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Environment
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.

‘A short time to accomplish so much’: Republican River board contemplates fee changes, inactive well contracts and state funds

A map of the Republican River basin.
Bureau of Reclamation
/
U.S. Department of the Interior
The Republican River basin. The North Fork, South Fork and Arikaree all flow through Yuma County before crossing state lines.

The district board also voted to continue sponsoring the Colorado Agriculture in the Classroom program and received updates about the Colorado Compliance Pipeline on the river’s North Fork.

In April, the Republican River Water Conservation District Board put out notice of possible changes to water use fees for irrigating crops. At the board’s quarterly meeting Tuesday, however, members did not decide on whether a fee-structure change process will occur.

“Some of the (board’s fee evaluation) committee members are really wanting to push this and get it through as soon as possible,” said district manager Deb Daniel in an interview after the meeting. “But it became understood when (fee committee members) were talking with some of the different board members that, ‘Hey, wait a minute, we're going to have to do some more work here to make sure that we get this right.’”

The district’s water fees are used to fund its operations and pay farmers who enter into conservation contracts to stop using the basin’s dwindling water supply for irrigation, particularly around the Republican River’s near-dry South Fork in southeastern Yuma and northern Kit Carson counties.

Per the terms of a legal agreement with Kansas and Nebraska, 10,000 acres of irrigated farmland must be shut down in that area by 2024. Another 15,000 must stop irrigating by 2029. Just over 3,000 acres have been shuttered as of May 19.

If that goal isn’t met, the basin and state could face severe ecological, legal and financial consequences, including the possibility that all irrigation across Northeast Colorado could be forcibly shut down.

The fee is double what it was last year because the board needed to offer more money to farmers in the “South Fork Focus Zone.” While many basin residents agree water use fees are needed, there’s debate over how fair the current $30 per acre fee is. The board’s 17 members are split on this issue themselves.

“Right now, we have a short time to accomplish so much,” board president Rod Lenz said as Tuesday’s meeting began. “We need to be careful how we communicate with the residents of the basin. We want a consistent and transparent message. These next 18 to 24 months are critical as we tackle the South Fork Focus Zone.”

Discussion has primarily focused on whether fees should remain on a per-acre basis as they are now, or become based on the amount of water a farm actually uses. In its April 7 public notice, the board floated the possibility of a structure that combines both.

“So the (fee committee) has a lot of work yet to do in front of them,” Daniel said, adding they've already done a lot this year, but have struggled to meet amid the busy spring planting season. “To get it approved through the board, I'm telling that committee and so is my board chairman, you have to come up with a fee valuation that everybody can understand and can stand on as the right thing for our basin.”

The public notice was not saying that board members were definitely going to change the fee structure or that they had a preferred method of doing so.

The resolution primarily aimed to let farmers know that their 2022 water usage could be used to calculate next year’s fees if the board ends up deciding to switch to a full or partial charge-per-acre-foot structure, Daniel said.

If the committee ends up finding a structure that gets initial approval from the board, they would begin a process of educating residents about the changes being considered and go on a public tour of the basin to get input from the people who’d be affected by their decision.

“And then after it's gone through that whole process, then the board would have a hearing on it. And that would of course be public knowledge and publicized throughout the basin,” Daniel said. “There would be another chance for the public to comment on it and then the board would vote.”

Closing a loophole

Some farms’ wells were already inactive in 2016 when Colorado entered into the agreement with Kansas and Nebraska to shut down 25,000 irrigated acres around the South Fork.

Deb Daniel told KUNC that since the district began offering more money to farmers who choose to stop pumping and switch to dryland farming, some inactive well owners have seen an opportunity to make money by reactivating their wells and asking for payment to shut them down again.

“I've talked to a couple of different well owners that were talking about doing this. And it's been a concern of mine for quite some time,” she said, adding the district and the state lack the ability to prevent well reactivation. “If we had someone who I could see was gaming the system and there wasn't anything I could do about it because of the rules, the way we had them set up.”

During Tuesday’s board meeting, members voted to not give the district’s money to farmers who try to enter into a conservation contract with a well that was already inactive in 2016.

This specifically applies to contracts under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which is run by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. The district supplements the money already offered by NRCS through these contracts.

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.

“We can't keep them from getting an NRCS contract,” she said. “But that doesn't mean that the Republican River district is going to pay public funds toward someone that's trying to game the system that way.”

The new rule doesn’t apply to Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) contracts primarily because the program already only accepts acres actively irrigated for at least four of the past six years.

Daniel said it would also not apply to wells reported inactive in 2016 due to temporary malfunction or similar causes.

Other topics addressed at Tuesday’s board meeting included:

  • Board members decided against setting an irrigation rate requirement for new EQIP contracts for now, but will require anyone entering into such a contract to stop irrigating by Dec. 1 of the year they sign on. Previously, farmers had a full year to stop after they signed a contract.
  • The board also discussed Senate Bill 28, which recently passed and is awaiting the governor’s signature. Landon Gates, the district’s state lobbyist, told the board the bill allocated $60 million to groundwater compact compliance which would likely be split evenly between the Republican and Rio Grande river basins. He noted that the state could take up to $20 million back if it is not spent by the district by 2026.
  • The district board also voted to continue sponsoring the Colorado Agriculture in the Classroom program and received updates about the Colorado Compliance Pipeline on the river’s North Fork. 

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.

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