for them to hang on."
Longmont still has the feel of an agricultural town. Banners hanging across the main business streets advertise the county fair, the weekly farmers' market, even the annual goat and sheep sale at the fairgrounds. On the south end of town, the old ramshackle outlet for the Tanaka truck gardens, run by a Japanese-American family that has farmed here for decades, still opens for business each summer, as do a dozen other fruit and vegetable stands on the outskirts of Longmont.
But real estate signs stuck into farmland aren't the only indications that an era is about to end. Off a highway exit called Sugar Mill Road just east of town, an immense old factory sits in disrepair -- windows broken out, machinery rusting in the weeds, the paint that proclaimed this to be the Great Western Sugar mill fading into history. Up until twenty years ago, this factory took in all the sugar beets that area farmers could grow. But then it suddenly shut down. Rumor had it that a developer wanted to put up some apartments there, then abandoned the idea after he found out how much water the city would require and what that water would cost.
Although the mill is still standing, today sugar beet farmers -- who this year are actually getting a decent return on their crop -- have to ship their harvest over to Fort Morgan and Greeley. The one-ton bales of hay that dot the fields will be going to cattle feedlots that keep moving farther east, too. The trend is toward more field crops, and there are fewer vegetable farmers in the area.
Off the highway, beyond the last housing development, across County Line Road separating Boulder and Weld counties, past Union Reservoir, there's a hill where Betty Ann Newby likes to stop on the way to her farm. Looking back, she can see the reservoir surrounded by green fields of corn and amber stretches of golden barley. She follows the cottonwoods that line the St. Vrain River and Boulder Creek and shade the city of Longmont, and then looks beyond to the ancient foothills of red sandstone and the purpled mountains dominated by the twin summits of Longs Peak.
"It's the best view in all of Weld County," says the 71-year-old woman, "except for the sea of rooftops that seem to be getting closer every day."
The view isn't bad from Newby's kitchen, either, or from one of the wide porches that surround the west and south sides of her home. The house is bordered on those sides by her fields of green alfalfa, which are beginning to show purple flowers as the time to cut draws near. To the north is the small house where she and her late husband and their boys stayed when they first moved back to the old family farm. Beyond that is a stable where Newby boards horses, feeding them from the one-sided hay barn she erected, much to the consternation of her neighbors.
Newby stands strong with one foot in the past and one in the future. She's a historian who literally wrote the book on the area: The Longmont Album, which started as a fundraiser for the Longmont Museum, where she worked as a volunteer. She writes a weekly column for the Longmont Times-Call. In fact, Newby just returned from interviewing her good friend Lavern Johnson, a town activist in Lyons and something of a historian herself.
Newby is also a successful farmer who's fought to keep what she has, when most thought it was a lost cause. As she looks out her kitchen window at the fields of alfalfa and listens to the birds singing as evening approaches, she speaks with affection for a place that has caused her both joy and heartache. There is little she doesn't know about this land, its history and its needs, and that includes the complicated, sometimes violent story of its water rights. She gets the water for her fields from the Oligarchy Ditch, which has senior rights to the St. Vrain dating back to June 1866.
Born in 1929, Betty Ann was raised on a farm northeast of Eaton, beyond Greeley. As a little girl, she lived through the drought, when blowing sand piled up so high the cows could walk right over the fences and dust settled on everything in the house. Her family was lucky, since there was a creek on their property and they could irrigate some of the fields. Still, there wasn't much money, and farmers got by only through helping each other, whether it was with the loan of equipment or milk from the family cows.
Tough as the farmer's life was, there was nothing Betty Ann liked better than accompanying her father out in the fields. "I didn't like to stay inside," she says. "I liked the smell of the hay blossoms and being with my dad."
Her mother had warned her against marrying a farmer. "She didn't want me to live that hard a life," she explains. So she compromised by marrying Raimon Newby, who was the son of a Longmont farm family but also a teacher. The couple moved to Missouri, where he taught and they did a little farming.
In the mid-1960s, Raimon and Betty Ann returned to Colorado for an important event: the passing of the farm to Raimon's mother. The land had been in the family since 1917, when George A. Hamilton moved to the area from Canada because of poor health. He farmed around Loveland for a while but was always on the lookout to add to his holdings, including the piece of land where Newby now lives.
There was no fancy ceremony when Hamilton deeded over the land, no great words of wisdom. A few papers were signed in a small office at the First National Bank in Longmont, and that was it. All the same, Betty Ann realized something important had taken place.
Grandpa Hamilton died shortly after the transfer. He'd lived to a ripe old age, part of the cycle that had been so integral to his life as a farmer. But then Raimon's parents died suddenly in 1978, and he told Betty Ann he wanted to go back to farm the land where he'd grown up.
So they'd moved back to Colorado and into the little house. Together they worked the farm, while he took courses toward his master's degree at the University of Denver. It was a good time. Their kids were getting older, and Betty Ann and Raimon dreamed of building a new house and creating a special niche by growing quality hay to sell to horse owners.
Twenty years later, Betty Ann Newby pauses. Sometimes she can still hear Raimon typing away at his school papers, late into the night after the fields had been irrigated and the farm chores finished.
But her husband was killed in a car wreck in April 1981, leaving Newby alone with three sons. Neighbors pitched in to assist with the farm, but they couldn't help her out of the legal mess in which she found herself. The Newbys had still been paying estate taxes incurred from the deaths of her in-laws, and now the government wanted more.
She called her boys together and asked what they wanted to do: sell and move somewhere else, or find a way to keep the farm. They voted for the latter, but that didn't mean they'd be successful.
For four years, Newby fought the tax assessor. Even her lawyers warned her that she was going to lose if she didn't sell some of the farm to pay the taxes. But she knew that once a farmer starts selling off his property, cutting off each piece gets easier and easier until it's no longer a viable farm. Newby was damned if she'd sell an inch.
At last it came down to a final hearing; the judge had delayed his decision for nearly a year by then. That morning, Newby stopped outside the courthouse in front of the window to the judge's chambers and prayed.
Sitting in her kitchen, Newby raises her hand and recalls how she did not ask God to make the judge do what she wanted if it wasn't right, "but just to look at the papers one more time."
The judge ruled in her favor. The farm would stay in the family. They would keep the land that defined them and defined their place in the world. Passing the land from one generation to another was a way of remembering those who were gone. For that reason, she kept the farm in her husband's name until 1989, when she formed a partnership: Betty Ann Newby & Sons.
With all she's been through, Newby doesn't have time for the "grumblers" among her fellow farmers. She takes pride in working a twelve-hour day putting up hay, then staying up until 1 a.m. to write her column.
Times are changing, development is inevitable, and if farmers want to survive, they're going to have to find their own niche, she says. Like her neighbor, Jim Anderson, who owns quite a bit of farmland in the area, including the site his grandfather bought in 1911 over where Boulder Creek meets up with the St. Vrain just west of Interstate 25.
Although he grows crops for sale and feeds cattle like any traditional farmer, Anderson describes himself as being in the "agri-entertainment" business. Every year he hires a guy from Iowa who cuts mazes into the cornfields for city folks to wander through. In the fall, he opens up his pumpkin patches for all the people who want to experience life on the farm, even if for just a few hours.
But his own girls, he admits, are "city girls" who haven't shown much interest in farming. When asked who will take over Anderson Farms when he's gone, he says hopefully, "Maybe one of them will marry some guy who wants to farm."
Newby realizes that not every farmer can survive on corn mazes or specialty crops. The pressures are enormous. Hardly a day goes by when a developer or real estate agent doesn't call wanting her property or her water rights. Although she sold a few shares of water in order to build this house that she and Raimon had dreamed of, she tells the rest of the vultures to get lost. "They're a bunch of liars, anyway," Newby says.
Every time she stops on top of the hill to take in her favorite view, the sea of rooftops comes closer. And since Weld County doesn't yet have an open-space policy to purchase conservation easements or farmlands outright, those rooftops will be coming closer still. But Newby's not going anywhere. "This place has given me a feeling of belonging that I never felt anywhere else, at least not since I was a child," she says. "I have my faith. And my land. And I am joyful in what I do."
The farther east the St. Vrain flows, the fewer signs there are of those encroaching rooftops. East of I-25, the seed distributors and John Deere farm equipment lots that have disappeared from the west suddenly resurface.
As Longs Peak grows more distant, fading in the haze of water evaporating from fields of corn and dust, dairy farms reappear. Out here, it is the housing developments that are surrounded by farms, not the other way around. Not yet.
The air smells like growing things and cow manure. Irrigation ditches feed fields of crops, not bluegrass lawns of prairie palaces.
But this land faces a more urgent problem than development. According to conservancy district spokesman Werner, orders for water have skyrocketed in the past two weeks -- a clear sign of the drought's severity. That means the reservoirs are rapidly depleting, limiting recreational use and raising concerns about the impact if the drought goes into next year.
While multiple-year droughts might mean watering restrictions for suburban lawns, the consequences are far more dire for farmers, who face diminished agricultural production and could be forced out of business. The drought could also hurt local industry, which in a worst-case scenario is the first to be cut off from water supplies, followed by agriculture and last by domestic use. And, of course, a diminishing supply of water would mean even higher water prices for farmers who can't afford it now.
All indications point to a prolonged drought. In Longmont, there were 36 days of 90-degree-plus heat through mid-August; in all of 1999, there were fifteen. In Loveland, it was 43 compared to seventeen. The state has come within just a few days of the record established during Colorado's last multiple-year drought, back in 1953 to 1956.
The drought is being felt in many ways. As of last week, 111,567 acres of Colorado have burned in a total of 1,573 wildfires. Firefighters and firefighting resources are depleted.
Small farmers are holding on as best they can. Jeff Rasmussen was able to stretch the small amount of additional water he bought last spring and figures it's enough to finish off his crops. He got a "boost in the arm" when Coors accepted all of his barley, he reports, but prices for other crops are "still lagging and the barley won't cover the losses from them."
But it's enough to let Rasmussen hang on to fight another year.
As usual, the drought is hurting eastern farmers the worst. Upstream from Julesburg, the South Platte has gone pretty much bone-dry, according to state water engineer Dick Stenzel. And there's not much help on the way.
"There's been virtually no precipitation on the eastern plains this summer or last winter," he says. The reservoirs are low and expected to be empty in a few weeks. Wells are running dry, too.
The downstream users on the South Platte all have junior water rights to those upstream of the confluence of the St. Vrain with the South Platte, near the town of Platteville; they also are junior to most of the water rights located on the tributaries of the St. Vrain, Big Thompson or Cache la Poudre rivers. Because their water rights date from the late 1870s to the mid-1890s, these downstream users have seniority only over farmers with ditch systems along the South Platte from Platteville to about Brush.
Without reservoir water, downstream users past Fort Morgan traditionally count on rainfall, several of their own reservoirs, groundwater wells and return flows coming from the fields of farms farther upstream along the South Platte. But over the past year, there's been little or no rain, which usually causes water runoff and replenishes groundwater; as a result, plants -- particularly the cottonwoods that line the South Platte -- have been forced to consume more water from the river. While that might not seem like much, an old cottonwood tree can suck up hundreds of gallons of water a year. The cumulative effect of all these variables is that the South Platte is at record low flows as it heads into the eastern reaches of Colorado.
Downstream farmers look at the dry river and think about those farmers upstream. Farmers, particularly during this drought, are becoming much more efficient in the use of their limited water supplies, particularly as more switch from flood irrigation to center-point pivots, the enormous sprinkler systems on wheels. The sprinklers deliver less water to the fields, most of which is then consumed by the plants; therefore, less water is going back into the river as return flow.
Stenzel, who has been busy meeting with water users up and down the South Platte over the past couple of weeks, says, "They're all concerned and want more water." Some farmers are voicing the desire to have someone else buy them out and "put them out of their misery," he adds. Many of them are just scraping by, not knowing if they will have a good crop...not knowing if they will be able to remain on the land.
"There's some anger and frustration, and they question why they aren't getting what they're used to," he adds. "Except for a few old-timers, it's been a long time since we've had a drought like this."
Farmers, ranchers and ag-related businesses in nine Colorado counties, most in the southern part of the state, can expect some assistance from the USDA in the form of low-interest loans. The nine -- Archuleta, Delores, Conejos, Eagle, Garfield, La Plata, Montezuma, Pueblo and San Miguel -- all have been declared agricultural disasters areas. Six more disaster relief requests are pending for a half-dozen other counties in the northeast part of the state, along the South Platte, and more are expected to apply once the extent of the drought's impact is known.
At the August 17 meeting of the state drought task force, members considered the latest report. Although above-average temperatures have increased evaporation, they've inhibited the development of rain clouds. A high-pressure system has also kept most of the monsoon moisture out of the state.
"It is too early to say what's in store for the winter, but the Colorado Climate Center is advising preparedness in case the drying trend becomes a long-term drought," the report warns. "Fall is normally a dry period for much of Colorado, so relief is not expected to come soon."
The only good news is that the growing season is just about over. Thanks to reservoirs and trans-mountain diversions such as the CBT, most farmers -- at least those west of Fort Morgan -- will be able to harvest their crops this year. The concern is what will happen if the drought becomes extended. If runoff is less than normal after the coming winter, the depleted reservoirs will not be refilled, and farmers will have to rely on what flows occur naturally next summer. If that runoff is equal to or less than this year's runoff, it could be disastrous for agriculture along the lower South Platte River.
A few miles shy of Platteville, just past a large dairy farm, the St. Vrain River crosses beneath Highway 66, headed north. It appears to have more water in it than does the South Platte, which also passes beneath the highway just before the road reaches Platteville. Although South Platte's banks are fifty yards apart, the water trickles through a channel a quarter of that width.
In Platteville, a water users' association is locked in debate over whether to sell some of their shares of CBT water for a guaranteed yearly income. It's a tempting deal, but the drought has those who want to stay in farming worried. What if they need the water in the future and can't rent any? What good will the money do them then?
As they debate, the rivers flow on, meeting at a point a few miles north of town where mountain man Ceran de Hault de Lassus de St. Vrain built a trading post in the early 1800s. Ask the locals where the rivers join, though, and you get a lot of shrugs.
"There's so damn many little irrigation ditches around here that it's hard to tell what's a ditch and what's a river," ventures a farmer transplanted here from Texas. "Beside, what they call a river 'round here, we call a crick where I'm from."
Coming in October: From Greeley to Fort Morgan, farmers along the South Platte River must decide whether to flee or fight in the face of a drought and rapid development.
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