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Environment / Colorado Edition
The Republican River flows through the cropland of Yuma County and feeds into Kansas and Nebraska. But flowing water is disappearing from riverbeds, exacerbated by water getting pulled out of the surrounding ground and long-term drought driven by climate change. This series looks at the pain and hope in the Republican River basin as wells start drying up and decades-old commitments to the basin's other two states loom.

Colorado Edition Special: Pain and hope in the Republican River basin

A collage of two images, separated by a winding river. One image is of a man in a ball cap, shadowed and taken from behind and the other is of a dry riverbed.
Images and collage by Adam Rayes/KUNC
River map by Google Maps

Water feeds Northeast Colorado’s corn and wheat fields, creating a booming agricultural economy. But that water is disappearing from the tributaries that feed the Republican River, flowing 450 miles from the cropland of Yuma County through Kansas and Nebraska. In this special episode of Colorado Edition from KUNC, we explore the water crisis in Colorado’s Republican River basin.

Podcast transcript: 

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O'Toole: You're listening to KUNC's Colorado Edition. I'm Erin O'Toole. Today, I'm joined by reporter Adam Rayes for something different. Hey Adam.

Adam Rayes: Hey Erin.

O'Toole: So, you've been reporting this series of stories about wells drying up and decades-old legal commitments looming over the Republican River basin in Northeast Colorado. People there are scrambling to save the river, secure their community’s economies and prepare this region for a possible future without irrigated farming. I hadn't really heard of the Republican River — and I'm guessing that's the case for many other folks — but it's such an important part of Colorado's agricultural landscape, I wanted to devote time for the river's story. So. Where do we begin?

Rayes: During a visit to Yuma County last December I decided to drive over to the closest part of the Republican River’s South Fork.

O'Toole: That’s in north-central Colorado, along the eastern border with Kansas and Nebraska

Rayes: And what these communities and this region are dealing with really hit me as I pulled onto the dusty road leading to the Bonny State Wildlife Area, parked and got out next to the bumpy blue line where my GPS told me the river should be.

O'Toole: And?

Rayes: And nothing. No flowing water in that riverbed.

O’Toole: Not what you want to see.

Rayes: I followed the dry riverbed as far as my little sedan could handle. Wanting to learn and see more, I hopped in Deb Daniel's truck the next day. Daniel is the river’s conservation district manager. Growing up, the Republican River sustained her family’s farm. Even with the truck, she struggled to maintain traction at points.

Daniel: So, the thing is, if we were to go upstream four or five miles, there's flow. 

O'Toole: So, water still flows for most of the Republican’s 453-mile stretch.

Rayes: Right, like on the North Fork, in the northwest part of the county, where it flows all year. But that’s just one of three tributaries that feed the main body of the river. All three begin in or flow through Yuma County en route to Nebraska and Kansas.

A map of the Republican River basin.
Bureau of Reclamation
U.S. Department of the Interior
The Republican River basin. The North Fork, South Fork and Arikaree all flow through Yuma County before crossing state lines.

O'Toole: And while the North Fork and the main body of the river are still flowing, the other two tributaries in Colorado, including the South Fork — the one you visited with Daniel — are struggling.

Rayes: Partly because there is such an overgrowth of trees and silt along the riverbed, Daniel says…

Daniel: That it completely disappears. 

A gif of someone driving down a dirt road toward some leafless trees.
Adam Rayes/KUNC
Trees, like the invasive, water-hogging Russian Olive, line the riverbed of the South Fork

Rayes: We passed a dilapidated visitor’s center, abandoned campsite shelters and a long-unused shooting range before reaching a bridge overlooking the Bonny Dam and a basically empty reservoir.

O'Toole: I’ve seen the video and pictures you took of the dam. It's just so striking because the rest of the dry riverbed wouldn't be as obvious to anyone not looking at a map. But here, the plains fold down into a v-shaped hole that snakes into the back of this dam. Signs of erosion remain, a reminder that water once flowed here.

Rayes: The only word I had for it in that moment and now is “haunting.”

Daniel: Yeah, isn't it? 

Rayes: It really is. It's really haunting.

Daniel: This was a drop spot for a resting place for waterfowl as they were migrating back and forth… cranes and geese and ducks and and and now it's all gone. Yeah, it's really depressing.

Rayes: In 2011, the state drained the reservoir to help fulfill the terms of an 80-year-old compact with Kansas and Nebraska.

A side by side comparison of Bonny reservoir pre-and post- being drained in 2011
Bonny Dam and Reservoir before and after being drained in 2011.

Rayes: Climate change, drought, and more threaten the rest of the river. The North Fork naturally sent about half as much water across the Colorado-Nebraska border last decade as it did in the 1960s.

Daniel: Every year, it's going down. We cannot let that completely dry up like this has. 

O'Toole: In 2017, the six Colorado counties that rely on the river for irrigation brought in nearly $2 billion in agriculture sales. That’s significant, that’s almost a third of the state’s total ag production value.

Rayes: It is huge. As the North Fork flows decrease, people who farm these plains stand to lose their livelihoods. And some are already starting to.

Learn more about the basin’s declining water levels in part one of KUNC’s series:

Rayes: The night after my first visit to the South Fork, I stayed at Doc’s Bed and Breakfast in Wray.

O'Toole: The second-largest, but still very small, city in Yuma County.

Rayes: I got to know the owner, 60-year-old Joyce Kettelson as she made breakfast. She was kind and very open about herself and her community. But when we inevitably got to talking about the South Fork and the drained reservoir, her bright demeanor turned somber.

Joyce Kettelson: Water is just getting less and less. The wells are not as capable as they were 20 years ago.

O'Toole: I understand she was a farmer, she used to raise pumpkins along with her husband, Phil.

Rayes: For about three decades. After he died suddenly five years ago, she tried to maintain the family farm with her son, but…

Kettelson: I just could not figure out how to pay the taxes, pay the water costs, pay the insurance and make it all work out. It just doesn't support that and a livelihood for my son and I. 

Rayes: Two-thirds of their farmland was sold to larger farming operations in 2021. Her son manages what’s left without her, using the revenue to support just himself and his family.

O'Toole: Will he be able to stay afloat on what’s left?

Rayes: Maybe, but Kettleson expects it will be tough and says her son has some really tough calls to make in the future. They also sealed up one of their wells as use costs rose and the water level in it dropped dramatically.

Joyce Kettelson in her B&B. An older blond woman looks at the camera. She's wearing a thick white turtleneck. Autumn and Christmas decor is visible at the edges of the image.
Adam Rayes
"We are doing the best that we can do to conserve the water, sustain the farm ground," said Joyce Kettelson, pictured above. "Understand that milk (in your grocery store) comes from a rancher and that produce, those pumpkins come from a small farm in Colorado, (and losing) that will impact everyone."

Kettelson: Yeah. Yeah, it's very low. 

Rayes: Low river flows are partially the result of water in the ground surrounding it being used up mostly to irrigate farms.

O'Toole: And, in turn, groundwater isn’t replenished because the river’s limited flows and reduced rain can’t penetrate and stay in the ground.

Rayes: Exactly, It’s a dynamic Kettleson has long been aware of:

Rayes: Correct me if I'm wrong. But it sounds like the factors that you were weighing there were the water longevity for the community and your family's economic security? 

Kettelson: Right. Correct. Exactly.

O'Toole: How does someone make that kind of choice?

Kettelson: You base it on your family's economic security because we want to continue to stay here. 

Rayes: But with their well getting so low…

Kettelson: I don't know that it ended up really being a choice, it was just like the only way. it really was the only way.  

O’Toole: Making this even harder, Kettleson and her husband saw a similar water crisis unfold while growing up in the San Luis Valley.

Kettelson: My parents, at one time, their house well went dry. They did not have water in their house… It was really scary.

Rayes: That influenced the decision to grow pumpkins in Yuma County. They use less water compared to crops like corn and potatoes. Apparently, it was once a fairly successful operation.

O’Toole: How did they not go running and screaming from farming after the first bad water experience?

Kettelson: There was more than once that I asked my husband, Have we lost our minds? What are we doing? But what we had to weigh against was, it was a lifestyle. Phil knew it was his passion. We both were raised on a farm. We wanted to provide that for our children.

O'Toole: More farmers will have to seal off wells like Kettleson did.

Rayes: And not just be because of an unfortunate lack of water. An agreement between the three states requires Colorado to shut down 10,000 irrigated acres by 2024. Kettelson says she doesn’t think it's a great solution…

Kettelson: But at this point, it seems like it's the only solution.

Rayes: Most of it has to happen near the South Fork.

O'Toole: And within the next two years! The river conservation district is offering to pay farmers to stop irrigating.

Rayes: But just a third of that 10,000-acre goal has been met. I asked groundwater district manager Nate Midcap why farmers resist giving up irrigation.

MidCap: I wouldn't call it resistant. I think they know what needs to be done. The state engineer certainly has a history of proving that he's not afraid to turn off wells to meet compact compliance. 

Rayes: A booming market for irrigated crops, like corn and wheat, over the last two years made it hard to convince farmers to exchange those profits for the irrigation-shutoff payments. Last November, the river conservation district board voted to double water use fees to also greatly increase the amount they offer to farmers who shut off irrigation…

MidCap: They've known that they've needed to retire them for eight to 10 years. But the actual process of getting the fee increased has taken at least nine months. 

O'Toole: Well, what‘s been the holdup?

MidCap: People don't like to spend money, right? They want to do their business as cheap as possible for as long as possible. And there's human nature to just wait to the last minute until you absolutely have to do something. And we're kind of at that point. 

Rayes: In MidCap’s spacious office in downtown Wray, giant maps line the walls. Some seem very, very old. Three of the newer ones were…

MidCap: Depicting kind of where the water is sitting underneath the ground. So imagine it like a lake. The deepest part would be the yellow. 

Rayes: He points to a large yellow splotch extending from the state’s eastern border on the first map labeled “1975”. Then to a smaller one on a map labeled 2000. Then one forecasting 2028…

Animated GIF of a groundwater modeling map. The yellow in northeast Yuma County is the deepest part, and the model shows that part shrinking between 1975 and 2000. It's predicted to get even smaller by 2028.
GIF and images of model posters by Adam Rayes/KUNC. Model by Republican River Compact Administration. County map by GISGeography.com
These groundwater models were created by the Republican River Compact Administration to show how much water is left underground. The yellow splotch extending from the state's eastern border represents the deepest part. Much of the groundwater is being used up over time and not being replenished, reducing river flows and halting agricultural irrigation in many areas.

MidCap: It will continue to shrink until they either pump it out or find an alternative to get some water in here.  

O'Toole: That seems a bit dire to me.

Rayes: And yet, MidCap — who is also a cattle rancher — later added he has a lot of hope. He thinks Yuma county can sustain itself on the remaining groundwater for another century.

MidCap: But they have to work through the bigger issues of the basin. 

Rayes: MidCap’s confident enough irrigated acres will be shut down by the 2024 deadline. But, that’s not all. Another 15,000 must shut down by 2029. He's a lot less confident about that.

O'Toole: After the first 10,000 acres get retired, irrigated farms will see less competition for their crops, boosting their value. And their wells will likely last longer because they’re sharing less.

Rayes: Exactly.

Daniel: But we're between a rock and a sword. There is no other option. 

Rayes: That’s Republican River Water Conservation District Manager Deb Daniel again. She says if they fail to shut down enough wells by the deadline, legal agreements with the state of Kansas could force Colorado…

Daniel: To shut off irrigated ag in northeast Colorado, and we can't let that happen. 

O’Toole: All of it? Or just enough to make up the difference?

Rayes: Probably all of it, from the northeast corner of the state to the middle of Kit Carson County. Things could change, but as the law stands now the state can't just shut down some wells in the basin. If forced to shut down any, it has to shut down all.

O’Toole: Wow, that's quite the weight on the shoulders of locals.

Rayes: Some folks say the local control the state gave this basin is both a blessing and a curse. Daniel remembers asking when she started working in water here why the state left so many aspects of compact compliance to local control instead of taking charge itself.

Daniel: And so, so in other words, you're going to let us pump ourselves dry and do we have you or us to blame? And he said, yea, you're pretty much going to have yourselves to blame if you pump yourselves dry. And that made me pause a bit. At the same time, that just reinforced that we have to do something for us.

Learn more about a plan to save the South Fork and the consequences of failing to retire all 25,000 acres in part 4 of KUNC’s series: 

Rayes: One morning in Yuma County, I traveled down a pebbled, dusty road, almost parallel to the Colorado’s eastern border, traveling north. I was driving to see a pipeline, which is crucial to the legal agreement that manages the river across the borderline.

O'Toole: So this pipeline is on the river’s North Fork, just west of the Colorado-Nebraska border in northern Yuma County.

Rayes: And for the past few years, Tracy Travis has had the grim task of getting the pipeline running.

Tracy Travis: It's not a job that I would like to have, but somebody has to do it. 

Rayes: Travis does this work seasonally, splitting the rest of his time between farming and bus driving.

O'Toole: And, again, the North Fork is one of the river’s only parts in Colorado with consistent water flow.

Travis: We pump water out of the ground and into a tank which flows over into a 42-inch pipeline that runs about 12 miles down to the river.

A gif of water flowing through the North Fork.
Adam Rayes
The North Fork, just a few miles west of the Nebraska-Colorado border.

Rayes: It pumps out about 20 million gallons of water daily beginning in November, usually.

Travis: It's not a good thing for the people in this area because we're giving our water up. 

Rayes: A lot of mixed feelings about this pipeline in this area. to understand why it’s needed – you need to know what was going on decades ago, in the 1930s.

Rayes: Today, the river is described as not even "deep enough to drown in."

O'Toole: But in 1935 it flooded, killing dozens. A reporter who was there describes:

KFAB Reporter Bob Jensen: You could see all sorts of devastation and crop damage and roads washed out… I’ll never forget that day.

The June 2, 1935 edition of the Denver Post - headlines above the fold all focus on the Republican/Platte river flood of 1935.
Denver Post
National Weather Service

Rayes: Up to that point, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska managed the water in their respective borders independently. After the flood, the states wanted to prevent future disasters.

O'Toole: The federal government said it would help with the construction of dams and reservoirs.

Rayes: But only if the states found a way to manage the river cooperatively.

O'Toole: After a three-year negotiation, the Republican River Compact was signed in 1943.

Learn more about the history of the basin and the compact in Part 2 of KUNC’s series:

O'Toole: So, we left off talking about the Republican River Compact, which Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado agreed to in 1943.

Rayes: It requires certain amounts of water flow between the three states. And in the decades that followed, Yuma County Commissioner Robin Wiley says:

Robin Wiley: A lot of wells were drilled … And that really increased the viability of irrigated production, especially in Yuma County, but throughout our entire basin.  

Rayes: He and his family have farmed here since the 1950s. He says it’s likely his grandfather and father knew little about the compact, until Bonny Reservoir….

Wiley: Was built right in our backyard. I think they realized that there was a compact, signed at the time, but no inclination on really how it was going to impact us. 

O'Toole: Even if his relatives had carefully combed through every page of the compact, they would have missed the part that now impacts water users the most — because the word “groundwater” wasn’t in the original document.

Wiley: There was no inclination that the groundwater was tied to the surface water.  

O'Toole:  Meaning if water wasn’t pulled directly from the river or the ground immediately around it…

Rayes: Colorado assumed it didn’t affect the river’s flow which is the primary measurement for compact compliance. That assumption was challenged in 1998 when Kansas sued Nebraska over its groundwater use.

Wiley: And then Colorado got drug into it … That brought all this to the head. 

Rayes: The case, like most interstate compact disputes including the second time Kansas sued over the same issue, went to the Supreme Court.

Justice Elena Kagan: In this case Kansas and Nebraska ask us to settle a dispute over their rights to the water of the Republican River.

Rayes: The court ruled the fact that using groundwater affects river flows is enough to make it inherently part of the agreement.

O'Toole: Okay. So Colorado didn’t officially recognize the connection prior to the ruling, but that doesn’t mean the state was treating groundwater as an unlimited resource.

Rayes: Not at all. In fact a permit system started here in 1965.

Brown: I'm pretty proud of Colorado, actually. We were way ahead.

Rayes: That’s Yuma County farmer Don Brown.

Brown: I mean they were still drilling wells in Nebraska permit-free 15 years ago.

Rayes: When we met, he had this giant, tattered, decades-old map spread out over a conference table in his office. With a large transparent disk, he shows me Colorado’s process to determine how many irrigation wells they would allow within a given area.

Rayes: Colorado predicted its permit system could shrink groundwater supply 40% within 25 years.

Brown: The bottom line is we're still pumping from it. 

O'Toole: How much water did they actually end up losing in that 25-year span?

Rayes: Depends. The area around the South Fork lost about 20%, while the area around the North Fork lost a lot less. But keep in mind, it had already been heavily depleted before the 1965 permit system.

Brown: About 430 feet deep to shale here. Water level originally was probably around 90.

Rayes: A century ago, Brown’s great-uncle Charlie drilled a well here with simple tools and a horse. I visited one of the much deeper, more advanced wells Brown now uses, which were all permitted long ago. And he showed me one of the last well applications his father filed in 1972. It was denied.

O'Toole: So by the mid-1970s, most people couldn’t get a permit anymore.

Brown: It was over, it was just plain over.

An older man closes a gate to a fence surrounding the machinery of a well.
Adam Rayes
This well replaced one of the first Brown's father drilled decades ago.

Rayes: Brown also served as the state commissioner of agriculture under Governor John Hickenlooper. He thought a lot about that history during his tenure in government…

Brown: They, to a large degree, had a lot of foresight. They knew they were mining it, and that if we were going to mine it, it had to be in an organized fashion to try to stretch it out over a lot of years. 

O’Toole: “Mining” is an interesting word choice.

Rayes: Very purposeful on Brown’s part, because the state recognized that once the water got used, it would likely never be replenished.

O'Toole: So why let people use so much of this resource if they knew they were “mining” it?

Brown: That’s way above my paygrade, deciding whether you do or don’t use a resource. It's really easy to say with our mouths full that we shouldn't be using this resource, but we eat cheaper in this country than in any other country in the world. And so it’s really easy to say that we don’t need this here. And then one day we wake up and realize we're hungry. So, I don't know where one draws those lines.

Rayes: Ultimately, Colorado’s state engineer has final line-drawing power here. That office manages multiple interstate river compacts. Dick Wolfe was in that position about 10 years, until 2017.

Dick Wolfe: When I reflect back on it, I don't know if there's too much more we could have done differently.

Rayes: As water levels dropped, the interstate agreements forced officials to make many sacrifices.

O'Toole: Like draining Bonny Reservoir on the river’s South Fork in 2011.

Wolfe: I'd have to say that was the toughest one.

Rayes: That's out of all the hard decisions he made in 24 years of working in water in a state full of water crises.

O'Toole: Clearly Wolfe didn’t want to do this. So why was draining the reservoir helpful here?

Rayes: Well, I could let him break it down:

Wolfe: That's hard to explain. 

Rayes: Or I could read out and explain the variable and exponent-filled formulas in the compact.

O'Toole: Ugh, well you know how much I love variable and exponent-filled anythings.

Rayes: I’m sure our audience does too. Or I could just heavily simplify it by saying this: Colorado’s efforts to reduce groundwater use didn’t guarantee the state couldn't fall out of compliance. And around 2010, it nearly did. So the way the compact’s math works — water evaporating from the reservoir made Colorado get less credit for the amount of water actually sent across the border from the South Fork. Ultimately, Wolfe says it comes down to this:

Wolfe: We can stop the irrigation of the crops out there or we can stop the evaporation. 

Rayes: Colorado also almost fell out of compliance around that time because of dropping water levels in the North Fork.

O'Toole: Okay, so that’s why they bought out irrigation wells from a producer to create the North Fork pipeline we started talking about earlier.

Water flowing out of a large square grate into a stream of water.
Adam Rayes
Water flows out of the pipeline and into the North Fork through this grate.

Rayes: It dumps water from those wells into the North Fork, right before a measurement gauge at the Nebraska state line…

Wolfe: It “rings the bell” we always used to say and helps us in meeting our quantities. 

O'Toole: At $60 million, Wolfe says the pipeline was the most practical, cost effective option to keep Colorado in compliance. It takes another $600,000 to run it every year.

Wolfe: It is a little ironic that the problem we got into for compact compliance was because of well pumping, and we're also using pumping from wells to get us to stay in compliance. 

Rayes: Wolfe says that pipeline was never a long term solution, just a “bridge to the future.”

Wolfe: And then there's other decisions that will have to be made.

Rayes: There are a lot of ideas, but a full-formed, long-term cure is not yet in sight. Looking over the water flowing out of the pipeline – water engineer Tracy Travis thinks about the wells on his family’s farm back in Burlington.

Travis: When they were drilled in the ‘60s, they were about a thousand gallons a minute wells and now they're about 300 gallons a minute. 

O'Toole: Those wells are far south of here, where groundwater levels are much lower and the Republican River’s South Fork barely flows. The deepest sections of groundwater are around the very-much still flowing North Fork here, so things are not nearly as dire.

Rayes: But then again, they once weren’t so dire on the South Fork either.

Rayes: I want to take us back to Republican River Water Conservation District Manager Deb Daniel’s truck near the South Fork. It was sometimes hard to get her and others to put the compact aside and just talk about what’s best for the river.

Daniel: I want to see this area survive and actually thrive. We cannot turn our backs on this compact or the really tough decisions we have to make. 

O’Toole: Makes me wonder if what’s best for the river and what’s best for the compact are at odds?

Rayes: Me too. So I asked her…

Daniel: I think there would be a lot more cooperation between all three states if we could just talk about what's the best thing for the river. But because we're held to the requirements of that compact, I don't necessarily think that all of what we're doing is for the betterment of the river.

Rayes: …and Colorado State Engineer Kevin Rein…

Kevin Rein: I don't really have a comment on whether this compact compliance effort overrides that…

Rayes: And Kansas State Engineer Earl Lewis, who notes the agreement requiring Colorado to stop irrigation around the South Fork will almost definitely help maintain flows there.

Earl Lewis: It's probably somewhere in between…

O’Toole: Before we go on, Adam, what made you decide to cover this?

Rayes: I drove the two hours to Yuma last November to join an advisory meeting organized by the local Colorado State University extension, just to listen to agriculture producers. No note-taking, no recording, little interjecting — only listening. People there repeatedly listed the water supply in the Republican River as a top concern. That told me they might see value in coverage of this.

O’Toole: And the core of this rural reporting project is making communities, like Yuma County in this case, part of as many steps of the reporting process as possible, right?

Rayes: Yep! Be less extractive, more collaborative. Have ideas for stories come from the community, not me. And constant feedback seeking throughout and after to hopefully build more trust.

O’Toole: And that extends to how we present this stuff too, right? The artists we bought the music from in this episode were both raised in and still live in Yuma County.

Rayes: And I'll introduce them to you more deeply in an upcoming story.

Two pictures, vertically stacked. The top shows a reservoir from the side, with almost no water in it. Various management buildings are in the foreground, plains and the horizon in the back. The bottom shows a riverbed that leads into the back of the dam.
Adam Rayes
Top: This used to be called Bonny Lake State Park, back when the reservoir was full. It drew boaters, swimmers, campers and fishers from the tri-state area. Today, the reservoir sits almost empty and abandoned. The park is now a state wildlife area. Bottom: A v-shaped hole that snakes into the back of this dam/reservoir. Signs of erosion from past flows remain.

O'Toole: Well the most popular crops grown in northeastern Colorado, especially corn used in livestock feed, need a lot of water. So, Adam, is there any way to maintain that economy with less water?

Rayes: Well, there are black-eyed peas…

Jason Webb: I'm like the Johnny Appleseed of black-eyed peas… 

Rayes: That's Jason Webb. This alternative crop is emblematic of both the benefits – and limits of the solutions being considered here.

Webb: Anybody I talk to, we're going to talk black-eyed peas. 

Rayes: Webb is a field agronomist with Trinidad Benham – a Denver-based bean seed company. He works in Sterling, a rural city at the edge of Colorado’s Republican River Basin.

Webb: It's just so fascinating on how this plant can be manipulated by water and by fertility, where a lot of other crops can't. 

Rayes: He says black-eyed peas not only can grow with less water — but the protein-filled plants actually prefer it. And Webb has gotten a handful of area producers growing them.

Webb: I have a lot of growers that say I would like to replace all my wheat acres with this. 

O'Toole: Well, this sounds like a great idea, you save water, and the economy, by filling every acre with black-eyed peas. Which I think are delicious. Problem solved, right?

Rayes: Ehhh, there’s a catch…

O'Toole: I knew it.

Webb: We can't put in thousands and thousands of acres or tens of thousands of acres of one crop and expect that market to hold up. Not without creating demand on the other end. 

O'Toole: Which isn’t there like it is for corn and wheat.

Rayes: It could be someday, Webb says, but a lot would have to change. There are other limiting factors – like the fact that some soil types out here can't grow these beans.

Curt Sayles: There is no crop, there's no silver bullet. 

Rayes: That’s Curt Sayles. His family has farmed in Kit Carson County since about 1980, near the South Fork of the Republican River.

Sayles: We've experimented with a lot of crops, and I guess I have an idle curiosity. You know, everybody would say, “Oh, you can't raise that.” And I'm like, well, who are they? 

Rayes: Originally, they grew corn and wheat. But since 1998, he’s tried a lot of alternatives, including…

Sayles: Sunflower, safflower, corn, millet, rye, chickpeas, flax, oats, soybeans. 

O'Toole: And these are all the “dry-land” versions of these crops, right. So, instead of using the large metal apparatus that you see rotating around a pivot to water crops in many of this region’s farms, his fields rely on water that is already in the ground or from rain.

Rayes: Yeah. And for Sayles and other dryland farmers in the southern part of the basin, not-irrigating was never really a choice. They’ve always lacked…

Sayles: The water. We couldn't find that kind of water. So.

Rayes: The crop variety he uses also ensures plants are in his fields year-round, so he doesn’t need to churn — or till — dirt to start planting each season.

O'Toole: No-till and year-round planting are gaining popularity among producers like Sayles who say it decreases water consumption, boosts soil health and reduces the need for costly fertilizer and chemicals.

Sayles: It's not the crop by itself, it's the crop in the system.

Learn more about potential agricultural solutions in part 3 of KUNC’s series:

Rayes: Sayles and others I spoke to say many resist changing traditional farming practices. He says these methods can apply to farms that do have irrigation – or might be about to lose it. Though, he admits, it does involve some initial financial risk that not everyone can bear.

Sayles: If I'd known that I could extend my irrigating by doing these things 20 years ago, I think everybody would say, Yeah, I'd done that, you know?  

Rayes: Farmers who quit irrigating…

O'Toole: To help Colorado meet that requirement to shut down water use on 25,000 acres of farmland near the South Fork of the Republican River by 2029…

Rayes: Can either turn those acres into untended natural grassland for a higher payout or switch to dryland farming — meaning they can still grow corn and such, but often at a reduced yield.

Rayes: As people work toward these and other solutions, few are under the impression that things won’t eventually change dramatically in the basin — even in areas that still have plenty of water.

Daniel: Everyone recognizes the fact that we have got to slow down depletions… 

O'Toole: That’s Republican River water conservation district manager Deb Daniel again.

Daniel: Because the longer we can have irrigated ag in this area, the longer our communities will have to adapt to not being able to have irrigation.

Rayes: Ultimately, clearing an easier path to that difficult future mostly falls on the shoulders of the basin’s residents. Consequences of their failures or successes will impact generations to come not just in the basin but across the state.

O'Toole: Hey Adam, before we go, I just wanted to note how cool it is that you talked to so many people on so many sides of this issue.

Rayes: Thank you Erin!

O'Toole: But I do wonder if you maybe dropped the ball a bit journalistically by not seeking comment from the Democrat River too?

Rayes: I’m just not about that kind of both sides-ism stuff (laughter). But in all seriousness, let’s talk about the river’s name for a moment.

O'Toole: Does it have anything to do with the modern political party?

Rayes: Absolutely nothing. It actually comes from European settlers observing a band of the Pawnee tribe, who are native to the basin and surrounding plains, and comparing their semi-democratic style of government to the philosophy of republicanism. They began calling this band, the Kitkahawki, that name and it eventually transferred over to the river itself.

O'Toole: So what did the Pawnee people call the river?

Rayes: According to Longmont-Based Pawnee Historian Roger Echo-Hawk, it was likely called:

Roger Echo-Hawk: The Kiraaruta.

Learn more about the river’s Pawnee history in part five of KUNC’s series:

Rayes: The word has two parts which are somewhat up to interpretation, he says, the first “refers to a body of water” and the second “to intestines.” Echo-Hawk says the plains were known for large herds of buffalo, which the Pawnee would hunt as they traveled along the river. They would then butcher the animals and wash their intestines and other organs in the nearby stream.

Echo-Hawk: So you can translate this word in various ways. But I translate it as dirty water or river. 

Rayes: The word is a “joyous” one, he says, a reminder of what successful hunts entail.

This podcast episode and KUNC's Republican River series were reported, written and produced by Adam Rayes.

Editing by Brian Larson, Sean Corcoran and Stephanie Daniel. Digital editing by Jackie Hai and Ashley Jefcoat. Music in this episode was purchased from two Yuma County residents. “Lazy River” is by Joey Ueymura and “Loveland Pass” is written by Robert Anderson and performed by the Rufus Krisp band.

This story was produced as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Bob Jensen archive audio used with permission from History Nebraska [Collection name: RG4626.MI: Jensen Robert R.] Kansas v. Nebraska and Colorado ruling audio taken from oyez.org under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Other audio taken from Freesound.org user BeeProductive and Internet Archive.

As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
As host of KUNC's Colorado Edition, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. And because life is best when it's a balance of work and play, I love finding stories that highlight culture, music, the outdoors, and anything that makes Colorado such a great place to live.
KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.