Trees, silt clog the Republican River's South Fork. Colorado officials hope money can fix that
Between the 1950s and 1970s, the South Fork sent 10 and 5-year averages of over 30,000 acre-feet of water across the border with Kansas and then to Nebraska. In the last 20 years, it’s only hit 5,000 acre-feet or more a few times.
There’s more to the issue than just numbers. At one point, the South Fork and the attached, now practically empty Bonny Reservoir made a very popular recreational state park. People in the surrounding communities still mourn losing that.
"It's just depressing, to tell you the truth,” Yuma County commissioner and farmer Robin Wiley said of Bonny Reservoir, which was drained in 2011. He grew up just a few miles from it. “To know what we had and what it's turned into now. It is very depressing."
Silt and trees, like the invasive, water-sucking Russian olive, worsened an already bad situation for this channel. They cover the river bed in southeast Yuma County, stopping what little water flow remains after years of overuse, drought and little rainfall.
A mostly local coalition, including the Kit Carson and Yuma County governments, Three Rivers Alliance, Nature Conservancy, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Republican River Water Conservation District, aim to turn things around for this part of the river.
They want to boost flows by digging up all of the silt, Russian olives and other trees and plants that have grown into this riverbed.
Officials hope doing this will restore the river and help the flora and fauna that rely on it.
“There's hopefully some room in the future for the improvement of this ecosystem,” said Benjamin Meier, a district manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “But we can't determine what Mother Nature will provide for us. So it's been kind of difficult for sure.”
They also hope to maybe even refill the reservoir and bring back a small but meaningful recreation economy.
“I think there's a large portion of people that would love to have it back,” Meier said, adding that he doubts the reservoir can ever bounce back to its full former glory.
However, an interstate agreement requiring Colorado to shut down 25,000irrigated acres around the South Fork by 2029 is a major driver of this project.
The hope is if water starts flowing through the South Fork again, Kansas might ease the number of irrigated acres Colorado has to shut down. In fact, some officials KUNC spoke to hope Kansas will see enough value in this project to pitch in its own resources.
“I think any time you're keeping water flowing through,” Kansas state engineer Earl Lewis said, “that's valuable.”
But there isn’t much clarity on exactly how valuable it could be. So when it comes to Kansas offering resources for this project, Lewis said, “Frankly, I don't see that we're going to spend Kansas dollars to try and do that. “
Lewis does broadly support the project. But he’s unsure Kansas would be willing to ease up on the irrigated acre shutdown requirement even if the project is successful.
“We're always open to ideas,” he said. “But it's going to have to be a really convincing case that we're going to see the benefit in order for us to change the course we're on.”
Shutting down irrigation will benefit the fork’s streamflow in the long-run, Lewis added.
“I can see where he would be a bit hesitant to give you a solid answer on that,” Deb Daniel said. She’s in the Colorado part of the basin, managing the Republican River Water Conservation District. “But I am thrilled to hear he's at least willing to consider it.”
While resources from Kansas for the project would be nice, she said, any kind of assistance would be meaningful. Even if it’s just a letter of support in a grant application.
The hope is Kansas’ answers might change when more details are ironed out, like exactly how much the project will increase flows. But, Daniel admits, they could start digging up the South Fork channel in Colorado and have the negotiations totally not go their way.
“Yeah, it's possible that could happen,” Daniel said. “But the project needs to move forward.”
Out of the full 25,000 acres, 10,000 have to be cut off from irrigation by 2024. The fees to use water and the amount of compensation farmers get for every acre they stop irrigating have both risen. Between that and the fact that water levels in many irrigation wells have been dropping, confidence in getting all 10,000 acres willingly shut down by the 2024 deadline is high among the people KUNC spoke to.
“You look at the ground we farm that has good water and what it's worth versus the ground that we farm that doesn't have very good water and, obviously, we've paid for that,” Yuma County farmer Nathan Weathers said when asked about the water use fees that were more than doubled by the River Conservation District board last November. “It's just frustrating when I've got to pay for somebody else.”
“Willingly” is a key word here. There is less confidence in getting farmers to willingly shut off the remaining 15,000 acres by 2029. After the first 10,000 acres, irrigated farms will have less competition for their crops, boosting their value. And those farms’ wells will last longer because they aren’t sharing as much groundwater with their neighbors.
While Weathers feels the conservation district board’s decision to raise water use fees is somewhat unfair to farmers who aren’t near the South Fork and still have plenty of water, he does “not envy” the decisions those board members have to make.
“I respect all the people on the Republican River board,” he said. “My dad was on there for 10 years and I was riding in the pickup with him when he'd get some phone calls from some producers.”
“Everyone has a different opinion, depending on where they're located,” district manager Deb Daniel said. For example, she notes that farmers whose wells have lower water levels are frustrated that they have to pay the same amount to pump less than others. “But it's a reality that we've got to face.”
A 2021 letter from the state engineer's office to Daniel provides a possible worst case scenario if that deadline approaches and not enough wells are willingly shut down around the South Fork.
Say, for example, it's late 2028 and just 23,000 irrigated acres have been shut down. In the letter, state engineer Kevin Rein wrote that the state “does not have a legal basis, nor… a hydrogeologic justification” to pick 2,000 acres to make up the difference. The state also couldn't just shut down the irrigation on farms surrounding the South Fork.
“Therefore, should Colorado be out of compliance with the compact and curtailment becomes the only option,” Rein wrote, “Colorado has no basis for curtailment that does not include all wells within the Republican River Basin Model Domain.”
In an email to KUNC, Chris Arend, spokesperson for the state engineer’s office, confirmed "the state engineer would likely be faced with curtailing all wells across the basin to address Colorado being out of compliance."
Barring any major shifts in the situation (like Kansas being willing to work out an alternative or the state engineer’s legal and hydrologic rules changing), all of the basin's hundreds of thousands of irrigated acres — from the northern corner of the state to the middle in Kit Carson County — could have to be shut down without any compensation.
Otherwise, the river’s other two states can drag Colorado into court and try to make it, and ultimately taxpayers, pay for falling out of compact compliance. And a sudden basin-wide well shutdown may still not be enough to get Colorado in compliance right away, meaning Kansas and Nebraska could still seek monetary damages.
“I think it's a difficult task to produce a certain identifiable amount of water (flowing through the South Fork) and equate that to a hard and fast acreage reduction,” Rein said of the project to restore the fork. “Not saying it can't be done.”
That’s why anything that can help Colorado’s compliance, like boosting South Fork flows, is worth pursuing, Daniel said.
This multi-million dollar project could start as soon as the local coalition secures the funding. Colorado’s latest proposed state budget would allocate $15 million to the Republican and Rio Grande River basins. It’s still not clear how those funds will be split between the two basins if approved by the legislature, but some of that may go toward this project.
A separate bill is in consideration at the legislature this year to boost funds even further.
Also, Congress allocated $8 billion to Western water in the infrastructure bill passed last November. That money will get split among water projects in a lot of rivers and other water features in several states, so locals will have to convince federal officials that the Republican River’s South Fork project is worth a piece of that pie.
This story was produced as part of the America Amplifiedinitiative 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.