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Cut Off from Water, Colo. Farmers in Crisis
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Cut Off from Water, Colo. Farmers in Crisis

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Cut Off from Water, Colo. Farmers in Crisis

Cut Off from Water, Colo. Farmers in Crisis
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Colorado has shut down some 400 irrigation wells after farmers planted their crops. Two years ago, the farmers were warned that they needed to find other water supplies. But most didn't, and now, in the midst of a drought, many face crop loss and possible bankruptcy. Colorado's governor may declare a state of emergency to get the wells open again.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

About 200 farmers in central Colorado are in trouble. Their crops are in the ground, but they're missing one important element: water. The state recently ordered them to shut off their well pumps. Now the farmers need to replace that water before their seedlings die.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

David Petracha's(ph) family has been growing vegetables on land just north of Denver for almost a century. The business has been good to them, until a few days ago.

Mr. DAVID PETRACHA (Farmer): I'm a third generation farmer that had a lot of pride in the continuing of a family business that possibly could go down. So I have a lot of mixed emotions right now.

BRADY: It's windy outside. Some of the dry ground kicks up into a dust cloud. Petracha takes refuge in a big warehouse that will store onions later this year, if he gets enough water. The stress shows on his face. He worries about losing long-time customers, who expect him to grow tons of vegetables this year. To add insult to injury, the lawns in nearby towns like Denver are lush and green.

(Soundbite of sprinklers)

BRADY: Sprinklers start on schedule. There are no water restrictions in place. This disparity is an accident of history and economics. Scarce water in the West is allocated using a simple formula.

Mr. DOUG KENNEY (Natural Resources Law Center, University of Colorado): First come, first served.

BRADY: Doug Kenney is with the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Mr. KENNEY: So if I started using water in 1950, and you started using it in 1960, and for some reason there's not enough water to go around, well, I get my supplies before you get yours because I came first.

BRADY: In Colorado, cities claimed much of the surface water in streams and rivers back in the 1800s. Farmers began drilling big wells on the banks of those streams decades later. Soon, it became clear they were sucking water out of the streams through those wells. It wasn't a significant problem until the region experienced one of the worst droughts in centuries, in 2002.

Tom Cech heads the water district for farmers in central Colorado. Earlier this week, the state ordered 200 of his farmers to stop drawing water from their wells. There had been so little precipitation that the wells were taking water away from the cities' streams.

Mr. TOM CECH (Executive Director, Central Colorado Water Conservancy District): The dry April really caused havoc on our operation.

BRADY: Farmers could buy water rights from the cities and others. But that's where the economics comes in. Fast-growing sub-divisions can afford to pay a lot more for water than farmers can. Without cheap water, farmers are left with the current crisis. Cech says his district has spent $18 million in recent years trying to find new water supplies. But it's still not enough.

Mr. CECH: Some of these crops will be dead in a week. Because we live in a desert, and without water, they'll die very quickly.

BRADY: Colorado Governor Bill Owens has declared a state of emergency that will provide some aid to farmers. But they say water is what they really need to save the millions of dollars worth of crops that already have been planted. Local cities have expressed some willingness to divert water to the farmers. But farmers, watching their seedlings wilt, worry it won't come in time.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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