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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

connectingdropslogo4.1Bringing you the reporting you crave over the radio airways with extras and archives on our website. Visit the audio archives or listen to the latest story on the connection between Colorado's forests, watersheds, and forest fires:

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Water Education Colorado

On the Edge

By Lisa Everitt

Nature bats last on the Eastern Plains

Zebulon Pike and his team of geographers made a careful map in 1806 as they headed west along what they called the Arkansaw River. ‘Here the Mountains are first seen,’ they wrote at the point where the John Martin Reservoir now lies.

‘Not a stick of Timber except a few clumps of Cotton Wood,’ another notation reads. ‘Innumerable Herds of Buffaloes.’

The Eastern Plains of Colorado were born beautiful and desolate. The hand of man made them productive and prosperous. Even with the ebbs and flows of snowpack and rainfall, the water future of the western edge of the plains seems secure. In dry years, Front Range municipalities and water districts have a Plan B— established storage and delivery systems, legal agreements and the financial reserves to buy water.

Farther east, there may not be a Plan B.

Just as a carelessly tossed cigarette can turn acres of grassland into charred earth, one dry summer or a single adverse court judgment can transform the landscape of the plains, for the season or forever. Human improvements already have.

Says Greg Kernohan, a biologist and program manager with Ducks Unlimited: ‘The South Platte is almost never going to overtop its banks, ever again.’ Without periodic flooding, eastern Colorado's 2,500 playa pools wither away, eliminating an important habitat for both migratory and native species.

‘They're an oasis in the desert’ for migrating wildfowl and a host of creatures up and down the food chain, Kernohan says.

Massive John Martin Reservoir, in the southeastern corner of Colorado, stands alone on the prairie. When it fills, as it did in spring 2007, it's a sight to behold. The only state park in the southeast corner of the state, John Martin attracts boaters and families on picnics. Carloads of teenagers from Lamar, Las Animas and La Junta arrive to sunbathe and swim, see and be seen, as they have since the project's completion in 1948.

Warm-water fishing in spring and early summer brings channel catfish, bluegill, drum, crappie, bass, saugeye, walleye and wiper. Wildlife in the state park includes bobcat, rabbits, raccoon, deer and reptiles. Birdwatchers in Bent County have spotted more than 373 species. Bald and golden eagles spend the winter; the protected least tern and piping plover nest on the shore in spring and summer.

But by July, the locals know not to bother—it's a long walk from the John Martin beach to the waterline. Heavy calls from senior rights holders in Kansas can drain thousands of acre feet a week.

It's turned into a mudhole at least once in recent years. In early April 2006, John Martin topped out for the season at about half-capacity, 41,500 acre feet. As summer heated up, it dropped from 21,000 acre feet to 3,480 in the first 18 days of July and was down to dead storage—2,550 acre feet—by mid-August.

The same scenario repeated itself at Jumbo Reservoir near Julesburg. The Colorado Division of Wildlife launched a fish salvage operation. Anglers took their limits in seine nets and orange Home Depot buckets. Prewitt and Jackson reservoirs in northeast Colorado also reached dead storage in 2006, and Nee Noshe near Eads shrunk to less than 500 surface acres.

Water rights under the Arkansas River Compact between Kansas and Colorado have been argued about, fought over and litigated for 50 years. By Winter 2008, a proposed final decree was imminent. Colorado will not owe water to Kansas, but well use has already been restricted and 20,000 acres in the Arkansas Valley dried up after a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court special master ruled that Colorado well pumping unfairly depleted water deliveries to Kansas.

However bad things get between Kansas and Colorado, John Martin Reservoir is unlikely to go the way of Bonny Reservoir, which may dry up completely as the result of interstate disputes over Republican River water (see story page 2). ‘John Martin is mitigation for Kansas,’ says Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District in Rocky Ford. ‘It behooves Kansas to make sure the water stays in John Martin.’

‘What's going to happen if we keep having the weather we've been having since 2002? It could be disastrous,’ Winner says. ‘Since 2002, there hasn't been a lot of room for hope, but water users, farmers and irrigators are joyful right now.’

Water storage levels are good, soil moisture is high and commodity prices have improved so much that instead of bemoaning markets or weather, farmers have started complaining about the taxes they'll owe on their corn and wheat harvests.

Another positive development: ‘The Arkansas Valley Conduit has the most traction right now it's ever had,’ Winner says. Legislation including an appropriation for water projects, including the conduit, was vetoed by President Bush but the Senate overturned it.

‘Every time you see a big water project approved, economic growth will follow,’ he adds. The conduit would deliver fresh water from Pueblo Reservoir directly by pipeline to Lamar, eliminating the waste from Lower Arkansas' reverse osmosis plants, boosting deliveries and improving water quality.

As drought and legal disputes threaten the future of eastern Colorado reservoirs, the number of people pursuing water-based recreation is predicted to grow 50 to 100 percent over the next 20 years, according to the 2005 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan. Those people are staying longer at recreation areas and doing more things. Wildlife viewing has seen the greatest increase in participation of any activity, second only to ‘visiting historic places’ as something tourists and Coloradans like to do on vacation.

Efforts to stabilize and rebuild habitat have come from many corners, including farmers who have placed more than 2.4 million acres under the Conservation Reserve Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The voluntary program provides funds for measures that reduce erosion, improve water quality, clean up impaired sections of streams and create alternate water supplies for livestock so that riparian areas can be replanted with native willow, cottonwood, grasses and legumes.

The Playa Lakes Joint Venture, which includes eastern Colorado, focuses many agencies' attention on critically threatened wetlands in a five-state region. At Huerfano Lake in Pueblo County, Playa Lakes funding secured a 400-acre project area, including 255 acres of lakes and wetlands, fencing out livestock, removing tamarisk and preserving habitat for nesting and migrating birds such as the lesser scaup, American wigeon, avocet and snowy plover.

They support an education and banding station for migratory songbirds in Lamar, and the Lower South Platte Wetland Initiative, which includes 500 acres of wetlands and 1,100 acres of uplands that teem with hundreds of thousands of waterfowl during migration season.

Ducks Unlimited has also played a major role on the Lower South Platte and in the Arkansas Valley, where hundred-year floodplains and warm-water sloughs are threatened by drought, grazing's effect on native vegetation and changing river flows.

‘Nothing's irreplaceable, but it costs a heck of a lot to replace,’ biologist Kernohan notes. ‘We're going to put in $20 million into just the Lower South Platte in the next seven years.’ Ducks Unlimited has been acquiring senior water rights to create waterfowl habitat, including 250 floodable acres in Elliott State Wildlife Area east of Fort Morgan.

‘I think there is a lot of hope out here,’ Kernohan says, adding, ‘On the playas, all you need is rain.’

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