Colorado's Rapid Urban Growth Is Encroaching On Weld County's Ag Roots

Aug 11, 2015

An additional 2 ½ million people are expected to move to Colorado by 2040, the vast majority of them which are headed for the Front Range. As the population grows and cities expand, one thing will shrink: the acres devoted to agriculture and farming that surround the urban areas.

Weld County is the epicenter of urban growth and changing land use in Colorado. One of the fastest growing counties in the nation, its population grew by 40 percent since 2000 and it's projected to double in the next 25 years. At the same time, 75 percent of its 2.5 million acres is devoted to agriculture as Colorado's leading producer of sugar beet, grain, and beef cattle.

The traffic on I-25, north of Denver, is the soundtrack to the changes that farmer Kent Peppler has seen happening in Weld County - and the once sleepy little town of Mead.

"We have a culvert that goes underneath I-25 that brings water to this farm actually and there's a screen on the other side. When I was in high school I used park in the barpit and run across I-25 and clean that screen out. Nobody's fast enough to do that now, there's so much traffic."

The dichotomy of urban growth and increasingly valuable agricultural land and water, has led many farmers in Weld to sell both resources. Kent Peppler, president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, said he's seen this happen time after time.

"Money rules and some of this water is awfully valuable," he said.

Weld County is working hard to preserve its agricultural roots. Its county code has a specific Right to Farm Statement. Farmers, water managers, land planners and policy makers are looking for alternatives to the traditional buy and dry process, where cities buy ag water rights shifting them to municipal use. Some cities are buying land and water then leasing them back to farmers. Some say that just delays the inevitable.

"That land can stay in production for a certain number of years, but eventually, the City of Greeley for instance, will need that water," said MaryLou Smith of The Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "That's when the land will be dried up."

"Money rules and some of this water is awfully valuable."

  The Colorado Water Institute has been working with the Keystone Institute to get land planners and water managers together and throughout Colorado some solutions are emerging. In the Arkansas Valley some farmers practice rotational fallowing, so they can lease, but not sell, water not being used. But a bill that would have allowed other types of temporary transfers of irrigation water failed in the state Legislature. Smith said solutions to water problems can look good on paper, but it's hard to get everyone on the same page.

"The devil is in the details," she points out. "So even those who are trying to develop ag and urban water sharing don't necessarily agree on the way to do it."

Smith sees solutions to our water problems coming with the next generation in agriculture who are moving away from the win-lose paradigm so prevalent in water discussions.

"It may take a new generation. It may take some of us my age dying off before we finally catch on that we can figure this out and we can incorporate all of these values. I really believe it."

Back at the Peppler farm in southern Weld County, one of the next generations of farmers is already waiting in the wings.

Tyson Peppler is set to be the fifth generation farming this land. An Agricultural Economics major at Colorado State University, he's already born witness to how development has encroached on farm lands.

"As long as I can remember people have been selling their farms... As long as I can remember - I'm 19... but... yeah, it's just how it's been going, you sell your land... it is a little concerning," Tyson Peppler admits.

This is something the young farmer and the next generation of farmers will have to deal with and it's happening faster than his father Kent Peppler could have predicted.

"I really didn't think it would be my generation that has to deal with development," the elder Peppler said as he surveys the housing developments that now dot the landscape surrounding his farm. "We all knew it was coming, but I didn't think it would be in my lifetime and here we are in the middle of it."

Kent Peppler said he gets regular offers to sell his water rights to developers.

"Oh yeah, I'm tempted every day, especially when things don't go well round here."

But Tyson Peppler says said he's ready to take on the challenge – and he says, there's no way he's selling the water, "not while I'm still around."

This story comes from ‘Connecting the Drops’ - a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more at cfwe.org.