'Where's the river?' Republican River basin's disappearing water threatens Eastern Plains agriculture, ecology
If you look at a map of southeastern Yuma County, Colorado, you’ll find a bumpy blue line labeled “South Fork Republican River.” But, for the majority of the year, this channel contains little to no visible water flow.
“So, the thing is, if we were to go upstream four or five miles, there's flow,” Deb Daniel said while driving along a dusty road, adjacent to the riverbed in what used to be known as Bonny Lake State Park. She points to a stretch of riverbed covered with invasive Russian Olive trees. “There's so much trees grown up in that area, and it's so filled in with silt, that (the South Fork) completely disappears.”
The Republican River basin sustained Daniel’s family’s farm when she was growing up. In 2017, the six Colorado counties relying most on this river’s basin brought almost $2 billion in agriculture sales — just under a third of the state’s total $7.5 billion production value.
“There is such joy when I see water flowing,” Daniel said. For the last 20 years, she’s watched over the river as its conservation district manager. “And on the North Fork, it flows year-round.”
That’s up in Northern Yuma county. These two forks (and the also-barely-flowing Arikaree River in central Yuma County) are tributaries that start in different parts of northeast Colorado and combine in Nebraska to feed the main body of the river.
Back down on the South Fork, Daniel keeps following the road, passing a dilapidated welcome center, a long-abandoned camping area and unused shooting range before eventually stopping on a bridge overlooking the Bonny Dam and an almost entirely empty reservoir.
“This was a drop spot for a resting place for waterfowl as they were migrating back and forth,” Daniel said, looking mournfully over the quiet, empty reservoir. “Eagle(s) and all of the waterfowl that would be here, cranes and geese and ducks, and now it's all gone. Yeah, it's really depressing.”
Water still flows for most of the Republican’s 453-mile stretch. But the North Fork is going down.
“We cannot let (the North Fork) completely dry up like this,” Daniel said, as she drove along the South Fork.
'A losing battle'
With North Fork flows decreasing and the South Fork and Arikaree barely running, the ecosystem suffers, Colorado risks major legal trouble with Kansas and Nebraska and people who farm these plains stand to lose their livelihoods.
Some, like Joyce Kettelson, are already starting to feel the impacts. She runs Doc’s Bed and Breakfast in Wray, Yuma County’s second-largest population center.
Kettelson raised pumpkins here with her husband, Phil, for almost three decades.
Five years ago, he suddenly died. Kettleson tried to maintain the family farm with her son, but said she “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.”
All but a third of their land was sold to much larger farming operations in 2021. She leaves the work and the income from the remaining portion of land to her son and his family, sustaining herself on savings and the B&B’s revenue. They also sealed an irrigation well on their land as the cost to use it rose and its water level plummeted.
The Republican River’s water levels drop partially because water in the ground surrounding it and beneath it is being used up, mostly to irrigate farms. And, in turn, part of the reason that groundwater isn’t as replenished is because of the river’s limited water.
It’s a dynamic Kettelson has long been aware of, weighing the water longevity for the community against her family's economic security.
“You base it on your family's economic security because we want to continue to stay here and do what we can do,” she said at first, but after thinking about the dropping water level in her irrigation well, she added, “I don't know that it ended up really being a choice, it was just like the only way. (Shutting off the irrigation well) really was the only way.”
The hard part? She’s seen this unfold before. She and her husband grew up watching another water shortage crisis unfold on their family farms in the San Luis Valley.
“My parents, at one time, their house (drinking water) well went dry. They did not have water in their house,” Kettelson said. “It was really scary.”
“Water is just getting less and less,” she said. “The wells are not as capable as they were 28 years ago.”
Many more farmers will have to seal off their wells like Kettelson has — not just because of the physical lack of water. Amid an extended legal battle, Colorado made an agreement with Kansas in 2016 to shut down 10,000 irrigated acres by 2022 to help maintain flows.
“I don't think it's a great solution, but at this point, it seems like it's the only solution,” Kettelson said.
Running out of options
Most of the irrigation shuttering has to happen near the South Fork in Yuma and Kit Carson counties. Despite the river conservation district and federal government offering to pay farmers who participate, just a third of the 10,000-acre goal has been met as of Jan. 6, 2022.
“I wouldn't call it resistant,” said Nate Midcap, manager of the Frenchman, Sandhills, Marks Butte and Central Yuma Groundwater Management Districts, which are separate from the river conservation district. “I think (farmers) know what needs to be done. And the state engineer certainly has a history of proving that he's not afraid to turn off wells to make compact compliance.”
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 month, the river conservation district board voted to more than double yearly water use fees so that they could also significantly increase the amount they offer to farmers who stop irrigating around the South Fork. Several board members of the groundwater districts Midcap manages also sit on the river district board and helped make that decision.
So now, someone farming 100 acres would have to pay $45,000 to irrigate for 15 years instead of the $21,750 they paid before the fee increase. If that farmer’s land is within a mile of the South Fork and they enter the program to totally retire the land for 15 years, they would now get paid more than $67,000 instead of $52,875.
“They've known that they've needed to retire them for eight to 10 years,” Midcap said. “But the actual process of getting the fee increased has taken at least nine months.”
Part of the reason for the hold-up, several local officials told KUNC, is that the conservation board members are often farmers and ranchers themselves. So they struggle to make decisions that could hurt them and their neighbors financially.
“People don't like to spend money, right?” Midcap said. “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.”
Midcap later made a point to say that he has hope because the county can sustain itself on the remaining groundwater for at least another century.
“But they have to work through the bigger issues of the basin,” he said. “And I think that that's doable.”
And he understands his optimism could be difficult for folks to hear as they lose farmland due to dried-up wells and hugely increased water costs.
“They put a well down and in, say, 1965, and here we are 40, 50, 60 years later, and (the water level) is going to be half,” he said. “But it's a remarkable feat to still have water available after 60 years in the same hole. And to hope you’ll have it for another 60.”
Midcap is confident that enough irrigated acres will be shut down to keep the state in compliance with the 2024 deadline. But there’s a second deadline: another 15,000 acres must shut down by 2029. He's less confident about that.
“But we're between a rock and a sword. There is no other option,” said Deb Daniel, Republican River Water Conservation District manager. “If we don't get this done, the state of Kansas could virtually force our state engineer to shut off irrigated ag in northeast Colorado, and we can't let that happen.”
Interest in irrigation-shutoff programs has already sharply increased since the district increased the payments it offers, she added.
“I'm talking to people about 40 different irrigation wells and everybody's at a different stage in that,” Daniel said. “But going from virtually none to, within three months, that many is extremely encouraging.”
The actions needed to fulfill the compact, protect the river and keep the agricultural economic backbone of these communities strong can intersect, she said, but often end up at odds. There are a lot of hard decisions to be made.
“But at the same time, I have the blood of these producers running through my veins because you have to be proactive, you've got to have a positive attitude or you're not going to survive,” she said, her fist solemnly over her heart.
She's inspired by the producers changing their crops to ones that use less water, and by those finding ways to farm without irrigation at all. She’s helping the conservation district, county government and Colorado Parks And Wildlife working on a $40 million plan to get water flowing through the South Fork around Bonny Reservoir again.
But, Daniel admits, the river will likely never return to its former glory. At this point, it's all just mitigating losses.
On Jan. 13, part two of this series will explore the history of the river and the interstate compact governing it. Part three will look at efforts to solve these issues by local producers and officials.
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.