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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.

Republican River conservation board hashes out funding for efforts to save irrigated farming in Northeast Colorado

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Adam Rayes
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KUNC
In groundwater district manager Nate Midcaps' office, giant maps line the walls. These three depict "where the water is sitting underneath the ground." he said. "So imagine it like a lake. The deepest part would be the yellow." The first map, labeled “1975,” has a large yellow splotch. That splotch shrinks on the next map, for the year 2000. On the map forecasting, 2028 the splotch has shrunk even more. Areas of deep purple have the least groundwater.

Read KUNC's previous Republican River basin coverage here.

Ten thousand acres of irrigated farmland must stop irrigating around the Republican River’s drying South Fork in Eastern Colorado by 2024. Another 15,000 must stop irrigating by 2029. Despite officials offering money to farmers in exchange for their willing participation, only about a third of the first 10,000 acre goal has been reached as of Feb. 16 this year.

Animated GIF of a groundwater modeling map. The yellow in northeast Yuma County is the deepest part, and the model shows that part shrinking between 1975 and 2000. It's predicted to get even smaller by 2028.
GIF and images of model posters by Adam Rayes/KUNC. Model by Republican River Compact Administration. County map by GISGeography.com
These groundwater models were created by the Republican River Compact Administration to show how much water is left underground. The yellow splotch extending from the state's eastern border represents the deepest part. Much of the groundwater is being used up over time and not being replenished, reducing river flows and halting agricultural irrigation in many areas.

Last November, the 17-member Republican River Water Conservation District board more than doubled the annual fee farmers pay per irrigated acre. That increase allowed the board to also increase the amount offered to those who chose to stop irrigating. Interest in the program has since gone up, but some feel the fee is unfair.

“I'm getting concerned about us because we have so many people that are interested in that program,” district manager Deb Daniel told the board during their quarterly meeting on Tuesday. “We're going to need $65 million, and right now, I'm thinking that might be a little low, to get these acres all retired.”

If the board can’t successfully retire 25,000 acres by those deadlines, Colorado could have to shut down all irrigation in the basin because of a legal agreement with Kansas and Nebraska. In 2017, the six Colorado counties relying most on the Republican River basin brought almost $2 billion in agriculture sales — just under a third of the state’s total $7.5 billion production value. 

“Everyone has a different opinion, depending on where they're located,” Daniel said in a January interview.

For example, she said, farmers whose wells have lower water levels are frustrated that they have to pay the same amount to pump less than others. And those with more water feel it’s unfair to pay extra to support farms with less in a different part of the basin.

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.

The board formed a committee to begin considering alternatives. On Tuesday, that committee suggested changing the fee structure to be based on the amount of water actually pumped by each farmer, the financial benefit they get from water use or a similar metric instead of the current flat fee per irrigated acre.

Such a change would require public input and time, so a resolution was proposed to have the board start notifying people that an adjustment is being considered.

Don Brown, a Yuma County farmer, former state Commissioner of Agriculture and the board's newest member expressed concern that making such a change so soon after the previous fee increase could make the board seem flighty.

“The singular focus in my mind, at this time, should be retiring acres in the South Fork rather than distracting the public with fee issues which they thought we had resolved,” Brown said. “I don't question the discussion or the need for discussions, but the need for resolution at this early stage where we really don't know where we're going is going to just stimulate discourse and discussion that might distract us from our goal. It doesn't matter what the fees are if we don't get the South Fork (acres) retired. It'll be a moot point.”

An older man closes a gate to a fence surrounding the machinery of a well.
Adam Rayes
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KUNC
This well replaced one of the first that Don Brown's father drilled decades ago.

“($65 million is) the number right now. That's what we need to fund our programs right now,” said director Aaron Sprague. “And so I know everybody jumps right away to what's that number that we charge (to irrigate), right? But the real number we need to be talking about … is, ‘Hey, we need 65 million more dollars and we're going to do that by increasing our budgets (to) $15 million a year to be able to fund those programs.’”

Ultimately, the board decided to put the fee issue aside until a special meeting in March. Members seemed to agree that any notice to the public about the board considering changes to fees would likely not be a resolution, but a proclamation or “letter to the editor” in local newspapers, as a resolution could look more “like legislation” than intended.

Fees are not the only way the board hopes to fund programs to retire the full 25,000 acres. Colorado’s latest proposed state budget would allocate $15 million to the Republican and Rio Grande River basins. A new bill, SB22-028, aiming to boost funding even further by creating a special fund passed its first two senate readings this week with no objections.

The Republican River district’s state lobbyist, Landon Gates, told the board he didn’t anticipate any no votes on the bill. Though, he added, creating a fund is “the easy part of this ask. The hard part is going to be convincing the legislature to appropriate the amount of money that we're asking for.”

He told the board that showing a connection between the river district’s work and state land revenue might “help bolster” their standing in the legislature’s upcoming budget debates.

Plus, the programs used to retire these acres are not just locally funded. Federal funds are the programs’ basis. Representatives from the Eastern Plains offices of U.S. Rep. Ken Buck and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper told the board they were negotiating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the retirement rates and “feel confident that we can come back with maybe some good news or what might possibly be able to help that.” The board is also working to hire a federal lobbyist.

Corrected: March 8, 2022 at 8:26 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.
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