In Otero County, the corn is knee-high, the famous Rocky Ford cantaloupes are almost ready to pick and the onions, tomatoes, sugar beets and wheat are thriving in the fields.
But on the north side of the Arkansas River, over in nearby Crowley County, the landscape looks very different. The only bumper crops are “noxious and obnoxious weeds,” according to a county commissioner. This is what happens when a county sells its water rights.
As did many communities this year, the southeastern Colorado county had what locals are calling a “Miracle May.” Rainfall in that single month was just a couple inches shy of what the county gets, in total, most years. For the first time in recent years, Lake Meredith will have enough water for fish to survive and maybe even generate a little tourism from anglers.
Still, it wasn’t enough to resuscitate the once-thriving agricultural industry nor to save the county’s last remaining feedlot, which is scheduled to go up for bankruptcy auction later this month.
Water experts say Crowley is a parable for how bad things can get when cities and industry dry up farmland to buy rural water — a controversial practice known as “buy and dry” deals.
But the county’s dry landscape could change if, as proposed by a group of water users representing the Arkansas River basin, the state’s water plan includes a blueprint for bringing water back to the county.
How Crowley County dried up
Water, and the agriculture industry that followed, didn’t come naturally to Crowley County.
The county was formed in 1911 out of a portion of northern Otero County – named in honor of state Sen. John H. Crowley, who represented the area at that time. The county is bordered on the south by the Arkansas River.
But the river wasn’t enough to irrigate local farms. The first irrigation systems came in through the Colorado Canal in the 1890s. In the 1920s, the state built a tunnel through the mountains to deliver water from the Roaring Fork River on the Western Slope and into a new reservoir at Twin Lakes, near Leadville. Crowley County farmers paid for the reservoir.
The county had its agricultural heyday before the dustbowl of the 1930s, but even after that farmers prospered.
Attached to Sweetness, a history of the county’s tiny town Sugar City, published in the 1980s, states “water created a Garden of Eden.”
The county easily rivaled its neighbors on crop production. It was known for tomatoes, onions, corn and wheat. It had two major feedlots for native Colorado cattle, and a sugar factory for processing sugar beets. And it was famous for cantaloupe. The juicy melons, known as Sugar City nuggets, were a “pink beauty,” according to Attached to Sweetness.
In the 1970s, more than 50,000 acres were irrigated in Crowley County.
But Crowley’s shares in the Twin Lakes reservoir earned it attention from thirsty Front Range cities.
In the late 1960s, with crops and cattle prices in decline, farmers and ranchers in Crowley County started thinking about selling their water rights. Some wanted to get out of agriculture. Others were ready to retire, and farmland was their 401(k).
In 1972, the Foxley Cattle Company bought water rights from farmers and ranchers all over the county. For a couple of years, that land stayed in agriculture and continued to be irrigated.
Then came the Crowley County Land and Development Company, which bought more water rights — both from Foxley and directly from farmers and ranchers willing to sell at the right price. CLADCO sold those water rights to Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Pueblo West and Aurora to quench those communities’ sprawl.
According to the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, municipal and industrial users now own 90 percent of the water stored in Twin Lakes.
The terms of the water sales included a requirement that municipalities revegetate the fallowed farms and ranches to restore the county’s natural prairie grasslands. But several current and former residents say the contractors did a poor job of re-seeding the prairie grass, and it quickly died.
A county that once had more than 50,000 irrigated acres now has only about 5,000. In the drought of 2012, the number dropped to 2,500.
Even the few remaining farmers with water rights are not guaranteed water in a year when there is not enough to go around.
Asked if Crowley is still an agricultural county, County Commissioner Frank Grant paused, and then said, “Yes. We still have cattle.”
But according to one lifelong resident, it’s mostly dairy stock, not valuable cattle that can be sold for beef.
The prisons of Crowley County
With dwindling agriculture, the county had to find another industry for its economic base. It turned to prisons.
There are two in Crowley County: the state-run Arkansas Valley Correctional Center, just outside the town of Crowley; and a private prison operated by Corrections Corporations of America near Olney Springs.
The county’s most recent property tax revenues totalled about $1.6 million – more than half of which came from the private prison.
The most recent census in 2012 counted more than 5,823 “residents” in Crowley County, but 46 percent of them are prison inmates.
Crowley County Commissioner Tobe Allumbaugh said that outside of the prison numbers, the county’s population has declined at about the same rate as its neighboring counties – about 1 percent per year.
The prisons have brought jobs, but not necessarily to Crowley County. Most of the prisons’ workers live in nearby counties or in Pueblo or Colorado Springs.
Commissioners Grant and Allumbaugh attribute the lack of interest in living in the county to a housing shortage. Most of the homes are small, old and asbestos-laden. It’s too expensive to tear the houses down because they would need asbestos mitigation. No one is showing any interest in building homes in the county, either, they said.
While the CCA taxes contribute to the county coffers, prisons haven’t helped businesses survive in Ordway and other communities.
Ordway, the county seat, has a population of just over 1,000. There are a few businesses on the town’s Main Street – mostly county and town government offices – an insurance company, grocery store, pharmacy, the reservoir and canal company offices, a couple of medical facilities and Chubbuck Motor, the local Ford dealer. The nearest farm tractor dealer, John Deere, is in Otero County.
Mostly, buildings along Main Street are for sale or appear to be abandoned.
Darla Wyeno, clerk for the town of Crowley, was one of those who sold water rights to the big cities. She and her husband have 120 acres on which they used to grow onions, tomatoes and melons. Today, they graze cattle on their land. She says life might have been different if the cities that bought their water had done a better job of re-seeding their land with prairie grass.
The loss of water hasn’t been all bad, she said. Their son went to college on the earnings they made from the water deal. He’s now a successful banker in Colorado Springs. Her husband has an off-farm job, and both their careers mean two steady paychecks every month instead of one uncertain one at the end of the year when they cashed in their crops.
Still, Wyeno adds, “When we sold our water, we sold our future.”
Local residents now fight the rampant dust every day, never realizing that would be the impact of losing their water. Bees won’t come to Crowley; it’s too far a flight. The hay fields today have to be pollinated with bees rented from outside the county.
State water plan may hold promise for the county
The state water plan, ordered by Gov. John Hickenlooper two years ago, incorporates suggestions made by roundtable groups in each of Colorado’s nine river basins. The roundtables include representatives from agriculture, municipal water providers, industrial users, environmental and recreational interests and those who own water rights.
Under Colorado’s complex web of water laws, once water has been removed from the land through the purchase of a water right, it cannot be returned. It’s gone for good.
But that isn’t stopping the Arkansas Basin roundtable from trying to find ways to get water flowing back into Crowley County.
The roundtable suggests that the county should acquire water rights to maintain permanent water levels in its two major lakes: Lake Meredith and Lake Henry. Inconsistent levels have resulted in loss of fish, blowing dust and bad odors in both lakes, according to the basin’s recommendations.
Allumbaugh says replenishing the lakes could help the county become a tourist destination, although getting the water to a stable level is just one part of the solution.
Two more recommendations seek water rights for municipal, industrial and agricultural needs.
The roundtable’s recommendations don’t specify where that water will come from.
Engineer Rick Kidd represents Crowley County on the Arkansas basin roundtable. He says the group firmly supports any efforts to get and keep water rights in the Arkansas River valley.
Grant says what has gone down in Crowley County – which he has called home for the last 36 years – is pretty typical of rural communities all across the state.
“It just happened here sooner,” he says. “The water sales got us.”