Sterling

Luke Runyon / KUNC and Harvest Public Media

Brandon Biesemeier climbs up a small ladder into a John Deere sprayer, takes a seat in the enclosed cab, closes the door, and blocks out most of the machine’s loud engine hum. It is a familiar perch to the fourth-generation farmer on Colorado’s eastern plains.

He turns onto a country road, heading south to spray an herbicide on his cornfields, an early growing season task his genetically engineered crops demand if he is to unlock their value. In the cab, a computer screen shows a little pixelated tractor moving across digital fields, logging his work.

Luke Runyon / KUNC/Harvest Public Media

A doctor handed Melissa Morris her first opioid prescription when she was 20 years-old. She had a cesarean section to deliver her daughter, and to relieve post-surgical pain her doctor sent her home with Percocet. On an empty stomach, she took one pill and laid down on her bed.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god. Is this legal? How can this feel so good?’” Morris recalls.

She was hooked. From there she started taking the pills recreationally, shopping around for doctors who would write new prescriptions, frequenting urgent care clinics where doctors didn’t ask a lot of questions and were loose with their prescription pad.

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.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

As you follow the South Platte River out of Denver, you travel north and east. Warehouses and meat packing plants along the river banks give way to crops.

Agriculture is productive out here. It also uses a lot of water. That’s led to calls for farmers to become more efficient. This is happening, but it doesn’t always mean there’s more water to go around. In fact, it may mean there’s actually less.

Maeve Conran / KGNU

Coloradoans pride themselves on the quality of their drinking water, most of which originates high up in the Rocky Mountains. On the Eastern Plains though, many communities have water that not only tastes bad, it's out of compliance with federal drinking water standards.

At the J and L Cafe in downtown Sterling you'll find diners sipping glasses of tap water as they enjoy lunch. Just a year ago, that wasn't the case.

"You couldn't hardly drink it," said diner Kathy Orchid, she never used to drink the tap water. "It's much better [now]."

Grace Hood / KUNC

Hotel construction across the U.S. has been on a tear in 2014. The number of rooms being built is up almost 50 percent compared to the previous year. In Colorado, the demand is partially fueled by the oil and gas boom along the state's eastern plains. But if history is any guide a bust usually follows a boom.

So how long can the building go on? What are developers doing to prepare for that change?

Grace Hood

An estimated 1,300 people will flood into the northeastern plains towns of Wiggins, Fort Morgan and Sterling for the Third Annual Pedal The Plains cycling event. Cyclists are expected to spend Friday night in Fort Morgan and Saturday in Sterling.

There's one logistical hurdle though: Hotel rooms are tight.

Grace Hood / KUNC

Restoring any one-of-a-kind historical artifact has its own unique set of challenges. So it's hard to imagine the monumental task Sterling's Overland Trail Museum faced when the swollen South Platte River caused $1 million in damage in the 2013 flood.

"The water came a little different direction than we anticipated," explained Museum Currator Kay Rich, as she stood outside the main building of the Overland Museum.

Grace Hood / KUNC

Small town, rural life has always fascinated me. I’ve met Coloradans who find the wide, open skies of the plains compelling. There’s something about the feeling you get from just being there, they say.

To get a sense of this region, I decided to drive along the Pawnee Pioneer Trails Scenic Byway.

Out in the empty plains of northeast Colorado two years ago, nine inmates line up against a wall inside the Sterling Correctional Facility. It's a line of green jumpsuits and gray hair.

The men, hobbling on canes, wait for the others to pull plastic chairs into a circle so class can begin. Today's instruction is about what life is like on the outside: how to use an ATM, how to find a job, what the Internet is.

These men have been in prison for two, three or four decades. These are things none of them know.