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Headwaters Fall 2014—The Will to Thrive on Colorado's Eastern Plains

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Colorado's High Plains, on the edge of the continent's Great Plains, rises from east to west as the landscape meets the Rockies' foothills. Explore the issues that are vital to this large region, which encompasses more than one-third of our state. Read about struggles to make the Ogallala Aquifer's groundwater last; learn about strides in irrigation efficiency and technology; and understand the biggest threats to drinking water quality and health affecting plains communities. Flip through or download the issue here.


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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

Read more: Out on the Eastern Plains

Can the future of the nation's largest groundwater resource be re-written? 

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Photo by Matthew Staver
For more on the Ogallala and to hear voices from the story, listen to CFWE and Rocky Mountain Community Radio's Connecting the Drops audio coverage. 

By Allen Best

The Ogallala Aquifer underlies 14 percent of Colorado along the state’s eastern border. This is a land without mountains and mostly bereft of snowmelt for irrigation. The climate is stingy to thirsty crops. Annual precipitation averages from 14 to 18 inches and mostly arrives as rain during the hot growing season. Never is it assured. Dryland corn is on the climatic margins, and even wheat is a roll of the dice. Drought is always lurking around the corner. 

Farming at the foot of the Rocky Mountains began almost immediately after the discovery of gold in 1858. On Colorado’s eastern tier, though, giant cattle companies prevailed until the first wave of homesteading farmers arrived in 1886 to plow the soil around Burlington, Yuma and other new towns. Then drought hit. By 1900, Yuma had lost half its residents. It was a boom-and-bust economy joined at the hip to climatic variability. It took grit to survive. 

Mining the Ogallala, which started mid-way through the 20th century, has untethered farming from both weather and climate. Farmers have used this cushion of subterranean “fossil” water, accumulated over several million years, to smooth the raspy edges of this tough country into lush circles of green. Red-brick houses such as you might find in the better urban neighborhoods now are found along graveled county roads. Towns with carefully trimmed lawns possess quiet vigor as centers of culture and commerce.

Just add water, they say. This difference can be found in Baca County, in the state’s southeastern corner. In 1934, when it was at the heart of the Dust Bowl, Walsh had 900 residents and Pritchett, 700. Both relied upon dryland farming. Population has declined since then. A single farmer now tills land once worked by ten or more. People drive more to distant towns to shop. But Pritchett now has only 137 residents and a café that is closed more years than not, while Walsh has 540 residents, a bank, computer dealer and easily a dozen other businesses. The difference? Walsh sits over the Ogallala. When temperatures rise above 100 degrees, as they often do, the center-pivot sprinklers gush around the clock over the thirsty circles of corn. Fittingly, one of the town’s businesses is called Artificial Rain. Its customers are homeowners seeking green lawns, but the concept is the same.

Will this continue? By 1978, Colorado had ceased issuing permits to tap the Ogallala in the northern high plains. Even then, barely 20 years into the muscular extraction of water from the High Plains Aquifer, as the Ogallala is sometimes called, it was clearly unsustainable. Ponds where local youngsters had ice-skated were drying up. A small lake on a river’s headwaters where a high school keg party was held in the early 1970s shrank and then disappeared altogether. Wells also dropped, neither uniformly nor consistently over time or geography: Here a foot a year, there nothing at all, but then seven feet in just one frantic summer of pumping in 2012, when Mother Nature brought little to the table except searing temperatures. Many wells near Flagler today have too little water to justify the cost of pumping. The town of Seibert has installed an 11-mile pipeline to reach a better-producing well. Even around Burlington, nearing the Kansas border, pumps sometimes suck air like a car with a missing piston.

In southeastern Colorado, the story is similar. A 2002 report to Colorado submitted by McLaughlin, a Denver-based water engineering company, found that groundwater levels in the state’s southern high plains had dropped 100 feet during the previous half-century. “At current withdrawal rates of 220,000 acre-feet annually, the groundwater reserves for the entire aquifer system are estimated to have an economic life expectancy of 56 years,” the report stated—and that was 12 years ago. Places on the margins don’t even have that long.

Read more: Making the Ogallala Last

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Photo by Matthew Staver

By Caitlin Coleman

May Valley’s water isn’t good. It’s more than just the flavor that’s disagreeable, though that’s part of it. Due to high levels of total dissolved solids, the water doesn’t always settle well with people. The problem isn’t unique to customers of the May Valley Water Association, a drinking water provider that conveys water to 589 taps through more than 200 miles of small pipeline. Many other communities in Colorado’s Eastern Plains rely on municipal water that will make a newcomer’s stomach churn.

Claude Schultz, superintendent of the May Valley Water Association, says the fact that the water makes people queasy isn’t such a problem in and of itself. The association typically hears complaints only when new residents, habituated to purer water, move to the area. They’ll fall sick for a couple of weeks, then turn to bottled water. “In this day and age, people buy bottled water because they don’t like the taste of the water anyway,” Schultz says.

His nonchalance ends when it comes to a more serious contaminant in the water: radium. “It’s a nightmare,” says Schultz, “and we can’t afford to remove it at this point.”

Radium levels in May Valley’s drinking water surpass state and federal allowable limits. Radionuclides are the major water quality challenge across the plains, says Ron Falco, manager of the Safe Drinking Water Program under the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). They include radium and uranium, as well as alpha and beta emitters like plutonium, tritium and thorium—all of which can cause cancer and kidney damage. In Colorado’s affected areas, these substances also happen to be naturally occurring in the soils; they’re transported by water as it percolates through the earth. “There are systems that use groundwater all over the state,” Falco says. “But it’s a bad-luck coincidence that more of those [radionuclide] problems are found within the plains.”

May Valley is one of 33 drinking water systems in Colorado currently working with CDPHE to resolve radionuclide problems in order to provide water that regulators deem healthy. All 33 communities rely on groundwater from deep or alluvial aquifers; 21 are located on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, and 15, including May Valley, are east of Pueblo. That’s not to say that all plains communities face water quality challenges; many towns reliant on the Ogallala Aquifer drink high quality palatable water.

But for affected eastern Colorado towns, water quality issues don’t end at radionuclides. Burlington in April 2014 started warning pregnant and nursing women and infants under six months old not to drink the water because of high nitrate levels. Other plains communities have also surpassed limits for nitrates, trihalomethanes and selenium, among other contaminants, not to mention that the water doesn’t always taste great.

In many cases, the water itself hasn’t changed—and flavor is something most residents have learned to cope with—but regulations and monitoring requirements have become increasingly stringent, throwing water providers out of compliance and into difficult financial situations. For May Valley, the equipment required to reach compliance would have cost $3.8 million, says Schultz. The costs were too high to divide among his customers, and as a public entity, May Valley didn’t qualify for government loans.

In the effort to remedy violations and the public health risks they pose, some communities are drilling new wells in search of purer water, while others are installing expensive treatment facilities. Others find those system upgrades so prohibitively costly that system-wide improvements can’t be made and are holding out for a new federal project that will provide better source water. Even as communities struggle to comply with regulations, some remain wary that new drinking water and even surface water quality rules could soon come online and demand additional costly system changes.

Read more: In Pursuit of Clean Water

Plains farmers reap the benefits—and pay the price—of irrigation upgrades

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After a multi-million-dollar efficiency upgrade, Bill Grasmick now irrigates alfalfa on his farm near Lamar with sprinklers. Photo by Matthew Staver


By Nelson Harvey

Late last year, 67-year-old Arkansas Valley farmer Bill Grasmick and his partners at GP Irrigated Farms inked a deal with Syracuse Dairy of Kansas to grow wheat, barley, triticale, corn and oats as feed for the company’s cows on 8,000 acres of Colorado prairie near the Kansas state line. For the past 40-odd growing seasons, Grasmick had flooded his farm fields west of Holly with water that began as snowmelt high in the Rocky Mountains and flowed down the Arkansas River. The dairy owners, who had become overly reliant on farms irrigated with groundwater from the vast but rapidly declining Ogallala Aquifer, figured that access to Grasmick’s renewable water source would help shore up the future of their feed supply.

For Grasmick and his partners, the deal with Syracuse presented an opportunity to finance a major efficiency improvement they’d long been contemplating: Rather than continuing to flood irrigate their crops and letting so much excess water flow back to the river, the group wanted to install 72 center-pivot sprinklers across their network of southeastern Colorado farms. Compared with flood irrigation, center pivots require far smaller water applications and also minimize runoff. The owners of Syracuse, heartened by the idea that their feed crops could get water even in the driest years, agreed to help pay for the efficiency upgrade.

In most regions of Colorado, Grasmick’s next step would have been to simply buy and install his sprinkler system. Yet in the Arkansas River Basin, farmers reliant on surface water who improve their efficiency—either by swapping out irrigation systems, lining canals, or piping ditches—have been required since 2011 to ensure that they return the same amount of water to the river, at roughly the same time and place, as they did with their old and inefficient irrigation techniques.

Read more: The Efficiency Dilemma

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