Even at flood stage, the north fork of the Republican River in Wray, Colo., looks puny. A deer could jump over it. Back east, this would be a creek, not a river.
Yet a torrent of controversy surrounds the Republican, insignificant as it looks. The debate pits Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska against each other, farmer versus farmer, water district versus water district. It appears the various sides can find no common ground where no one loses.
It all goes back to a compact between the states made in 1942, a flood year, that mandated a certain flow be maintained so that Kansas farmers would get the water they needed. That proved impossible, of course.
The law was the law, however, and water districts struggled to comply. In 1998, Kansas sued Nebraska, alleging that Nebraska was using more than its allocation of water and that the thousands of irrigation systems installed since 1942 were depleting the river. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1999, and Colorado was brought into the suit because the Republican River head-waters are located there.
With the states at loggerheads, the Supreme Court appointed a special master, Vincent McKusick, to arbitrate the argument. That brought on a 2002 settlement to waive the claims against each other, develop a comprehensive groundwater model regarding the river and observe a well-construction moratorium that required Nebraska to match the de facto moratoriums on new wells built in the basin that had existed for several years in both Kansas and Colorado.
The 2002 settlement did not end the issue, however. Water supplies ran low during much of the decade. Some federal reservoirs in the area released no water at all for long periods of time. Kansas called for shutting down all Nebraska wells within 21⁄2 miles of the river and pointed out that Colorado had exceeded its allocations.
In this area, farmers depend on ground-water to make a crop. It's a particularly scary situation in eastern Colorado around the towns of Haxtun, Yuma and Wray, where 575,000 acres are irrigated. With water, this is a great agricultural area. Without it, the region is as dry as a desert.
Farmers knew something had to be done. Some wells hampered by dropping water levels were voluntarily retired, taking about 35,000 acres out of production. That retired cropping area will now double according to a plan announced this past October, with the land going into
USDA's Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). In the program, the land must either be grazed or used for dryland farming.
Through the Republican River Water Conservation District, Colorado farmers have proposed a 12-mile augmentation pipeline flowing into the river near the state line. They would buy 10,000 acres and pump the water from eight wells down to the river right before it crossed the flow gauge. It would be just enough for Colorado to be in compliance with the settlement agreement.
The catch: All three states have to approve the plan. Kansas and Nebraska have turned it down twice. That nay vote is now in arbitration, with an answer expected as soon as April 1.
The price of water. Is the water really what Kansas wants, however? The state could be eyeing the monetary settlement it got from Colorado several years ago due to reduced flow on the Arkansas River.
"We are trying to give them water, rather than pay them,” says Greg Larson, who farms in Haxtun, Colo., and is vice president of the Republican River Water Conservation District and secretary-treasurer of the Colorado Corn Growers Association.
"Under the rules, if we have an augmentation plan, they have to accept it. It could come to nonbinding arbitration. Then it would go to the Supreme Court again and what they say, that's the last word. We might see another court-appointed special master out here,” Larson says.
Byron Weathers, who farms near Yuma, Colo., and is president of the Colorado Corn Growers Association, was one of a dozen or so farmers who pushed Yuma County to vote to purchase water rights amounting to about 2,500 acre-feet. The vote passed by an 80% margin. Landowners pay for it with a mill levy tied to property taxes.
"We made presentations and we made a 20-minute video and took it to civic organizations, churches, schools and businesses to educate them on what was needed and why,” Weathers says. "We did interviews with bankers, county commissioners and other people about what it would be like if we lost the right to pump water. Businesses would fail. People would move.
"We had an economic forecast for the whole basin if Yuma County wells shut down, and it showed that we would lose 50% of the economic turnover. Once people understood the issue, they were behind it,” he adds. "That water we got this way was the easiest water we could come up with and just leave it in the river. It is a deeded right and now Yuma County owns it forever.”
Like nearly everyone here, Weathers can't quite fathom just how the Republican River region wound up with this water predicament.
"I've always said it doesn't make sense, that it wasn't right. That compact was developed in 1942 when there was no irrigation in the area. In the meantime, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, irrigation developed here and changed everything,” Weathers says.
Even so, farmers here managed to make strides in cutting water usage. "Two years ago,” Weathers says, "we were 12,000 acre-feet over our allocation. We're 5,900 over it now. We have been getting rainfall and snowmelt the past few years, and that helps.”
Can Technology Help?
With groundwater levels steadily declining and pressure mounting to maintain flow in the Republican River, farmers in northeastern Colorado have water conservation on their minds. Many farmers use strip-till for that reason and reduce irrigation when possible.
"They say that in this fringe area where I farm, we only have another 20 years' supply of water left in the aquifer. I figure the wells will be dried up in 20 years if we don't find a way to conserve water," says Greg Larson, who farms near Haxtun, Colo.
"We're using way more water than we're recharging," Larson continues. "That's why I am very, very interested in the drought-tolerant corn that is being developed. If they can just make that work economically, it will be
really important for us."
You can e-mail Charles Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org