History forces 'hard decisions' in Eastern Colorado's declining Republican River basin
Read the series' third part here.
Part one of KUNC's Republican River series showed how dropping river flows and groundwater levels are impacting farmers and ranchers in northeastern Colorado.
From a 1930s flood to extended drought today, the river has been managed by three states, sometimes cooperatively and sometimes combatively. To meet the terms of a decades-old compact, 25,000 irrigated acres of Colorado farmland must soon be shut down.
Part two looks at part of the history that got the basin to this point.
There’s a grim stoicism about the way Tracy Travis does his work on the Republican River’s North Fork.
“It's not a job that I would like to have, but somebody has to do it,” Travis said, looking over the water flowing less than two miles east to the Colorado-Nebraska border.
This fork is one of the only channels in the Republican River basin in Colorado with consistent flows these days.
The part-time farmer and school bus driver works here seasonally as a water engineer. His job is to get water flowing from former agriculture irrigation wells north of here “and into a tank which flows over into a 42-inch pipeline that runs about 12 miles down to the river.”
“It's not a good thing for the people in this area because we're giving our water up,” Travis said.
There are a lot of mixed feelings about this pipeline among the people who spoke with KUNC. Nebraskan officials see it as a net positive. Ultimately, all agree it must exist. Explaining why requires going back to 1935.
Today, the Republican River in Colorado is described as not even "deep enough to drown in." But in 1935, it flooded and killed over 100 people in Nebraska and around a dozen in Colorado (if not more) — including four of Republican River Water Conservation District Manager Deb Daniel’s relatives.
Up to that point, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska had managed the river basin’s water within their borders independently.
“There was hardly any irrigation other than surface water irrigation from the rivers themselves and very little in Colorado,” said Yuma County Commissioner and farmer Robin Wiley. “The majority of it was downstream in Kansas and Nebraska.”
After the 1935 flood, the states needed dams and reservoirs to prevent future disasters. The federal government would help build them, but with one condition: the states needed to find a way to manage the river cooperatively.
After three years of negotiations, the Republican River Compact was approved in 1943.
During the three following decades, new technology made it easier to use groundwater. Development of irrigation wells exploded — from around 90,000 in 1949 to over 1 million in 1992 in Nebraska alone — increasing the viability of agriculture “especially in Yuma County, but throughout our entire basin,” Wiley said.
Wiley’s family has farmed here since the 1950s. He says it’s likely that his grandfather and father knew little about the compact, until the now-drained Bonny Reservoir was built right in their “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,” he said.
Even if they had carefully gone through every page of the compact, his predecessors would have missed the part that impacts water users most today — because it wasn’t written in the original document.
“There was no inclination that the groundwater was tied to the surface water,” Wiley said.
If water wasn’t coming directly from the river or the ground immediately around it, Colorado assumed it didn’t affect the amount of water flowing across the border (a primary measurement for compact compliance). That assumption was challenged in 1998, when Kansas sued Nebraska over its groundwater use.
“And then Colorado got dragged into it,” he said. “That brought all this to the head.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled even though the word “groundwater” never appeared in the original compact, the fact that its use affects river flows is enough to make it inherently part of the agreement.
“You can see through the graphs that the more irrigation wells that were drilled, that definitely the streamflow started to deplete,” Wiley said. “So I think it maybe wasn't a complete surprise.”
Though Colorado didn’t officially recognize the connection prior to that ruling, the state didn’t treat the groundwater as an unlimited resource.
“I'm pretty proud of Colorado, actually. We were way ahead,” Yuma County farmer Don Brown said, referring to the state starting to require permits for new wells in 1965. “They were still drilling wells in Nebraska permit-free 15 years ago.”
Nebraska did not start regulating groundwater use until 1996, according to a 2004 Nebraska Law Review analysis, and it was “loose” compared to Kansas and Colorado. Farmers only needed to send a well registration to the state, which had “no authority to deny a registration” the way Colorado and Kansas could deny permits, the analysis found. That kind of power was mostly left to local management districts.
The Review argued this system would lead to Nebraska overusing groundwater and more compliance issues. In 2005, Kansas sued Nebraska for overuse again and, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Nebraska “failed to put adequate compliance mechanisms in place.”
Brown’s great-uncle Charlie drilled a well here in the early 1900s with simple tools and a horse. The much deeper and more advanced wells Brown now farms with were all permitted long ago.
During the 1970s, Colorado denied most permit applications for new large-capacity irrigation wells in the basin. With a rule-change in 1990, permitting pretty much entirely ceased.
“It was over,” Brown said. “It was just plain over.”
“They had a lot of foresight,” said Brown, who thought a lot about that history during his tenure as state commissioner of agriculture under Gov. John Hickenlooper. “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.”
Which begs the question: Why still let people drill wells if they knew they were mining it?
“That's way above my pay grade, deciding whether you do or don't use a resource,” Brown said. “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… So it’s really easy to say ‘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.”
Brown heavily participated in discussions about compact compliance as agriculture commissioner. Many of the decisions he said he gave input on ended up being “painful, but not as painful as (they) could have been.”
“I look back and I think it's a little bit like these guys that designed this,” he said, gesturing to a large, tattered map showing the area around his farm, a representation of part of the calculus used to determine how many wells the state would permit after 1965. “At the time, it seemed okay. In the end, it was the state engineer's office that made the final decision.”
The state engineer manages multiple (but not all) interstate river compacts in Colorado. Dick Wolfe was in that position for about 10 years, until retiring in 2017.
As water levels dropped, the interstate agreements forced officials and local water users to make many sacrifices, like draining Bonny Reservoir on the river’s South Fork in 2011.
“Folks banded together, (and did), I think, a great job looking at everything they could to try to make the best of a bad situation,” Wolfe said. “But I think all in all, when I reflect back on it, I don't know if there's too much more we could have done differently.”
Colorado’s efforts to reduce groundwater use, including an agreement to shut down 25,000 irrigated acres in the basin by the end of this decade, didn't guarantee the state couldn't fall out of compliance in the meantime. And around 2007 to 2010, it very nearly did.
To heavily simplify the way this compact’s complex math works: water naturally evaporating from Bonny Reservoir made Colorado get less credit for the water it actually sent across the border on the South Fork.
“Though some obviously didn't want for me to make that decision (to drain Bonny), I think they understood when we laid everything out in terms of our compact obligations (that) we had very limited actions that we could take,” Wolfe said.
For example, there wasn’t enough water in the ground surrounding the South Fork to build a pipeline as easily as the North Fork’s. It came down to two options.
“We can stop the irrigation of the crops out there or we can stop the evaporation,” he said
But, out of all the hard decisions made in 24 years of working with water in a state facing river crises in every corner, emptying that reservoir “was the toughest one,” Wolfe said.
The other reason Colorado almost fell out of compliance: quickly dropping North Fork flows.
“We were in the early stages, 2007, 2008 looking at what options are out there to get us back into compliance,” he said. Suggestions included importing water from the Missouri River. “Some of them just didn't prove feasible.”
Ultimately, the decision was made to buy out irrigation wells from a producer and connect them to a pipeline. It drops the water right before a measurement gauge at the Nebraska-Colorado border.
“It ‘rings the bell’ we always used to say and helps us in meeting our quantities,” Wolfe said.
At $60 million, the pipeline was the most practical, cost-effective option, he said. It takes around $600,000 to run every year.
“It is a little ironic that it's like, ‘well, the problem we got into for compact compliance was because of well pumping,” he said. “And we're also using pumping from wells to get us to stay in compliance.”
In an interview, current state engineer Kevin Rein made the point that if the water wasn’t being used on the pipeline, at least as much — likely more — would probably have been used for crops.
“I've always viewed (the pipeline) as a bridge to the future,” Wolfe said. “If they were going to continue to have a prosperous agricultural economy out there, that project has a defined life that will get us to a certain point. And then there's other decisions that will have to be made.”
Yuma County officials like Commissioner Robin Wiley say the pipeline is just a “band-aid.” There are a lot of ideas, but there’s not a fully formed, long-term cure in sight yet.
Looking over the water flowing out of the pipeline’s grate, water engineer Tracy Travis thinks about the wells on his family’s farm in Burlington.
“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,” Travis said.
He and his siblings haven’t taken the Republican River Water Conservation District up on the offer to stop irrigating in exchange for payments yet. But the water levels are dropping so quickly, he said, they may have to in the future.
That’s much further south of here, where the groundwater is much lower and the South Fork barely flows. The deepest parts of the aquifer are around the very-much still flowing North Fork here, so conditions are not nearly as dire.
But then again, they once weren’t so dire on the South Fork either.
On Jan. 20, part three of this series 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.