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Eating dust 

Miles from city sprinklers, Colorado's farmers struggle to survive

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Boasting high water reserves, Colorado Springs Utilities says City Council has no need to implement watering restrictions in town this summer. Elsewhere, residents in Pueblo may water their lawns and gardens as they please. So can homeowners in Boulder and Fort Collins. In Denver and Aurora, they're allowed to water up to three days a week.

Sure doesn't sound like a state of emergency. But that's exactly what Gov. Bill Owens has declared for some of the state's farmers, who are watching their crops wither to dust because they lack water.

Owens' measure allows farmers all over the state to apply for disaster loans they'll have to repay. Don Ament, Colorado's agriculture commissioner, says farmers would simply rather have water.

"It's just depressing," he says.

In the northeastern part of the state, recently planted crops on 200 farms that rely upon well water are drying up. The thirsty Front Range cities are vying for the water in a protracted court battle, asserting their senior rights to the South Platte River, a major source of northern plains water.

Ament sees the situation as a foreboding sign for the future of agriculture, Colorado's third-largest industry. The state's overall water outlook is murky, and farmers, despite the importance of their industry, were expected to be the first to feel the pinch, according to a water study released two years ago predicting major water shortages throughout the state by 2030.

Lately, cities, utilities, tract home builders, kayak parks, federal endangered species and a long list of other interests are gulping down increasing amounts of the water upon which farms depend.

"It is death by a thousand cuts," Ament says.

In the lopsided war over water, those who control the oldest rights often referred to as senior rights generally win. Many such rights are in the hands of farmers. But, strapped for cash, they are increasingly prone to selling off their rights to urban interests, even after years of hard work.

"The sad part is that a lot of these farmers who are losing their crops this year are produce producers who spent a lot of time getting their nose under the tent with chains like Safeway, Kroger and Wal-Mart," Ament says. "Those big dealers will now do business somewhere else."

Ultimately at stake, Ament says, are the state's 29,500 farms and ranches, which generate roughly $17 billion annually. The industry employs about a fifth of the state's workers, ranging from farm hands to meat packagers to truck drivers.

"Don't bite the hand that feeds you," Ament warns, adding that many Coloradans are taking for granted the low-cost vegetables and fruits available at their local grocery stores.

Withering heights

The unexpectedly warm April and May caused South Platte Basin water levels to nose-dive. In April alone, the snowpack that supplies the basin plunged from an excellent 109 percent of the average to 84 percent.

"That was a huge and unexpected decline," says state water engineer Hal Simpson, who is responsible for overseeing the state's water. "We couldn't plan for it."

The news provoked an instant court battle, launched by the cities of Boulder and Sterling, a water district supplying other farmers, and more than two dozen additional entities. They joined in a lawsuit to lay claim to water that is first sourced from the South Platte River, but supplies 440 wells at 200 northern farms.

In years past, Simpson had the power to mediate such disputes by crafting "substitute water plans" for well farmers with "junior" rights. The plans, which carved out a space for junior users, allowed the farmers to use water they did not have in the spring and summer, based on the possibility they could replenish reserves when demand was low.

But in 2002, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Simpson had no right to create such plans. The ruling required courts to oversee the distribution of water, virtually guaranteeing long, protracted fights like the one that has crippled northern farmers.

The consequences of the court's decision are still rippling through the agricultural community, and farmers like Glen Murray are now feeling them.

Murray grows wheat, corn and alfalfa crops just north of Denver on land that has been in his family since 1917. He relies partially on the wells to supplement senior water rights he holds that date to the 1880s.

Because of the drought, that senior water currently amounts to a trickle, and his junior wells have been cut off. He is unsure whether the water will last long enough to harvest the crops he planted.

"All the growth, combined with the drought, is putting Colorado water law under a microscope," Murray says. "That's causing all kinds of problems."

click to enlarge Colorado agricultural commissioner Don Ament fears - farms like this one are losing the states intensifying - water wars. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL DE YOANNA
  • Photo by Michael de Yoanna
  • Colorado agricultural commissioner Don Ament fears farms like this one are losing the states intensifying water wars.

Underline drought, he adds.

"It's been crazy," Murray says. "If you can believe it, the drops of rain fall 12 feet apart. There are hard winds like I've never seen coming from every direction, blowing dust up."

In Prospect Valley, located about 100 miles due north of Colorado Springs, Marc Arnusch walks through a field he farms filled with fledgling sugar beets. He says the lingering drought has increased his need for water, straining a supply he knows is already stretched among competing interests.

He and other farmers draw from a shallow aquifer. But Arnusch fears it will run dry before he harvests his beets and yellow onions in October.

And his main source of water, the Henrylyn Irrigation District, connected to the South Platte River, is mired in the legal fight to prevent the 200 junior-rights farmers from opening their wells. He's uneasy about being pitted against other farmers they share a culture of hard work, he says.

Arnusch considers the South Platte battle an ominous one. "We're next," he warns, claiming that developers are quickly encroaching on farmland in places like Keenesburg, which was on the verge of becoming a ghost town about 15 years ago, but is now an affordable bedroom community for people who work in northern cities.

The 32-year-old Arnusch isn't sure he'll be passing the farm on to his young son.

"The challenges I face today will only be that much more tomorrow," he says. "I'm a third-generation farmer, but I might be a last-generation."

Many farmers, he says, carry high debt to pay off loans and equipment, like tractors. They've also suffered economic losses, as he did when onions from Peru recently flooded the market.

"All this is cutting into already nonexistent profit margins," Arnusch says.

Slicker cities

The situation leaves many farmers constantly weighing whether to sell land and water rights to the encroaching developers and cities.

Agriculture commissioner Ament notes that the average Colorado farmer is nearly 60 years old.

"They're looking at their water as a 401K," says Ament, himself a 63-year-old farmer. "They're looking at it as a chance to send their kids to college. ... The bankers are telling them, "Cash in before you lose any more equity.'"

Southeast Colorado, especially east of Pueblo along the Arkansas River, is gripped by extreme drought, according to the U.S. drought monitor, a service of the federal government. Conditions here are worse than in 2002, when the Hayman fire blazed in the tinder-dry mountains around Colorado Springs.

Some farmers here don't grow crops. Instead, they sell or lease water rights to cities.

As early as the 1970s, Colorado Springs Utilities started purchasing water rights from farmers in the region. But it wasn't until the drought hit that southern Colorado farmers saw buyers emerge en masse from the cities. In 2003, Aurora, a sprawling young city just east of Denver, bought enviable senior water rights on Rocky Ford farmland that date to the 1870s.

More recently, Colorado Springs and Aurora have developed water leases in the region, allowing farmers to keep their land. The leases permit farmers to use their water as a "cash crop" in years when they don't have enough water to cultivate their fields, says Brett Gracely, a Colorado Springs Utilities water-resource planning supervisor.

Last year, Colorado Springs and Aurora signed a $5.4 million lease to each acquire 4,233 acre feet of farmers' water. The amount is roughly enough to supply 4,200 families of four in each city with water for a year.

The farm water cost 154 percent more than Colorado Springs paid last year in a similar lease with Pueblo's Board of Water Works. In that deal, which involved reservoir water, the city received 5,500 acre feet of water for $1.4 million.

Gracely, who defends the deals as a utility asserting the interests of Colorado Springs residents, says leases are extremely complicated because of the high number of parties involved and a multitude of hydrological and legal considerations.

Tom Rusler, a fourth-generation Avondale farmer whose 1,500 acres just east of Pueblo have been in the family since the 1880s, holds Arkansas River water rights dating to 1861, among the most senior in existence.

Rusler says water purchases and leasing agreements like those brokered by Colorado Springs have cost him, even though he hasn't made any deals with the city.

click to enlarge Under another sunny sky, Marc Arnusch inspects his - sugar beet crop on his farm in Prospect Valley. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL DE YOANNA

"It's definitely a big concern," he says. "The lawyer for our canal company has to get involved to make sure we're not affected. It's very complicated, because when the city leases water from a farm, they don't take the water from the river here; they look up the river and divert it. That has all kinds of impacts."

Rusler has seen fellow farmers sell because they'd rather not deal with the constant financial worries involved with farming. But he says he has no intentions of giving up, and will pass his farm to his grown sons.

At the same time, he acknowledges the difficulties of farming, even with senior rights.

"We're still sitting here wondering if we are going to have enough water to finish the crop year," he says.

"Political nightmare'

Garin Bray, government affairs director for the Colorado Farm Bureau, notes that many people in the state are oblivious to the dire water situation facing farmers. Urbanites will spend the summer watering their lawns, golfing on plush courses and raising tomatoes in their gardens.

"Do we need the medians to be green?" she asks. "Do we want the farms to go dry?"

Yet, cities like Colorado Springs see themselves as unconnected to farming. For them, it's something happening far away from the Front Range.

"For a long time it was OK to do things as your dad or granddad did," says Gracely at Colorado Springs Utilities. "But we're seeing large-scale change in the way things are done. You can get Fuji apples from New Zealand at the supermarket. We can get tomatoes in January. These are global issues at work."

One huge issue is Colorado's population, anticipated to rise from the current 4.3 million to 7.2 million by 2030, according to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative Report. The report, released about two years ago, was the first to provide a comprehensive picture of Colorado's water situation.

If Colorado's growth continues at its expected pace, the state's annual water supply will fall 630,000 acre feet short by 2030. Even if all the currently planned water projects, including reservoirs, in Colorado are built, roughly one-fifth of the water needs in Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, surrounding suburbs and farms will go unmet.

The report noted that the increase in population would intensify competition for water, with farmers particularly vulnerable because some suburban areas, such as Douglas County, already are too reliant on irreplaceable prehistoric groundwater that is almost completely gone.

"Seventy to 80 percent of water we now use is for agriculture," Bray says. "The concern is that farms are being targeted for their water."

The report also found that the state's water conservation efforts wouldn't have much impact on shortfalls. But that has become an excuse, Bray says, for cities not to do anything but hope for a large-scale, statewide solution.

Cities lack the will to look beyond their own short-term interests, she says. They don't want to withhold water from constituents eager to get to their gardens.

"It's a political nightmare," she says, adding that cities seem only to enact meaningful water restrictions after dry years sap reservoirs. Right now, cities are putting off a coming crisis by buying and leasing farm water, she says.

It's the economy

Frank Schmidt, who runs the Old Colorado City Farmers' Market and three others in Colorado Springs, says the farmers he works with, most near Pueblo, have so far survived several years of drought. And he predicts they will again this year. But their anxiety about water supplies and money are growing as the drought continues.

The feeling is that the "farmers' [water] allotments can be cut at any time," he says, pointing to the situation in northern Colorado.

The statewide economic impact related to the farming crisis there is difficult to measure, Ament says. However, he notes that two large farms are hard-hit this year, sucking $25 million in crops, jobs and related economic activity from the state's economy.

The fewer farms there are in Colorado, the farther produce will travel to local supermarkets, he adds. Diesel gas is about $3 a gallon, the high cost of which will be passed along to consumers.

He adds that relying on imported food is an idea Americans should scrutinize before blindly accepting. Producers in South America, he says, follow fewer regulations regarding pesticides and fertilizers than those in the United States. And without strong domestic crops, Americans could be as vulnerable to sudden price spikes at the grocery store as they now are at the gas pump, he adds.

"No other country in the world eats for less than 10 percent of their income," he says.

For farmers like Arnusch, staying in business is a constant battle.

"The towns can pay for the water," he says. "They can control these rights. We've got to get to a level of balance before it is too late."

  • Miles from city sprinklers, Colorado's farmers struggle to survive

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