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Water as a Cash Crop
Farmers Find Fresh Profits in Selling Water Rights to Cities

ListenListen to Scott Horsley's report.

A fruitstand

A fruit stand in Rocky Ford, Colo. The town grew famous in the Arkansas Valley for its melons and other crops. These days, its water rights are prized more.
Credit: Scott Horsley, NPR News


The Arkansas River

The after-effects of a severe drought have left the Arkansas River's sloping riverbed exposed in places.
Credit: Scott Horsley, NPR News


The Rocky Ford ditch was carved from the Arkansas River in 1874.

The Rocky Ford ditch was carved from the Arkansas River in 1874. Thanks to its age, the ditch gets some of the first dibs on what little water there is.
Credit: Scott Horsley, NPR News


"This is still a very emotional issue in the valley. There are people who feel we shouldn't be doing this, that it's a disruption of their way of life… We do not have peace in the valley."

Peter Binney, director of utilities for Aurora, Colo.





Jerid Bruna, 14, washes his pig in preparation for a 4-H competition at the 126th annual Arkansas Valley Fair in Rocky Ford, Colo. Many Rocky Ford residents worry that if they sell their water rights, the town will lose its rural characteristics.
Credit: Scott Horsley, NPR News


Aug. 29, 2003 -- Early settlers in the West were told that "rain follows the plow." In fact, it was elaborate irrigation, not rain, that turned parts of the Western desert green. In some Western states, as much as 90 percent of the available water still goes to farm use -- more than twice the national average.

The vast majority of Western water has stayed on the farm, even though most Westerners have long since given up the plow and moved into cities. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, thirsty city-dwellers are now trying to buy some of that farm water by making offers that farmers find hard to refuse.

More than a century ago, civic boosters in Rocky Ford, a farming community in southeastern Colorado, started giving away melons as a way to promote their town and the sweet local produce grown there. In time, the town grew famous for its cantaloupe, onions and sugar beets. But these days, Rocky Ford is more prized for its water than its melons. And no water is more valuable than that which flows through the 13-mile-long Rocky Ford ditch, carved from the Arkansas River in 1874.

The after-effects of a severe drought have left the Arkansas' sloping riverbed exposed in places. But thanks to its age, the Rocky Ford ditch has senior rights to what little water there is. For generations, that allowed local farmers to grow water-loving cantaloupe, despite a mere 11 inches of yearly rainfall. The ditch is no longer a big irrigator of local melon vines, though. In the early 1980s, more than half the water in the ditch was bought by the growing city of Aurora, a Denver suburb 160 miles north. Now, Aurora is in the process of buying most of the rest.

Utilities Director Peter Binney says young cities like Aurora in search of water have few other places to look besides farms: agriculture locked up most Western water rights decades ago.

"We still respect agriculture for food production," Binney says. "It's a way of life… But my challenge as a municipal water supply manager is 'How do I meet the demand of the next 200,000 people who are coming to the city?' And that's the dynamic we're trying to work through right now."

As Aurora takes water out of the valley, it's reseeding dried-up farmland with drought-tolerant native grasses, and backfilling local government coffers to make up for falling property taxes. Despite those mitigation efforts, the water sales are unpopular with some Rocky Ford residents. One newspaper in the area dubbed Binney "the Baron of Darkness."

"This is still a very emotional issue in the valley," Binney says. "There are people who feel we shouldn't be doing this, that it's a disruption of their way of life… We do not have peace in the valley."

Rocky Ford farmer Ron Ascherman initially opposed Aurora's purchase of his town's water. Then in two consecutive years, his crops took a big hit, first from a hailstorm and then from a salmonella scare that decimated the cantaloupe market.

Ascherman and most of the remaining ditch owners have agreed to sell their water rights to Aurora in a deal that could be finalized by Colorado's water court later this year. Even in the best of times, when crop prices are high, farmers can make more money selling water to cities than irrigating with it. But Ascherman says it was tough economic times that pushed Rocky Ford farmers over the edge.

"Let me tell you, these farmers would not be selling water if they were making a fair living off of these farms," Ascherman says. "We want to make an honest living. That's what we're after."

Thanks to a Western population migration to cities, water can be worth 10 times as much in the city as it is on the farm, says Colorado State University agricultural economist Eric Schuck. That economic reality is colliding in places like Rocky Ford, with more than a century of farming tradition.

"We've got this system, this agrarian vision from the 19th century, of sending water around the West," Schuck says. "It's a beautiful vision of bringing everything under the plow -- colliding with the fact that most of us don't do that. Most of us work in office buildings and live in subdivisions."



In Depth

  • Aug. 26, 2003: NPR's Howard Berkes reports on 19th-century explorer John Welsey Powell's vision for for governing water rights in the West.

  • Aug. 27, 2003: NPR's Elizabeth Arnold reports on the history of the Colorado River and the competing demands on its water.

  • Aug. 28, 2003: NPR's Elizabeth Arnold reports on the roots and complexities of Western water law.




       
       
       
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