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Thirsty Cities Drain Colorado Farm Land

Farmer Kent Peppler
Luke Runyon
KUNC and Harvest Public Media

Farmers throughout the Great Plains are preparing for what could be a tough growing season. They’re in a tight spot with irrigation water, due to the region’s persistent drought.

 In drought years, cities hold on to their water supplies, selling little to no water to farmers. That forces many growers to limit the acres they plant and cut back on the number of workers they hire to get seeds in the ground and harvest crops in the fall.

In eastern Colorado, the situation’s even more dire. Thirsty cities have gobbled up water rights for decades, selling what they don’t need back to farmers, usually in the form of a lease back program.

But that only works when there’s plenty of water to go around.

Kent Peppler grows corn and barley in the small town of Mead, Colo., which sits about an hour north of Denver. He’s seen the change firsthand. His neighborhood looks a lot different from how it appeared in the early 1970s, when he was growing his first crop of cucumbers as a teenager. Back then farmland and irrigation water was easy to come by.

“Now it’s all houses. No more cukes,” Peppler said.

Housing development outside Mead has encroached on land used for agriculture for close to a century. Agricultural irrigation ditches commingle with houses and driveways, because of the drought many of those ditches will have less water.

"We're going to gamble with it and hope that we get a little irrigation water and maybe a timely rain or two. But the prognosis is not very good this year."

“We’re going to gamble with it and hope that we get a little irrigation water and maybe a timely rain or two,” Peppler said. “But the prognosis is not very good this year.”

Snowpack, and long-term precipitation forecasts drive yearly water allotments. When those numbers are released in mid-April, cities determine whether they’ll have enough water to sell to farmers.

Peppler only owns about half the water he uses every year. This upcoming summer, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any extra water from cities.

“There’s less water in the reservoirs and less water in the stream,” said Jon Monson, Water and Sewer Director for the city of Greeley, which is completely surrounded by farmland.

Over the years, Greeley’s been buying up agricultural water rights. After the city meets its customers’ demands the leftover water is auctioned to farmers.

“In normal years, we don’t need all this water and it should go to beneficial use in terms of agriculture production,” Monson said. “It’s only in those drought years, like this one might be, that we need to pull it back and use it for municipal supplies.”

This is part of a larger trend. Cities have been buying up water rights ever since the first farmers started growing crops on the state’s eastern plains.

"The saying goes in Colorado that water runs uphill towards money. And that water that’s running uphill goes toward cities that have the money."

“The saying goes in Colorado that water runs uphill towards money. And that water that’s running uphill goes toward cities that have the money. It’s not the farmers that can afford to pay the going rate for water in this state any more,” Brian Werner, a spokesman for the Northern Water Conservancy District, which supplies water to close to a million people in Northeastern Colorado.

Buying water rights on the open market now is incredibly expensive. Cities can afford the hefty price tag. Farmers often times cannot. Water used in the Colorado-Big Thompson project, Colorado’s largest water distribution project, currently costs about $20,000 per acre foot, or 325,000 gallons, to purchase the rights. Most years farmers pay about $30 per acre foot to rent the water from cities.

Werner said with the tight water rental market, many farmers will be forced to leave portions of their land fallow this growing season.

“If that land doesn’t get planted, there’s going to be a significant impact on the economy,” Werner said.

Farmer Kent Peppler fully understands that economic impact. He’s already planning for a dry spring and summer. He’ll plant fewer fields and hope corn and barley prices stay high.

“We’re still businesspeople first and farmers second. That’s the attitude you have to have or you don’t survive in this business,” Peppler said.

Many of his neighbors in this farming community have moved away over the years, selling their land and water to developers. He said he’s not looking to leave any time soon, but everything’s for sale for the right price.

That price, in a drought year, is always on the rise.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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