South Platte

Luke Runyon / KUNC

An old water cliché tells us that “water flows uphill toward money.” It’s an adage born out of people’s frustrations about who benefits when water moves around in the Western U.S., popularized by author Marc Reisner’s 1986 book, “Cadillac Desert.”

Like all persistent folksy sayings, it’s a mix of myth and truth.

But there’s at least one case where it has some validity: the phenomenon known as “buy and dry” along Colorado’s fast-growing, historically agricultural Front Range.

Cassandra Turner / Creative Commons

The price of water within northern Colorado’s largest reservoir system is the highest it’s ever been.

Units of water within the Colorado-Big Thompson (CBT) project have sold for $30,000 and higher in 2018, a new benchmark for the water supply project that began operations in 1957.

“We’ve roughly doubled in the last five years in terms of that cost,” says Brian Werner, a spokesman for Northern Water, which oversees the CBT project. “It’s the development going on; it’s the competition for water supply.”

Luke Runyon / KUNC

Stories of Western groundwater wells going dry started bubbling up during a multi-year drought that began in 2012. Farmers and rural communities throughout the Rocky Mountains and central California owned wells no longer deep enough to tap into underground water supplies.

But those anecdotal stories didn’t have data to back them up. Now they do.

Fred Knapp / Harvest Public Media

A proposal that would jumpstart the chicken business in Nebraska has some residents concerned about the potential impact on the environment and are trying to block or delay its construction.

Costco, the warehouse retailer and grocery chain, plans to build a giant $300 million chicken slaughterhouse on the south side of the town of Fremont in eastern Nebraska.

To make sure the plant is humming year-round, Costco wants new farms around Fremont to raise 17 million chickens every year. As of the 2012 Census of Agriculture, there were less than 1 million broilers - chickens raised for meat - in the whole state.

Brian Seifferlein / Harvest Public Media

Living in the Platte River Valley in central Nebraska means understanding that the water in your well may contain high levels of nitrates and may not be safe to drink.

“When our first son was born in 1980, we actually put a distiller in for our drinking water here in the house,” says Ken Seim, who lives in the Platte Valley near the town of Chapman, Nebraska. “And at that time our water level was a 12 parts per million.”

Nitrates are formed when nitrogen, from the air or fertilizer, is converted by bacteria in the soil to a form that is more plant-friendly. Nitrates help plants grow, but can be dangerous in large amounts. The legal limit in public water systems is 10ppm. Some nearby wells, Seim says, contain nitrates at dangerous levels, two or three times the legal threshold.

How Are Nitrates Ending Up In Drinking Water Supplies?

Sep 19, 2016
Luke Runyon / KUNC/Harvest Public Media

Contaminated drinking water isn’t just a problem for Flint, Michigan. Many towns and cities across the Midwest and Great Plains face pollution seeping into their water supplies. A big part of the problem: farming and ranching.

Farmers spread nitrogen- and phosphorous-based fertilizers on their fields to help their crops grow. Excess nutrients, though, can leach into groundwater or seep into rivers, creeks, canals or ditches that eventually feed into the Mississippi River. In high concentrations, these chemical compounds damage aquatic life and burden small towns that have to remove them from their water supply.

Colorado's Wet Spring Brought Downriver Changes For The Platte

Oct 14, 2015
Peter Stegen / Platte Basin Timelapse

Wet spring and summer rains soaked much of the High Plains in 2015. The Platte River, which runs through Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska before emptying into the Missouri River, saw historic flooding.

"We were, at the beginning of this year, looking at a really large project this fall as far as clearing bars in the river," said Andrew Pierson, the conservation director at Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, Nebraska. "The high flow that we had, both volume and duration of flows, did 80 percent of that work for us."

Like other conservation groups on the central Platte, Audubon routinely clears vegetation from the river channel to improve habitat for cranes and other species. All the water though scoured tons of vegetation from the river channel. Now, the newly-created swath of flat, bare sandbars and braided river channels will make an ideal wildlife habitat.

Shelley Schlender / RMCR

Colorado's South Platte River basin is a powerhouse for crops and cattle. Massive reservoirs quench the region's thirst, with farm fields generally first in line. Wildlife? It's often last.

A small win-win though is giving waterfowl a little more room at the watering hole. It's a program that creates warm winter ponds for migrating ducks — then gives the water back, in time for summer crops.

Pulling Colorado's State Fish Back From The Brink

Jul 15, 2015
Mariah Lundgren / Platte Basin Timelapse, used w/ permission

Colorado's mountain streams are premier trout fishing destinations, but anglers aren't likely to reel in a greenback cutthroat trout. That's because until a few years ago, Colorado's state fish was on the brink of extinction.

"Last time we pretty much just focused on the pools, there wasn't much sitting in these faster areas," said biologist Josh Nehring as he wades up Bear Creek, a few miles outside Colorado Springs. "But it's just running so high this year."

Nehring is electrofishing: sending a current through the water to attract and stun the fish, making them easier to catch. Nehring hopes to find a few trout here to help establish many more elsewhere.

NoCO Snowpack Boosted While Southern Colorado Still Dry

Apr 21, 2015
ForestWander / Wikimedia Commons

Recent snowstorms have pushed Colorado’s snowpack up to 62 percent of normal. But according to experts, those storms didn’t provide relief to the driest areas in the southern half of the state.

Pages