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The Republican River flows through the cropland of Yuma County and feeds into Kansas and Nebraska. But flowing water is disappearing from riverbeds, exacerbated by water getting pulled out of the surrounding ground and long-term drought driven by climate change. This series looks at the pain and hope in the Republican River basin as wells start drying up and decades-old commitments to the basin's other two states loom.

'No silver bullet': Agricultural solutions aim to slow water loss in the Republican River basin

A woman sits on a chair, next to a table with a projector connected to a laptop on it. Those are all silhowetted in the dark room. The projector is showing a powerpoint slide on the wall in front of it, the slide has several images of crops along with the words "organic farming" on it. there is more text that is not legible at this angle.
Adam Rayes
Deb Daniel gives a presentation on the Republican River and potential solutions to its water crisis in November 2021.

Part one of KUNC's Republican River series showed how dropping river flows and groundwater levels impact farmers and ranchers in northeastern Colorado.

Part two examined a portion of the history that got the basin to this point.

Part three explores potential farmer-centric solutions and the impact they could have in Colorado and the other two states dependent on the river basin's water.

Few people in the Colorado part of the Republican River basin are under the impression that there won’t be dramatic change eventually — even in areas that still have plenty of water.

“Everyone recognizes the fact that we have got to slow down depletions,’ said Republican River Water Conservation District manager Deb Daniel. “Because the longer we can have irrigated ag in this area, the longer our communities will have to adapt to not being able to have irrigation in this area.”

One thing is clear from what she and others are saying: no one solution will be enough. It will take a combination of different growing methods, scientific breakthroughs, massive revitalization projects and more to mitigate the losses these communities and this environment face.

Two agricultural producer-side solutions are broken down below: crop science and changing growing methods

Crop science

Black-eyed peas are an alternative crop emblematic of both the benefits – and limits – of many solutions being considered.

“I'm like the Johnny Appleseed of black-eyed peas,” said Jason Webb, a field agronomist with Trinidad Benham, a Denver-based bean seed company. “Anybody I talk to, we're going to talk black eyed peas.”

Webb works in Sterling, a rural city at the edge of Colorado’s Republican River basin, where he spends a lot of time on farms, talking to farmers about the possibility of growing various beans from the seeds Benham offers.

“It's just so fascinating on how this plant can be manipulated by water and by fertility, where a lot of other crops can't,” he said.

Crop rows of a low, leafy green plant.
Courtesy of Jason Webb
Black-eyed peas growing in a field.

Black-eyed peas not only can grow with less water, Webb said, the protein-filled plants actually prefer it. Webb has gotten a handful of area producers growing them.

“I have a lot of growers that say, ‘I would like to replace all my wheat acres with this,” he said.

It sounds like a great idea: save water and the economy by filling the hundreds of thousands of acres between Burlington and Sterling with black-eyed peas instead of corn and wheat.

There’s a catch, though.

“We can't put in thousands and thousands of acres or tens of thousands of acres of one crop and expect that market to hold up,” Webb said. “Not without creating demand on the other end.”

Market forces don’t want black-eyed peas the way they do corn and wheat. The peas are such a “niche within a niche,” Webb said, growing too many could make them near-worthless to farmers.

Demand could rise someday, Webb says, but a lot would have to change. There are other limiting factors: some soil types out here can't grow these beans, and farmers might need to buy new equipment to grow and harvest them.

But growing irrigated corn and similar crops may get less water-intensive over time, according to Ron Meyer, an agronomist with the Colorado State University Extension in Burlington.

“So the science of plant breeding has really evolved over time,” Meyer said. It used to require breeders to plant different crops near each other and hope they produced a worthwhile cross-breed. “We've come to a point where the plant breeders are selecting for traits.”

They search for genes with higher insect and disease resistance, yield, better taste and drought tolerance (or the amount of water the crop can go without).

“The new varieties, we used to keep around for 10 or 12 years,” he said. “Today, about three years is the life of a new variety because there are better ones coming right behind it.”

Getting these varieties into fields requires testing to make sure the crop is as capable as the breeder says it is. Some farmers work with CSU Extension to do that testing – for free.

“They'll give us as many acres as we need to test,” Meyer said. “They're innovators. They like new information. They want to find out because if something works on their farm, they're the first to know it.”

Testing producers provide another valuable free service: they advertise better working varieties by word of mouth, increasing adoption across farms in their communities. As water levels drop and use costs rise in the Republican River basin, drought-resistant varieties are in high demand.

“The only avenue we've got right now is to trust the science to help us use less water,” Meyer said. “Will it save enough to save the aquifer? That remains to be seen.”

Both Meyer and Webb agree alternative and more drought-resistant crops are just “one tool in the tool box” for solving the region’s worsening water crisis.

Changing growing methods

Curt Sayles’ family has farmed in Kit Carson County since the late 1970s. Originally, they just grew corn and wheat, as most in the area did and still do.

“We've experimented with a lot of crops, and I guess I have an idle curiosity,” Sayles said. “Everybody would say, ‘Oh, you can't raise that.’ And I'm like, ‘Well, who are they?”

Since 1998, he’s tried a lot of alternatives, including flax, sunflower, chickpeas and oats.

“There is no crop” that will single-handedly save the basin, Sayles said. “There's no silver bullet.”

"The longer we can have irrigated ag in this area, the longer our communities will have to adapt to not being able to have irrigation in this area.”
Republican River Water Conservation District manager Deb Daniel.

His farm is all dryland, so instead of using large irrigation systems seen on many farms to water crops, his fields rely on existing groundwater or rainwater. For Sayles and many other longtime dryland farmers, not irrigating was never a choice. They’ve never had enough water.

“I'm not a real greenie, but I recognize we're stewards of this resource and need to act that way,” he said. “I think sometimes the irrigated guys are like, I'm going to get mine while the gettin's good.”

Not every farm has the soil type needed to raise dryland crops. And the varieties often yield less than their irrigated cousins.

Crop variety also ensures plants are in his fields year-round as cover crops, so Sayles doesn’t need to churn (or till) dirt to start planting each season. This can decrease water consumption and improve soil health.

“It's not the crop by itself, it's the crop in the system,” he said, adding the “holistic” farming methods he has adopted can be applied to most irrigated operations too. In fact, he and others said it would actually be easier and more effective on irrigated land.

No-till and year-round planting are gaining popularity among producers like Sayles. There’s even been an organization dedicated to it since 1998.

“Tillage isn't inherently bad, but tillage over time and use, it basically starts tearing down soil structure,” said Michael Thompson. “It creates a lot of layers in the soil that are restrictive so the water can't get down into the soil near as much.”

A gif of fields moving quickly past.
Adam Rayes
Pivot irrigation systems can be seen across many of Yuma County's farms.

Thompson is a former president and board member of the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association, a no-till advocacy group based in Kit Carson County.

“Rain needs to stay out here in the western part of the high plains,” he said. “So you can kind of start to heal the system. So when you get those rainfalls, they don't just flow off the ground as fast. Actually slows them down and they percolate into the soil better.”

Thompson farms in Kansas, but said he joined the Colorado-based association because its members were on the “cutting edge” of these techniques in a way his home state wasn’t. He wasn’t the only out-of-state member, either.

“It takes a lot of people on board. Just one person can't fix everything,” Thompson said. “One farmer can do the best on his farm or his water allocation. And if his neighbors are not doing the best they can and they're overpumping that kind of negates his good stewardship.”

Amid declining groundwater levels and streamflow, Colorado must stop irrigation on 25,000 acres of farmland near the south fork of the Republican River by 2029.

Farmers who quit irrigating can do so through one of two programs:

  • Entering the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, will turn those acres into untended natural grassland. The program lasts 15 years and pays more per acre. The installation of the grass for this program is half covered by the Farm Service Agency. Producers can still use this grassland to graze cattle.

  • Alternatively, farmers can enter the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, for a slightly lower payout. The main difference is the producer can still farm on that ground during the 15 year period, but they can’t irrigate. They have to farm dryland — meaning they can still grow corn and such, but often at a reduced yield.

Thompson is clear that he doesn't think everyone who can irrigate should stop. Water use should be more targeted, he said, and planting methods should change to better hold rainwater.

“If you can get several people on board and maybe a part of a county or a whole county, you've been seeing there's more stuff greener longer,” he said.

But Sayles, Thompson and others told KUNC that many hesitate to embrace these new methods.

“In farming, we're very traditional,” Thompson said. “I don't want to say we're resistant to change, but we know what works and we go with it.”

Part of the issue for some is that changing to no-till and year-round growing can be financially difficult at first, Thompson and others said.

But once they’ve been at it for a few years “not only do they see the water savings, a lot of people are seeing their fertilizer dollars go a little bit further,” Thompson said. “Instead of just leaching down… or into our streams and lakes and rivers, those (fertilizer) nutrients are held in suspension in those cover crops until they're utilized.”

Thompson also notes that farms with livestock can use these cover crops to feed their animals, rather than buying feed. The pitch is that financial short-term losses are eventually mitigated by reduced operating costs in the long run.

“We're trying to farm with what nature gives us,” he said. “We're trying to do it in a more environmentally sound manner, and also do it in an economically positive manner for our farms and ranches.”

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.

Corrected: March 8, 2022 at 8:27 AM MST
This story was updated to remove an extra letter from the acronym for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
Related Content
  • 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.
  • The Colorado River gets a lot of attention, but it’s not the only multi-state river that starts in Colorado. And it’s definitely not the only one facing a water shortage. On the eastern side of the continental divide is the Republican River. It flows through the cropland of Yuma County and feeds into Kansas and Nebraska. In the first of a three-part series, KUNC explores the economic and environmental challenges the Republican River basin faces.