October 1893, Los Angeles
Major John Wesley Powell looked out over the upraised faces of the people who'd come to listen to his vision of the future, a vision they thought mirrored their own. The general public knew him as the heroic, one-armed Civil War veteran who in 1869 had led ten men in wooden boats down the untamed Colorado River from Green River, Utah, through the canyons of Utah and Arizona, finally emerging from the mouth of the Grand Canyon. Until Powell's expedition, the Colorado Plateau had been just an empty spot on maps labeled "unexplored."
But these people knew that Powell was more than an adventurer. He was also a scientist, a vocal proponent of government-supported scientific agencies who'd served as director of both the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology and the U.S. Geological Survey, which was created to map the nation's topography and analyze its natural resources, especially water. For years following his Grand Canyon expedition, Powell and his surveyors had traveled the West, studying the river systems and measuring streams and artesian wells. Those studies had inspired many plans, including Powell's concept of reclaiming part of the approximately 1 billion acres of western lands held as public domain by the federal government. Powell believed that a million forty-acre farms could be created through massive irrigation projects. (In his initial enthusiasm, he'd contended that 20 percent of the land held by the government could be made to blossom, but after reviewing his "Irrigation Survey," he'd modified that to 10 percent, or about 100 million acres.)
Powell knew that water was the key to this concept, and he'd proposed that entire watersheds be governed by their own central authorities in order to avoid confrontations that he knew would arise between states that shared a common river. But that proposal had gone nowhere, thwarted by Powell's many competitors, who'd stirred up the anti-science sentiment in Congress.
Now, over two decades after his most famous expedition, Powell had been invited to speak to the International Irrigation Congress at its annual gathering in the small Southern California town of Los Angeles. The 1880s and early '90s had been marked by persistent periods of drought in the West, and members of the Irrigation Congress had seized on Powell's idea of massive irrigation projects.
In his sixties, pained by the regenerated nerve endings in his arm and embittered by constant battles with Congress that had stripped his programs bare and eventually forced him out, Powell hoped that this group -- through its large number of members and the pressure they could bring on their elected officials -- might resurrect his reclamation project. But after he arrived at the conference, he realized that they envisioned something far beyond his dreams, far beyond what his science said was possible: They were talking about irrigating the entire billion acres and filling it with a huge population.
Powell recognized that such a plan was insane, and dropping his planned speech, he let the audience know it. "I tell you, gentlemen," he concluded as they booed him, "you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land."
Powell died in 1902, the same year the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was established with a mission of building water projects, especially large dams, to irrigate Western lands. And nowhere is his prediction of a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights more evident than on the South Platte River.
December 2000, Sedgwick
A bubble of frigid air pools in the Arctic, then flows south across Canada and dips into Colorado's northern Front Range, where it encounters a moist, upslope airflow. The result is a rush-hour snowstorm that drops a few inches of snow before the cold front moves on to make trouble for Oklahoma and Texas.
The next morning, the mountains shimmer with a fresh white mantle. But as you head east along Interstate 76, the snow on the ground dwindles until it ends abruptly at the town of Brush, as if stopped by an invisible wall.
Winter has come to the northeastern corner of Colorado; the land is brown and gray, accented by the gold of the harvested farm fields. Cattle that were not shipped to market have been turned out to forage among the mowed rows of corn and wheat. A dozen black Angus munch in front of an electric sign that tells travelers, "Merry Christmas. Eat Beef."
Along the banks of the South Platte, which snakes roughly parallel to the interstate, the cottonwoods and willows have dropped their leaves as they retreat from the chill. But the river itself gets no rest; fifteen miles beyond Brush, the Prewitt Reservoir swells like a tick on its waters. However, large areas of the reservoir's banks that normally would be underwater are exposed, testament to the dry year just past, when the reservoirs along the central river corridor were drained during the irrigation season. Now those reservoirs bleed the river, replenishing themselves.
But the dangers of drought have not passed. The fact that the reservoirs are still trying to recoup their losses at this late date means there will probably be supply problems next year, especially if it's dry.
Except for the cultivated fields, the land in the South Platte River Valley is not as flat as its reputation suggests; it dips and rises like rumpled sheets on a bed. But nothing rises as high as the shiny aluminum water tower in Sedgwick, the tiny town 75 miles east of Brush and seventeen from the Nebraska border.
Crossing the Sedgwick Bridge over the South Platte, which on this day runs through two narrow channels, most of its sandy bottom exposed, George Jenik shakes his head. He's contemplated the shattered rows of cornstalks across the driveway from his modest country home, a mile east of town. The corn's been harvested, and normally the stalks would have been plowed under as the fields were prepared for next spring's planting. "But we froze up early, and we couldn't get to it," he says. "It's gonna make for a very stressful spring."
Then again, when isn't farming stressful? If a farmer isn't worrying about low prices for crops, or some bureaucrat, politician, environmentalist or developer making it tougher to stay on the land with each passing year, he's worrying about the weather. Too cold. Too hot. Too wet. And this past year, too dry -- especially for those at the tail end of the South Platte system in Colorado, who get everybody's leftovers from the river and depend on reservoirs for the rest of the water they need.
And still the farmers remain. Jenik is the third generation of his family to farm in these parts. His grandfather homesteaded over near Lodgepole, Nebraska, about thirty miles to the north, until George's father was of school age. Then the family moved to Sedgwick so that he could get an education. It was a good place to grow up. In its heyday, Sedgwick had three cafes, two grocery stores, three filling stations, a car dealership, a farm-implement dealership and a two-story brick high school. "Every eighty acres had a family on it, farming," Jenik recalls, "including a large Japanese community."
That all began to change after World War II, when a lot of the farm boys who'd been in the service took advantage of the G.I. Bill, going off to college and then professions in faraway places. As the years passed, other kids took off and didn't come back, except to visit. Often their parents had encouraged them to leave: Farming was too tough a life. Profit margins were slim -- if there was a profit at all -- and the work was endless.
As the decades slipped away, farming became an even riskier business. Small acreages could no longer support a family; those who wanted to stay had to buy and farm more land to get by, which meant fewer farms and fewer farm families.
The 1980s were particularly tough. Although some farmers failed because they were bad managers, others had made the fatal mistake of believing the government, which had told them that whatever they could grow, it would sell to a hungry world. So the farmers had gone into debt up to their eyeballs buying equipment and land, and they'd overproduced. But then the government didn't come through as it had promised. In fact, food was used as a weapon of foreign policy: Do as we say or we won't allow the sale of U.S. wheat. As a result, crops were bringing 1950s prices, while the cost of equipment, chemicals and complying with regulatory demands kept jumping. When the dust settled, fewer farmers were left on the land.
Sedgwick, like many other small communities in northeast Colorado, was hit hard. The high school that Jenik attended in the early '50s was abandoned in the 1970s and today stands only as a dilapidated monument to better times. Sedgwick's teens now go to the high school in Ovid, ten miles down the road, while Ovid's elementary and junior high students make the trip to Sedgwick. There's only one Japanese-American still farming his land. A pool hall and a beauty shop are the only businesses left in town. But there's still a cafe, Lucy's Place, out near the interstate, where Jenik and other farmers can meet for their morning ritual of coffee and grousing about weather, crop prices, the government and environmentalists.
Jenik had planned to go to college, to have a different life, but his father became ill when he was in high school. "I felt obliged to my family to help, and that meant staying on the farm," he says, then laughs as he ponders why he stayed. "I've asked myself that many, many times."
Still, he's not complaining too much. "Agriculture's been good to me," he says. "It educated my family -- two daughters and a son -- and allowed me to raise them in an area where I knew what they were doing, and they've all become good citizens." He looks around the family home, with its overstuffed sofas and easy chairs, the grandfather clock and china cabinet filled with Hummel figurines, the Country Sampler magazines stacked neatly next to a large television. "We're comfortable," he says, "even though we may not have a lot of things folks in the city have."
His boy got a degree in international business and moved away -- first to New Jersey with AT&T, and then to Denver, where he's now a partner in his own company. But Jenik's daughters -- one's a schoolteacher and one works at a law firm -- married local boys who have gone into farming with him. Jenik and his sons-in-law share equipment and work together -- not just on the farm, but on a small feedlot operation they started up.
Jenik irrigates his land with water from Jumbo Reservoir and irrigation wells, like most farmers in these parts. He owns about 1,100 acres and leases another 320, on which he grows corn, wheat, alfalfa and sugar beets. He also raised pinto beans until last year. But other places can grow them more economically, especially as yields steadily declined when the salinity of the river's water climbed. Sugar beets and alfalfa don't seem to mind salt, but pinto beans don't do well with it. Although corn is somewhat more tolerant, a corn farmer in the west -- say, over by Longmont -- probably gets twenty bushels more to an acre just because of better water quality, and that's quite an advantage.
By the time the South Platte reaches Sedgwick, its water has been used and reused a half-dozen times by upstream irrigators and municipalities. Some of the salts and other additives, such as nitrates, result from the water leaching through the soil so many times. But many more of the water's changes can be attributed to such urban additions as water softeners, which pour tons of salts into the river, and the effluents from metropolitan areas.
Still, even salty water is better than no water. Normally, farmers in this area would have gotten water out of the South Platte up through June, and then maybe again later in the year when upstream irrigation waters returned to the river. But by May this year, the river was dry where its banks pass under the Sedgwick Bridge. "There weren't even puddles until September," Jenik says.
Even Jumbo Reservoir, the last irrigation reservoir before the river crosses into Nebraska, went dry twice. And well users on the north side of the South Platte, where the aquifer is narrower, complained that their wells were sucking nothing but air.
Thanks to good management by the Julesburg Irrigation Ditch Company and reduced use -- including watering every other row and for fewer hours at a time -- the farmers had enough water to get through the growing season. But yields were down, and hopes for profit evaporated along with the river. Still, while some may be walking a little closer to the edge, Jenik believes that none of his neighbors were pushed over ...not this year, at least.
But there's always next year. Although the snow that fell along the Front Range last night stopped far short of Sedgwick, that was all right with Jenik. A fairly wet fall and a couple early snows created enough soil moisture for now, and Jenik would rather have the snow in the mountains where nature will store it until needed next summer.
The problem this past year wasn't a lack of snow -- the snowpack was actually close to average -- but that the thaw came too early. The snow melted too fast, and water flowed down the river before it could be used. And since the reservoirs were already full, there was no place to store it.
So far, the new snowpack has been about average. But that can change in a single month, particularly if April and March -- the two months whose snowfalls farmers count on most -- are below average. Or the thaw comes too early again.
In this part of the country, Jenik probably understands water issues as well as anyone, and from a variety of viewpoints. A former boardmember and an active shareholder in the irrigation ditch company, he's currently on the board of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, as well as the board of Groundwater Appropriators of the South Platte (GASP).
Along with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the conservancy district built the Colorado-Big Thompson Project that uses a system of tunnels, pipes and ditches to bring water from the Colorado River on the west side of the Continental Divide to the South Platte system on the east. The district is also charged with maintaining and administering that water for its shareholders.
Although farmers and other water users east of Fort Morgan helped pay for the Colorado-Big Thompson Project and are still assessed fees, they cannot call for that water to be released. Instead, they get their share from what CBTP water returns to the river after irrigating farms or supplying municipal needs upstream. Sometimes, as in this past year, that means no water at all.
GASP is a coalition that formed after the passage of a state law in 1969 that decreed well users would have to find a way to replace the water they took from the groundwater, and thus the river. GASP and other well-user associations try to solve the problem in two ways: by leasing water and, more important these days, by "recharging" the groundwater.
Recharging is accomplished by taking water from the river after the irrigation season is over in September and after the reservoirs have been topped off, and pumping it miles away from the river, where it is placed in ponds. The water then seeps into the ground and begins making its way back to the river -- a process that's become such an exacting science in Colorado that its practitioners can time the operation so that the water arrives when needed...weeks, months, even years later.
At least, that's how recharging is supposed to work. But the fact that the reservoirs were drawn down so far this past summer -- actually emptied, in some cases -- has far-reaching implications for the recharge programs. For one thing, Jenik says, the river normally would be running higher. The higher the river water table, the more groundwater is forced away from the riverbed and back out into the aquifer; the process is reversed when the river table drops again the next summer. But with the river so low now, water is not being forced out, and the aquifer is not being replenished -- although the impact of this situation won't be felt until the irrigation season begins again.
What's more, irrigation reservoirs such as Jumbo, although junior in most cases to the priority rights of ditch companies and municipalities even farther west, are still senior to the well-augmentation programs. And right now, Jenik says, the thirsty reservoirs have the augmentation programs running thirty days behind schedule.
Here again, the weather may play a role. If the reservoirs freeze over, they'll stop filling until the spring thaw, delaying the augmentation programs even more. And even if the reservoirs finish filling but the ground is frozen, the water in the recharge ponds won't seep in as it's supposed to.
If the well users don't replenish their depletions as required by the state engineer's office, which administers water rights, then they must be shut down. For well users who also have rights to flowing water from the river, or who can lease water elsewhere, finding those wells shut down would be difficult. But for thousands of well users -- particularly those in the eastern reaches of the state -- who couldn't shepherd leased water so far downstream even if they could find it and count on the wells to a far greater degree, the impact would be disastrous.
And senior water-rights holders in Colorado won't be the only ones after the river commissioner to shut down the well users. In fact, few senior water-rights holders are located east of Brush. But across the border, there are Nebraska water users to worry about, as well as a fish and three birds.
As John Wesley Powell noted more than a century ago, there's simply not enough water to supply all the demands -- not inside the state and not outside of it. From South Park to the San Luis Valley, year after year, rural Coloradans fight to prevent Front Range cities from usurping their water supplies.
This fall, the Colorado River Water Conservation District complained to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that water taken by the Colorado-Big Thompson Project may be making its way out of the state to Nebraska, in violation of the Colorado River Compact. The district wants some of the water allocated to the project back.
The charge isn't new, just part of a continuing Western Slope versus Front Range fight. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District maintains that the CBTP water is only being used by its shareholders in Colorado. In its response to the Bureau of Reclamation last month, the district pointed out that while its shareholders are entitled to 310,000 acre-feet per year, the district has averaged only 228,000 acre-feet. And, it argued, any depletions to the Colorado River were compensated for when the district built the Green Mountain reservoir, which stores water from the Blue River for release into the Colorado.
In years past, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District would have scoffed at this latest shot from the Colorado Water Conservation District. But this time there was something new about the complaint: The Colorado district said it needed the water to protect threatened and endangered life-forms under the powerful federal Endangered Species Act. And that's enough to make any water authority sit up and pay serious attention.
Not just within the state, but at practically every exit point for a Colorado river, environmentalists and their lawyers wave the Endangered Species Act, demanding more water for habitat. On the Colorado. The Pecos. The Rio Grande. The Animas. And, of course, the South Platte. The power of the act, administered by the U.S. Division of Fish and Wildlife, is that it forces water users to comply with the division's demands or face losing federal permits that are necessary for a wide range of activities including everything from the federal government building reservoirs to discharging treated municipal effluents into a river to spraying pesticides on farm lands.
But environmentalists are not the only ones who want more of the waters that flow from Colorado's mountains. The surrounding states, and even those more removed, have their farmers and growing municipalities. California sucks a million more acre-feet from the Colorado River than the 4.4 million to which it is entitled, although in a recently brokered deal, California has agreed to cut back over the next fifteen years. But other states continue to say they're not getting their share.
In 1995, Kansas sued Colorado, claiming that well users on the Arkansas River in this state had depleted water that belonged to Kansas under the 1948 Arkansas River Compact. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kansas's claim, which included $9 million in actual damages and much more than that in interest (the exact figure is supposed to be determined before the end of the year). Colorado well users, as well as taxpayers, will have to come up with the money, which could be more than $40 million.
That Arkansas River decision has some Colorado water users worried about recent grumblings from Nebraska that well users along the South Platte have violated the 1923 compact with that state. Colorado's compact with Nebraska does not guarantee that water from the South Platte will be delivered across the border: The deal is that if the water that passes beneath the bridge on the east side of Julesburg, just a mile or two from the Nebraska border, falls below 120 cubic feet per second, then Colorado is required to shut down reservoirs along with well users in the last stretch of the valley whose priority rights date from after 1897.
If not for the courts siding with Kansas, South Platte water users wouldn't be too concerned about Nebraska. On its face, that state's complaint is the height of hypocrisy: Nebraska does nothing to regulate its own well users, who are still allowed to drill wells without making any attempt to replace their depletions. Meanwhile, Colorado's South Platte well users have been augmenting since the early 1970s.
Among this state's augmentation efforts is the Tamarack Ranch Project, 10,000 acres east of Brush owned by the government on which, in cooperation with well-user associations, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the Platte River Group (representing Front Range cities, including Denver), water is taken from the river during non-irrigation periods and pumped back into the hills. Among other benefits, water in the augmentation ponds creates wildlife habitat, which also helps satisfy a state law that water cannot be given to another state without first providing a benefit here. Another benefit is that the project helps well users meet their augmentation requirements. But the most significant aspect of the Tamarack Ranch Project is that it serves as Colorado water users' answer to another threat posed by the Endangered Species Act.
In 1994, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska signed a six-year cooperative agreement with the federal government to find ways of improving habitat for one fish (a type of sturgeon) and three bird species -- the whooping crane, interior least tern and piping plover -- in central Nebraska. Representatives from the three states, the Division of Fish and Wildlife and environmental groups recently worked out a tentative update of that agreement that calls for more water as well as money. Wyoming's share of the water would come from its Bureau of Reclamation-built reservoirs on the North Platte. Nebraska's would be supplied by Lake McConaughy, also on the North Platte. Colorado's share of water would be supplied by the Tamarack Project; the state would also chip in another $15 million from an environmental fund appropriated by the legislature. But just when it looked like a done deal, the feds stepped back in and decided that something more needed to be done about sediment in the South Platte. So the various representatives really have only agreed to two more years of studying the problem, and no one knows how much more it will cost in the end.
The proposal has its ironies. Before the introduction of farming to the region, the South Platte dried up for most of the summer and into the fall; only irrigation, which had its own recharge benefit, and the addition of Colorado-Big Thompson Water made it possible for the South Platte to become a "year-round" river. For central Nebraska, the biggest problem was water users along the North Platte, which meets up with the South Platte in North Platte, Nebraska. Essentially, Colorado's South Platte users are being asked to make up for water that is not available from the North Platte.
But Colorado was interested in cooperating because of a different, though linked, issue. The state was brought to the negotiating table by Fish and Wildlife's demand that Colorado water users who had facilities on federal property replace "one for one" at the state line. As part of the cooperative agreement, the feds would back off on its one-for-one replacement demands, which would have cost Colorado's urban and rural residents millions of dollars and the loss of significant amounts of water.
Even if the agreement had gone through as proposed, the river still would have come up short of the amount of water Fish and Wildlife says is necessary -- and Colorado's share of that shortage would have been an additional 27,000 acre-feet. Some environmentalists say the water can be made up by leasing unused water upstream, or by more projects like Tamarack.
But on the most over-appropriated river in the state, if not the country, there's no guarantee that leased water, or augmented water from projects far from the border, would ever make it to Nebraska. Once in a river, water is fair game for anyone with a senior water right. And if it did cross the border, there are no guarantees it would get past Nebraska farmers or municipalities. Indeed, Colorado and Wyoming say, if Nebraska doesn't do something about its unregulated well users, the so-called Three-State Agreement will never work.
"I think the legal battles are just starting," Jenik says. "I'll think there'll be more spent in the near future on lawyers than has been spent over all the years to date, and we won't gain a single drop of water."
December 2000, Julesburg
Bruce Gerk stands beside the augmentation ponds north of Julesburg as the sun, a blazing orange ball, begins to sink into the clouds that have built up over the Rocky Mountains. He can't see the mountains from here, but like other farmers in the area, he pins his hopes on the mountains' ability to hold the snow until it's needed.
In a wet year, when there's plenty of water in the river, nobody worries about recharging the groundwater or how to meet the requirements for protecting fish and birds. In a dry year, everybody worries. "I don't know a single farmer who's a bad conservationist unless they're financially desperate," Gerk says. "It goes hand in hand. You do what you can do, but one thing is certain, and that's the bank wants to be paid in December no matter what."
The problem, he points out, is that Americans want it both ways. They want cheap food, subsidized by the government, the cost of which is shared by all taxpayers and allows even low-income Americans to eat for a fraction of what the food costs to produce -- but at the same time, the government and the public expect farmers, who are worse off now than during the purge of the 1980s, to bear the brunt of environmental concerns, like where the water's going to come from to fulfill the Three-State Agreement. "It doesn't exist," Gerk says, shrugging his broad shoulders. "Unless you take it from us."
Gerk and his fellow farmers wish that just once, Americans would walk into King Soopers and be told that not only do they have to wait a week for bread, but it will cost them a substantial part of their income. Or, Gerk suggests, all Americans should visit Europe, whose populations "support their farmers because they've known what it's like to go hungry."
Gerk's ancestors did. His grandparents were Germans who immigrated from Russia to work in the sugar-beet fields of northeastern Colorado. His parents were sharecroppers. He wanted to be a farmer from the age of ten, although he went away to college before returning to this wide-open land he loves. Back then, he got no help from his father. "He said, 'If you're dumb enough to want to farm, then you'll have to do it on your own,'" Gerk says. It was only after he proved he had the hunger for farming that his father offered him a hand.
It will be the same for his own kids, Gerk says. He and his wife have four daughters, and he'd prefer that they never get involved with farming. If some as-yet hypothetical son-in-law asks to go in with him, "I'll tell them they can help me line things up for the farm sale," Gerk says, and laughs. But he quickly grows serious. "I'll tell them, 'If you're going to make it in farming, you have to have a hunger for it, and for nothing else.' Then they'll have to prove they have that hunger by trying to make it on their own...They do that, and then maybe I'll help."
Assuaging that hunger with the current water shortage isn't easy. Urban dwellers and environmentalists want their cheap food and their bird habitats, but they fought the Two Forks Dam proposal and the Narrows project on the South Platte, which would have gone a long way to meet the needs of farmers and wildlife habitat along the river. Now there's not enough water to go around, and the situation is setting farmers in Colorado against farmers in Nebraska. "Those people aren't the enemy," Gerk says, waving his hand toward the border just a few miles distant, beyond the tree line that marks the South Platte.
"They're my neighbors, my friends," he says. "We go to church together." Gerk's talked to his friends on the board of the Western Canal, the first ditch company in Nebraska to tap into the South Platte. They have the usual concerns about having enough water, he says, but they also contend that the grumblings about Colorado well users are being brought to them by their state's lawyers and politicians who see dollar signs and political futures, inspired by the Arkansas River settlement.
Farmers along the South Platte, Gerk contends, recognize that they are all in this together, that they are dependent on a river that has too many demands placed upon it. Those demands, and a population that doesn't seem to care about the fate of the farmers, may one day squeeze the last remaining farmer out of this part of the country.
"But it's kinda like marriage," Gerk observes, as the last rays of the sun bathe the dry winter grasses in a soft golden light and the tinkling sound of the augmentation supply ditch echoes through the crisp air. "The good parts are so good that you endure the rest of it."
The South Platte starts as a drip, grows to a mountain stream, and becomes a high-plains river. Its habitat occupies a tiny fraction of land, and yet 65 percent of all bird, mammal and aquatic species in the area are dependent on it. At certain times of the year, the South Platte doesn't even exist -- at least not as a free-flowing river -- and yet it sustains one of the most productive agricultural areas in the United States. Two-thirds of Colorado's population lives along the South Platte corridor, mostly between Denver and Greeley. But the entire corridor is in transition.
John Loomis, a professor with Colorado State University's Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, and two colleagues recently completed a survey that asked Colorado residents from Longmont to Fort Morgan if they would be willing to pay higher water bills in order to subsidize "eco restoration" along the South Platte. This would include leasing water to increase the flow -- especially in the late summer to help dilute Denver's wastewater -- as well as removing non-native plants from the banks and paying for easements that would move agriculture and livestock grazing away from the river.
Those surveyed indicated that they would, on average, be willing to pay $21 more each month. But while urban dwellers strongly supported the increase, those in rural areas weren't as eager.
In some ways, development has helped water-short Colorado farmers, particularly those along the farthest reaches of the river. Every roof built and every street paved prevents rain and snow from sinking into the ground beneath it, and instead sends it toward the river. And every toilet is a mini-reservoir, with every flush adding to the South Platte -- a significant amount during the summer.
And yet, the more water-conscious the urban areas become, the worse for the farmers. For the past century, one person's waste was another's water supply; agriculture along the downstream portion of the South Platte depended on certain inefficiencies of water use upstream. Denver, for instance, usually used its water once, then treated it and released it into the river to flow downstream. But now the city is working to recapture that water and use it again -- and whatever is sprayed on golf courses is not heading down the river to the farmers.
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Dick Stenzel, the district engineer for the South Platte district, travels up and down the river from his office in Greeley. Right now, he's pleased that the reservoirs are refilling faster than they did during the last dry period, back in 1994. But the danger that had more than a dozen agricultural counties in Colorado declared disaster areas this year isn't over. Every successive dry year makes it more difficult to recover from the previous one. Another year like 2000, and Stenzel will have the unpleasant task of telling his river commissioners that they must shut off the well users, which could be the last straw for many farmers.
Young farmers like Jeff Rasmussen, who was able to lease just enough water to take his farm near Longmont through this past year, will be in deep trouble if the next summer is dry. And if he and others like him have to leave the land, it will cut the ties to several generations of family farmers. And so every time the clouds build up, these farmers look with hope toward the mountains.
In Longmont, Tim Carney of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service is preparing for another winter of checking snowpack. Soon he will climb to the station in the high country that will give the first inkling of how the St. Vrain, the Cache La Poudre and the Big Thompson will run next spring.
These drops will become trickles that become streams that empty into the South Platte, which sustains Colorado's agricultural heritage. For now.