From The High Country News (Joshua Zaffos):
John Schweizer has spent most of his life raising corn, alfalfa and other crops and about 200 cattle in Otero County, along southeastern Colorado’s Lower Arkansas River. It’s never been easy, but the last 15 years have been particularly tough on the nearly 81-year-old Schweizer and his neighbors. Their corner of the state is drier now than it was during the Dust Bowl. Meanwhile, growing Front Range cities are buying out farms and shifting their irrigation water to residential use — a process called “buy and dry.”
Cities have siphoned more than 100,000 acre-feet of ag water — enough for about 200,000 Colorado homes — from the Arkansas River Basin alone since the 1970s. In neighboring Crowley County, farming has vanished, school-class sizes are half what they were 50 years ago, and tumbleweeds from dried-up fields pile up along fences and block roads. “That’s what they’re stuck with, because there’s no more water,” Schweizer says. “It’s gone forever.”
Schweizer is president of the 35-mile-long Catlin Canal, which irrigates about 18,000 acres of farms. He’s hoping that the trial run of something called the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch will save the basin’s remaining communities and farms. The initiative is not actually a big ditch, but rather a scheme that allows six of the valley’s irrigation canals to pool their water rights and temporarily lease them to cities. Starting in March, five Catlin irrigators “leased” a total of 500 acre-feet of water, which would normally supply their fields, to nearby Fowler and the cities of Fountain and Security, 80 miles away. Under the agreement, communities can use the farm water to supply homes and recharge wells for up to three years out of every decade. During those years, the irrigators will have to fallow, or rest, some fields, yet will still be able to earn money from the water itself and farm the rest of their land.