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Out on the Eastern Plains

Cattle staver 012web
Photo by Matthew Staver

By Joshua Zaffos

Eastern Colorado appears on maps and in people’s minds as an open and featureless space. But amid the seemingly flat, monotonous terrain, travelers can find badlands and buttes, canyons and lakes, wagon trails and ghost towns. The region rises from east to west as the edge of the continent’s Great Plains reaches the foothills of the Rockies. The high plains soil, washed from the rising mountains millions of years ago, is a mix of sand, gravel and clay that forms a loosely compacted and well-drained layer of earth, vulnerable to erosion but fertile for crops and favorable for replenishing groundwater and rivers.

The South Platte flows through the plains’ northern reaches, the Arkansas through the south, and the massive Ogallala Aquifer provides groundwater for some landowners in between. Average rainfall is ten to 20 inches a year, but extreme highs and, especially, lows occur regularly. The summers are hot, the winters are cold, and thunderstorms, tornadoes, dust storms, blizzards, floods and drought are expected.

Jim Yahn says the plains and the ranching life is “in my blood,” as way of confession for his decision to ditch a well-paying engineering job in Fort Collins and move back home to Logan County with his wife, Tracy, a few years after he finished college. Now they raise hay on 90 acres and run 110 head of cattle on an additional 2,000 acres of pastureland near Iliff, population 213, not far from the Nebraska border. When Jim isn’t on the ranch, he manages the North Sterling Irrigation District, overseeing North Sterling Reservoir, which supports 41,000 acres of irrigated farmland, and Prewitt Reservoir, a supplemental water supply for an additional 30,000 acres.

North Sterling and other projects are essential to many farmers along the lower South Platte and the northern plains, which are among the most productive agricultural lands in the nation. But regional farmers also share a river with metro Denver and growing Front Range towns that have bought up agricultural water rights and converted the supply for municipal use. The process, known as “buy and dry,” has shut down water-deprived farms and ranches, exacerbating pressures on rural landowners in the South Platte as well as the more southern Arkansas River Basin.

Meanwhile, the Ogallala Aquifer, once the wellspring of much of the Eastern Plains, faces an uncertain future. Decades of over-pumping have shrunk its reserves, and comprehensive measures to slow its decline have yet to be implemented on any meaningful scale.

As the pressures of water shortage and economic challenges mount amid a decade-long drought, many plains communities are being forced to chart new courses. As they seek new ways to use and conserve water, they’re aiming not only to sustain a viable economy but also to preserve the region’s agricultural and cultural heritage

The Northeast

In northeastern Colorado, agriculture—and economic development—has been closely tied to a few key crops. For much of the last century, a majority of the region’s irrigation produced sugar beets. In the early 1900s, the Great Western Sugar Company began opening processing plants in Loveland, Greeley, Sterling, Fort Morgan, Brush and elsewhere, and the South Platte Valley became the country’s sugar beet factory. Production covered more than 1 million acres by the 1950s, pacing communities’ growth and boosted by irrigation water spirited through transmountain diversions managed by private irrigation companies as well as the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

Advances in farm equipment technology and market changes, including the expansion of corn crops and corn syrup as a sweetener, led to sugar beets’ decline in the following decades. Sterling compensated for the loss, at least in part, by opening feedlots, dairies and, many years later, a state correctional facility, but the small factory town of Ovid, population 330, in Sedgwick County has never recovered economically. A similar fate struck Sugar City in the southern plains in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when its sugar beet factory closed and water rights were sold to distant municipalities. In 2002, more than 1,000 growers from Colorado and neighboring states acquired Great Western to run it as a cooperative. Sugar beets continue to be grown in a handful of South Platte Basin counties, but comprise less than
10 percent of regional crop sales.

Now, corn and hay account for roughly 60 percent of crop sales along the South Platte. Mechanized farm machinery, center-pivot sprinklers and efficiency improvements have increased yields for those crops, which mostly feed cattle in regional dairies or midwestern feedlots. The improved production means farmers can grow more with less, Yahn says, but they also face steeper up-front costs for equipment and fertilizers. Those combined factors have contributed to the consolidation of parcels into larger farms run by fewer families. 

South Platte irrigators have faced other challenges. A 2003 state supreme court ruling, which came on the heels of the drought that struck in 2002, threatened to shut down 3,000 groundwater wells that had been operating under temporary substitute water supply plans. The plans, in place under approval of the State Engineer, provided temporary replacement water to offset groundwater pumping’s impact on flows destined for the river and downstream surface water-rights holders. But the 2003 case affirmed that an earlier ruling from the Arkansas Basin, the 2001 Empire Lodge case, also applied in the South Platte Basin, negating the State Engineer’s authority to issue such permits. “The court case, along with the drought, brought to light that the wells weren’t replacing enough water,” Yahn says. Such replacement is a mandated practice known as augmentation. Going forward, the well users would need to apply to water court for permanent augmentation plans—a process the state legislature gave them until 2006 to initiate.

“In our area, the well owners stepped up and went to water court and got a decree, and did a lot of work and spent their money to make sure they’re replacing what their wells are pumping,” says Yahn. He says the changes restored flows to the river and in ditches around Sterling, and irrigators have adapted to more closely monitoring their use. But when 2006 came, close to 1,000 wells elsewhere along the South Platte, whose irrigators were unable to augment their water use, were shut down, leading some to sell off their farms. Today, according to Division 1 Engineer David Nettles, around 6,500 wells continue to operate along the South Platte, with some pumping only a portion of what they once did.

In response, farmers, cities and others are pursuing innovative management to further maximize efficiency and enable water sharing between agriculture, industries and municipalities. But others are holding out for a return to the old ways. Since pumping has been curtailed, high groundwater levels have flooded basements in Gilcrest, Sterling and other areas, leading some well users to ask state officials to allow them to return to pumping. That hasn’t happened, and augmentation plans remain intact while policymakers continue to devise new approaches and tools.

Meanwhile, drought patterns continue to dictate life on the plains. “It’s a historical thing that’s been happening for 100 years,” says Yahn, adding that 2014’s favorable conditions elevated crop yields. “We have the rises and falls of water availability, and farmers have learned to make do with whatever they receive.”

The Central High Plains

Eighty miles east of Colorado Springs, Lincoln County’s tiny town of Karval has lost its café and there are rumors the post office may finally close. Jeff Thornton and his wife, Tammy, whose family was among the area’s earliest homesteaders, raise crops and cattle near Karval, 60 miles north of the Arkansas River. Like landowners to the north, the farmers and ranchers of the central high plains are making do when it comes to water.

The Thorntons are dryland farmers, raising wheat, milo, corn and millet without irrigation. The family’s 450 cattle forage across thousands of acres. The drought has parched the high plains of central Colorado more severely than the northeast, decimating dryland cattle herds and forcing farms to cut back on labor, although the 2014 summer was a relatively wet one here, too. “If it rains, we’re pretty productive,” Thornton says. If it doesn’t, the family relies on crop insurance in lean years.

Many dryland farmers and ranchers faced with similar circumstances have sold their land or enrolled acreage in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 1986 the program has contracted landowners to plant native grasses on their fields to provide permanent vegetative cover, bringing relief and opportunity to some struggling families while also contributing to sharp declines in dryland agriculture in Lincoln, Kiowa, Bent and other counties. Across the 24 Colorado plains region counties, 8.7 percent of all farmland or nearly 2 million acres was enrolled in CREP in 2013, down from 2.3 million in 2008, the program’s biggest year.

Locals are also contending with efforts to protect the mountain plover, a bird that uses the mix of local shortgrass prairie and fallow farm fields as prime nesting habitat and has been considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Listing could limit landowners’ farming practices and patterns in order to benefit the birds. Thornton and his neighbors hope to avoid such constraints, which could make it harder for them to make a living.

The focus on plover conservation, however, has provided a different form of economic benefit by bringing local tourism and research opportunities to Lincoln County. Scientists using ranches as study areas to monitor the birds’ recovery sometimes pay landowners for a place to stay. And locals started an annual Mountain Plover Festival that attracts birdwatchers during the spring nesting season to participate in wildlife viewing tours, dinners, and even homestays at local farms and ranches.

The Southeast

In the state’s southern plains, cattle feedlots and irrigated and dryland farming historically dominated the regional economy. But correctional facilities have replaced agriculture as major employers and revenue sources. In Crowley County, 50,000 acres of irrigated farmland have moved out of production and feedlots have closed due to consolidation and regulatory and market pressures. In Bent County, agriculture has remained a little more stable, but the state prison at historic Fort Lyon—a former military post, sanitarium and veterans’ hospital—shuttered in 2011 because of budget constraints, eliminating more than 500 local jobs.

For an area that’s already depressed, the closure has been devastating, says Bill Long, a lifelong resident of Bent County, who has witnessed farms and ranches vanish and consolidate, child-poverty rates skyrocket, and towns dwindle. As chairman of the Bent County Commissioners and president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Long has worked to find a new purpose for Fort Lyon and also to protect the agricultural legacy of the region. “It’s very difficult to attract manufacturing and what-not to rural areas, such as ours, but it still comes back to the drought,” says Long. “If we don’t have water, we don’t have much.”

In November 2013, after months of work by the county commissioners and the Bent County Development Foundation, Fort Lyon became Colorado’s first state-funded homeless shelter. The facility, run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, has gradually expanded its services, and its employed workforce is up to 50 positions. Bent County has also benefited from the 75-megawatt Twin Buttes Wind Power Project near Lamar, which generates $291,000 in annual property taxes and royalties for landowners. Elsewhere in the Eastern Plains region, the 430-megawatt Peetz Table Wind Energy Center in Logan County, the 550-megawatt Cedar Creek Wind Farm near Grover in Weld County, and others like them also provide needed revenue to rural areas.

Addressing water challenges has proven even more arduous. An interstate compact with Kansas constrains use on the Arkansas River and has led to rules that require well users who tap river-connected groundwater to “augment” their use, as on the South Platte. Drought conditions in 2013 meant there wasn’t enough augmentation water to go around, leaving many irrigators high and dry. According to the Arkansas Basin Roundtable’s draft basin implementation plan, soon to be part of Colorado’s Water Plan, augmentation water in the Arkansas River system is currently 30,000 to 50,000 acre-feet short of what is needed, meaning local water users are already
severely strapped. And cities such as Aurora, far outside the river basin, have relied on buy-and-dry strategies to acquire municipal water and could contribute to regional economic losses if they ever pipe additional flows out of the region.

Raised by a fourth-generation farming family in the plains community of Manzanola, 20 miles west of La Junta, state Sen. Larry Crowder witnessed the dry-up of Crowley County in the late 1960s when the National Sugar Manufacturing Company closed and sold its water; shortly after those rights were acquired by cities to the north and west. “It affected all the counties surrounding it,” he says. Now Crowder represents 16 counties encompassing one-quarter of the state, ten of which are in the southeastern plains, and, though critical of a pending local effort to temporarily transfer water between agriculture and cities without permanently drying up farmland,  called the Super Ditch(see sidebar in the flipbook), he believes agricultural and urban users need to work together toward a shared future. “Conservation is huge, not only for urban but for rural, too,” he says. “We also need to realize that we do need each other. We need urban to buy our products and we need agriculture to furnish our products.”

Crowder is most concerned about variable climate conditions like snowpack, which dictates runoff and surface water availability, or the drought that took hold in 2008, emptying the plains of most of its cattle. Rebuilding herds will take time, and while the summer’s plentiful moisture brought relief to the parched landscape, it’s uncertain how long it will take for the land to fully recover. “This summer was as green and pretty as you’ve ever seen it. It really picks up the spirits,” says Crowder. But weeds still dominate in the dry soils. “When you’re driving across the prairie and the wind is blowing, and you see ten or twenty thousand tumbleweeds, it’s almost hypnotic,” he says, and then, referencing the region’s struggles, adds, “It’s almost poetic.”

The Way Southeast

In the far southeastern corner of the state, counties and landowners looking for new revenues haven’t met with much success. A group of 30 landowners in Baca County have banded together to market the local windpower potential, says Fred Hefley, whose family raises irrigated corn and crops near Walsh, population 546, but the lack of transmission lines has deterred progress. (It’s one of several infrastructure issues Sen. Crowder says he’s working on.)

The Hefleys and others in Baca and Prowers counties rely on groundwater, drawing from several aquifers managed as a single system under the Southern High Plains district by the state Ground Water Commission. That includes the shallow yet enormous Ogallala Aquifer, which spreads beneath eight states and provides water for about 20 percent of the country’s corn, cotton, cattle and wheat. But decades of overuse hint at an end for the region’s irrigated agriculture.

Hefley says improved irrigation and no- and low-till practices have helped conserve soil and water and maintain crop yields, but local well levels are still dropping two to three feet a year. Scientists say farming above the aquifer may start to decline by 2040 unless major changes occur. As wells run dry, farms in Baca County are sold off, but Hefley says he sees more young farmers returning to the area, including one of his sons. The adversity—including the lack of political weight among rural towns—binds locals together, the Hefleys say. “The southeastern corner, and even each county, has a strong identity,” says Kay Lynn Hefley, Fred’s wife. “Baca County is very rural, and we tend to stick together over issues.” A recent example is the regional opposition that has fended off the expansion of the Army’s Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site in Las Animas County.

Next Evolutions

Despite so much in flux along the Eastern Plains, the Hefleys and many others don’t sound fazed. They are used to the ups and downs, they know how to adapt and persist, and many landowners say their rural lifestyles and practices haven’t changed much from generations past.

Of course, plenty of environmental and economic changes are still unfolding that will alter these communities. The expansion of rural broadband and high-speed Internet will help areas still lacking such tech amenities and attract new businesses as well as new—and former—residents. Community members across the plains also see opportunities in heritage tourism, accommodating visitors to Bent’s Old Fort, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Comanche National Grassland, and the Santa Fe Trail in the south, the Pawnee Buttes, Pawnee National Grassland, and Overland Trail in the north, and the dozens of ghost towns scattered all across the plains.

Some ghost towns, like Karval, are still inhabited—by people who are as rooted in the landscape as the short and tall grasses. “It’s been some pretty tough years,” says Thornton, “but the families here are pretty tough people.”

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