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On The Colorado Plains, Ag Depends On The Drying Ogallala

Shelley Schlender
Deb Daniel, General Manager for the Republican River Conservation District, sitting near the Republican River in Wray, Colo.

Most Colorado cities and farms get water from snowmelt in the Rockies. That's not the case in Northeastern Colorado. This food-producing powerhouse depends on an ancient, underground reservoir called the Ogallala.

Ever since the Ice Ages, the Ogallala's been slowly accumulating water. Modern farmers, though, pump so much water that this "timeless" aquifer is starting to run out. Someday, Northeast Colorado may have to curtail some crops and some farm towns might become ghost towns.

The semi-arid desert of the short grass prairie in Northeastern Colorado gets an average of 17 inches of precipitation every year. Near the farming community of Wray, there's a feedlot that depends on plenty of water. A few miles away are mounds of freshly dug up potatoes and conveyor belts that hoist the spuds into trucks. Around another bend, dinosaur-sized pivots watch over cornfields. Next spring, those giant sprinklers will spray enough water to grow row after row of leafy green stalks.

"Yuma County is one of the top two counties in the state, and sometimes ranked in the top 10 in the nation, for corn production," said Deb Daniel, General Manager for the Republican River Conservation District.

Credit Shelley Schlender / RMCR
A center pivot irrigation system near Wray, Colo.

The Republican River Basin springs from streams that bubble up from the Ogallala aquifer then flow east, starting in Northeastern Colorado around Sterling and Wray, and also around Burlington, near the Kansas border.

"All of our water here is stored underground and very very little of it is recharged," Daniel said.

This region's aqueous gold is the Ogallala Aquifer. Stretching from South Dakota down to Texas, the Ogallala is one of the world's largest underground reservoirs. Think of it as an enormous bowl that's hundreds of feet underground, filled with sand, gravel and water that's been drip-dropping in for thousands of years.

Daniel thinks of it as water within a sponge.

"And we have all of these straws poked into this sponge from all of these irrigation wells, municipal wells, commercial wells for feedlots and hog confinement, so all of these straws are poked down into this sponge of water."

Those "straws," slurping the ancient Ogallala, add up to an enormous gulp. Colorado's Deputy State Water Engineer Mike Sullivan said that if you think of how much snowmelt it takes to supply Denver, Boulder, Greeley, Fort Collins — the northern Front Range cities — that's also how much farmers pump from the Ogallala in the Republican River Conservation District.

"They're both withdrawing or diverting about 700,000 acre feet of water in an average year," said Sullivan.

There's a big difference between snowmelt and the slow-to-recharge Ogallala. "One's a renewable supply, and the other is a static supply that is being consumed," Sullivan adds.

Legal battles over just who gets to "use up" the Ogallala have led the state to monitor pumping rates, with growers sending in an annual water use report. The goal is to get more stewardship tied to water use.

"You got a tremendous economy out there, and we don't want to see that basically dry up and blow away," said water engineer Mike Sullivan.


In shallower areas, the Ogallala already is drying up in Southern Kansas, Texas, and in a small town near I-70, Stratton, Colorado, where Tim Pautler lives and farms. Pautler is secretary of the board for the Republic River Conservation District.

"My domestic well, 50 years ago, probably had 50 to 60 to 70 feet of water," said Pautler. "I'm down to 17. You go west of here, you can find farmsteads that are actually out of water."

Pautler wants to save enough of his local part of the Ogallala so that maybe his grandkids can farm around Stratton someday. To keep this in mind, he shares what an old-timer told him about how to fill a glass of water.

"He says, 'before we had running water in the house, you had to go outside and hand pump your water, and the glass was right there,'" Paulter said. "You didn't rinse your glass. You just filled your glass. And you didn't put anymore in the glass than what you could consume, because you didn't want to throw it away. Things are going to go full circle. At some point we're going to be going, gosh I wish I just had some of the water that I wasted in the last 50 years."

Pautler has retired irrigation wells in exchange for government conservation money. His family is now growing drought tolerant wheat and dryland corn.

Colorado Deputy State Water Engineer Mike Sullivan said that if flow meter monitoring leads to more water conservation, the Ogallala might change from an aquifer that's drying up to one that can last.

This story comes from 'Connecting the Drops' - a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more at cfwe.org.

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