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Colorado, Weld County Farmers Battle Drought

Grace Hood

There’s an old saying that corn should be “knee high by the fourth of July”. That’s not necessarily true for Colorado farmers battling droughtthis year. For some in Weld County, the picture is even worse.

Yesterday, in response to a letter from Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack agreed to speed up drought assistance for Colorado farmers in 62 of the state’s 64 counties. Delta and San Juan counties are excluded.

The move means the federal government will use a lower threshold for judging crop loss this year.

“Typically we wait for counties to qualify and show significant losses,” says John Stulp, the Governor’s special policy advisor on water issues.

Getting the declaration earlier means farmers and ranchers have access to loan programs to help them get through drought, says Stulp.

In Weld County, ‘Desperation Time’

While drought is hurting farmers throughout Colorado, the situation is especially pronounced in Weld County. There 440 farmers lost access to their irrigation wells near the South Platte River after a 2006 Colorado Supreme Court decision. Thousands more saw reduced access. Weld County Commissioners appealed to Gov. John Hickenlooper earlier in June to allow farmers to use their well, but that attempt failed.

Colorado’s Supreme Court found that pumping from the ground was depleting surface water from the river, and depriving senior water rights holders their resource. The decision is controversial, and disputed by many, including Gerald Roth, who farms and ranches on 500 acres east of Lucerne.

Roth complies with the law, but doesn’t like the results. Right now the limited supply means he waters crops for 10 days. Then he takes a 5-day break.

“Each time you irrigate it, it will jump and grow, but after that it will basically dry up for a short period of time until we get more water,” he says. “So you’re not getting the full growth out of the crop.”

So far, this on-again, off-again system of watering has translated into anemic-looking corn, and a wheat crop he’s already given up watering. Crop insurance will cover Roth’s wheat crop expenses, but he says it’s frustrating.

“We don’t grow a crop to collect insurance, we grow a crop to have it look nice and hopefully make a profit,” he says.

Roth estimates he’s become about as efficient as he can since 2006, installing expensive sprinkler systems to maximize water use. And there are still costs associated with the wells, even though he can’t use them. He says he pays about $1,200 per year to the state of Colorado for well depletion.

“It’s desperation time right now,” says Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway.

While farmers are struggling, Conway says that’s only one part of the problem. The fact that farmers are not tapping into their wells is starting to create an underground aquifer that’s begun overflowing into some people’s basements.

“My sense is that if we could get out of the courtroom and get this amongst ourselves in terms of municipalities, water districts and farmers, I think can come to a solution,” he says.

Now that the dust has settled from the 2006 ruling, Conway says he’s finding some of those entities are interested in talking about, and even helping solve, Weld County’s predicament. To that end, Conway and other commissioners sent out letters to 30 senior South Platte River water rights holders asking for consent for farmers to pump from their wells.

“What I can tell you at this point, there’s no magic bullet out there, there’s no magic deal on the offing, but we’re continuing to work through it,” he says.

Conway says they will continue to search for both short- and long-term solutions for farmers.

Meantime,a separate study commissioned by the state legislature to look at this problem in the South Platte River Basin could offer some answers as well. But those answers aren’t coming anytime soon. Results aren’t expected until June of next year.

That’s little help for Gerald Roth, who says if he doesn’t get rain by early August he’ll have trouble with his corn. That could also translate into larger economic implications for Weld County as a whole. And there could be other costs.

“Most of us farmers are second or third generation, we have children and grandchildren,” he says. “We would like to pass it along to our heirs. It seems like everyone else feels like the water is more important to non-agriculture than for agriculture.”

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