Where’s the river?’ #RepublicanRiver basin’s disappearing water threatens Eastern Plains agriculture, ecology — KUNC

The Republican River’s South Fork near Hale, Colorado, with the region’s seemingly endless fields. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Jeffrey Beall

From KUNC (Adam Rayes):

If you look at a map of southeastern Yuma County, Colorado, you’ll find a bumpy blue line labeled “South Fork Republican River.” But, for the majority of the year, this channel contains little to no visible water flow.

“So, the thing is, if we were to go upstream four or five miles, there’s flow,” Deb Daniel said while driving along a dusty road, adjacent to the riverbed in what used to be known as Bonny Lake State Park. She points to a stretch of riverbed covered with invasive Russian Olive trees. “There’s so much trees grown up in that area, and it’s so filled in with silt, that (the South Fork) completely disappears.”

The Republican River basin sustained Daniel’s family’s farm when she was growing up. In 2017, the six Colorado counties relying most on this river’s basin brought almost $2 billion in agriculture sales — just under a third of the state’s total $7.5 billion production value.

“There is such joy when I see water flowing,” Daniel said. For the last 20 years, she’s watched over the river as its conservation district manager. “And on the North Fork, it flows year-round.”

The Republican River basin. The North Fork, South Fork and Arikaree all flow through Yuma County before crossing state lines. Credit: USBR/DOI

That’s up in Northern Yuma county. These two forks (and the also-barely-flowing Arikaree River in central Yuma County) are tributaries that start in different parts of northeast Colorado and combine in Nebraska to feed the main body of the river…

Water still flows for most of the Republican’s 453-mile stretch. But the North Fork is going down…

‘A losing battle’

With North Fork flows decreasing and the South Fork and Arikaree barely running, the ecosystem suffers, Colorado risks major legal trouble with Kansas and Nebraska and people who farm these plains stand to lose their livelihoods.

Center pivot sprinklers in the Arikaree River basin to irrigate corn. Each sprinkler is supplied by deep wells drilled into the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer.

The Republican River’s water levels drop partially because water in the ground surrounding it and beneath it is being used up, mostly to irrigate farms. And, in turn, part of the reason that groundwater isn’t as replenished is because of the river’s limited water.

It’s a dynamic [Joyce] Kettelson has long been aware of, weighing the water longevity for the community against her family’s economic security…

Severe drought conditions plagued portions of Yuma County for the majority of the last two years. Parts of the county have experienced moderate drought during almost half of the last two decades.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, severe drought conditions often reduce river flows and harm farming operations. Yuma is the only county that all three main tributaries of the Republican River run through…

Running out of options

Most of the irrigation shuttering has to happen near the South Fork in Yuma and Kit Carson counties. Despite the river conservation district and federal government offering to pay farmers who participate, just a third of the 10,000-acre goal has been met as of Jan. 6, 2022.

A booming market for irrigated crops, like corn and wheat, over the last two years made it hard to convince farmers to exchange those profits for the irrigation-shutoff payments.

Last month, the river conservation district board voted to more than double yearly water use fees so that they could also significantly increase the amount they offer to farmers who stop irrigating around the South Fork. Several board members of the groundwater districts Midcap manages also sit on the river district board and helped make that decision.

So now, someone farming 100 acres would have to pay $45,000 to irrigate for 15 years instead of the $21,750 they paid before the fee increase. If that farmer’s land is within a mile of the South Fork and they enter the program to totally retire the land for 15 years, they would now get paid more than $67,000 instead of $52,875.

“They’ve known that they’ve needed to retire them for eight to 10 years,” Midcap said. “But the actual process of getting the fee increased has taken at least nine months.”

Part of the reason for the hold-up, several local officials told KUNC, is that the conservation board members are often farmers and ranchers themselves. So they struggle to make decisions that could hurt them and their neighbors financially…

[Note] Midcap later made a point to say that he has hope because the county can sustain itself on the remaining groundwater for at least another century…

Midcap is confident that enough irrigated acres will be shut down to keep the state in compliance with the 2024 deadline. But there’s a second deadline: another 15,000 acres must shut down by 2029. He’s less confident about that…

“But we’re between a rock and a sword. There is no other option,” said Deb Daniel, Republican River Water Conservation District manager. “If we don’t get this done, the state of Kansas could virtually force our state engineer to shut off irrigated ag in northeast Colorado, and we can’t let that happen.”

Interest in irrigation-shutoff programs has already sharply increased since the district increased the payments it offers, she added…

The actions needed to fulfill the compact, protect the river and keep the agricultural economic backbone of these communities strong can intersect, she said, but often end up at odds. There are a lot of hard decisions to be made…

She’s inspired by the producers changing their crops to ones that use less water, and by those finding ways to farm without irrigation at all. She’s helping the conservation district, county government and Colorado Parks And Wildlife working on a $40 million plan to get water flowing through the South Fork around Bonny Reservoir again.

But, Daniel admits, the river will likely never return to its former glory. At this point, it’s all just mitigating losses.

Colorado Rivers. Credit: Geology.com

Leave a Reply