Best: Farmers in Colorado’s Republican River Basin grapple with how to be sustainable
The International Panel on Climate Change this week issued its latest report, warning of a dangerous temperature threshold we’ll breach during the next decade if we fail to dramatically reduce emissions. A Colorado legislative committee on the same day addressed water withdrawals in the Republican River Basin that must be curbed by decade’s end.
In both, problems largely created in the 20th century must now be addressed quickly to avoid the scowls of future generations.
The river basin, which lies east of Denver, sandwiched by Interstates 70 and 76, differs from nearly all others in Colorado in that it gets no annual snowmelt from the state’s mountain peaks. Even so, by tapping the Ogallala and other aquifers, farmers have made it one of the state’s most agriculturally-productive areas. They grow potatoes and watermelons but especially corn and other plants fed to cattle and hogs. This is Colorado without mountains, an ocean of big skies and rolling sandhills.
Republican River farmers face two overlapping problems. One is of declining wells. Given current pumping rates, they will go dry. The only question is when. Some already have.
More immediate is how these wells have depleted flows of the Republican River and its tributaries into Nebraska and Kansas. Those states cried foul, citing a 1943 interstate compact. Colorado in 2016 agreed to pare 25,000 of its 450,000 to 500,000 irrigated acres within the basin.
Colorado has a December 2029 deadline. The Republican River Water Conservation District has been paying farmers to retire land from irrigation. Huge commodity prices discourage this, but district officials said they are confident they can achieve 10,000 acres before the end of 2024.
Last year, legislators sweetened the pot with an allocation of $30 million and a like amount for retirement of irrigated land in the San Luis Valley, which has a similar problem. Since 2004, when it was created, the Republican River district self-encumbered $156 million in fee collections and debt for the transition.
It’s unclear that the district can achieve the 2030 goal. The bill unanimously approved by the Colorado House Agriculture, Water, and Natural Resources Committee will, if it becomes law, task the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University with documenting the economic loss to the region — and to Colorado altogether — if irrigated Republican River Basin agriculture ceases altogether. The farmers may need more help as the deadline approaches.
This all-or-nothing proposition is not academic. Kevin Rein, the state water engineer, testified that he must shut down all basin wells if compact requirements are not met. The focus is on the Republican’s South Fork, between Wray and Burlington.
Legislators were told that relying solely upon water that falls from the sky diminishes production 75 to 80%.
In seeking this study, the river district wants legislators to be aware of what is at stake.
Rod Lenz, who chairs the river district board, put it in human terms. His extended-family’s 5,000-acre farm amid the sandhills can support 13 families, he told me. Returned to grasslands, that same farm could support only two families.
An “evolution of accountability” is how he describes the big picture in the Republican River Basin. “We all knew it was coming. But it was so far in the future. Well, the future is here now.”
The district has 10 committees charged with investigating ways to sustain the basin’s economy and leave its small towns thriving. Can it attract Internet technology developers? Can the remaining water be used for higher-value purposes? Can new technology irrigate more efficiently?
“We do know we must evolve,” Lenz told me. The farmers began large-scale pumping with the arrival of center-pivot sprinklers, a technology invented in Colorado in 1940. They’re remarkably efficient at extracting underground water. Now, they must figure out sustainable agriculture. That’s a very difficult conversation. Aquifers created over millions of years are being depleted in a century.
The Republican River shares similarities with the better-known and much larger Colorado River Basin. The mid-20th century was the time of applying human ingenuity to development of water resources. Now, along with past miscalculations, the warming climate is exacting a price: aridification of the Colorado River Basin.
Globally, the latest report from climate scientists paints an even greater challenge. To avoid really bad stuff, they say, we must halve our greenhouse0gas emissions by 2030. They insist upon the need for new technologies, including ways to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, that have yet to be scaled.
We need that evolution of accountability described in Colorado’s Republican River Basin. We need a revolution of accountability on the global scale.
Allen Best, a long-time Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots. You can find more at BigPivots.com.