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In the crackling dry rangeland north of this dwindling farm town, at a minor depression slowly filling in with yucca, sage and tumbleweeds, the South Fork of the Republican isn’t so much a river as the ghost of one. 

A river it may be on the maps. But when fourth-generation wheat farmer Bob Brachtenbach stops his truck over the map coordinates for the South Fork, his wheels come to rest on a bridge that doesn’t span water, but simply connects one sand dune to another. 

The last time he saw running water under this bridge, Brachtenbach says, was a memorable night of harvesting winter wheat with the rainfall-charged river reflecting fireworks from Stratton 2 miles away. 

That was 1993. 

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A driving trip with Brachtenbach is a tour of tombstones in the shape of water wells now permanently shut off. Farmers in the South Fork basin must shut off wells irrigating 25,000 acres in order to give Kansas its due under interstate compacts. Drying up so much land is changing the economy and the culture on the Eastern Plains. 

Brachtenbach points forward: His uncle’s farm land, now dry. He points to the left: His dad’s farm land, now dry. He points ahead: His own land, now dry. Google Earth this part of Kit Carson County, Brachtenbach says, and you’ll see the fading round traces of 75 to 80 center-pivot irrigation plots, each watering 120 acres, now dry. 

As he passes Stratton High School, where his grandfather served on the board, Brachtenbach offers another dwindling number. When Brachtenbach went there, he played on an 11-man football team. Stratton, now combined with Liberty for sports, still vanquishes most opponents on Friday nights. But it does so as a six-man team. 

“We created a way of life out here,” Brachtenbach says. “We’ve got to leave water out here for future generations, somehow.” 

Dry land now sits below a bridge along County Road 31, not far from Bob Brachtenbach’s home in Stratton. This is the South Fork of the Republican River where water once flowed under the bridge. The landscape still shows visible signs where water carved its valley as it made its way east. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Plenty of blame to go around

Blame Kansas if you want. Farmers and politicians there saw their river drying up and called good lawyers.

Blame a U.S. Supreme Court decision from way back, declaring that over the sprawling Ogallala Aquifer, water pumped from hundreds of feet below ground was the same as water running down the Republican River

Blame thousands of electric-powered straws punched into the aquifer sucking irreplaceable water far faster than ancestors’ windmills ever could. 

Blame the local meridian. Corn needs a couple of dozen inches of rain a year. A few degrees east in Illinois, 38 inches falls naturally. Kit Carson gets 18, in a good year. 

Blame decades of self-delusion. Which, as much as he loves farming and his fellow land stewards, Brachtenbach openly does.

“I grew a lot of crops that had to be subsidized, or I’d go broke. Corn selling for $1.50 a bushel cost me $3.00 to grow. There we were, pumping water out of our precious aquifer to grow surplus corn that may have gotten dumped in the ocean somewhere.”

Farmers getting paid to shut down their wells now have time for reflection. Kit Carson County does not. Farm co-ops that are often some of the largest-volume businesses in plains towns are losing sales. School districts are losing income, because property taxes on dry land are lower than on irrigated land. Center-pivot servicers are seeing their book of business crater. Last-standing grocery stores are losing lunch sales when custom-harvesting companies stay away. 

 We’ve got to leave water out here for future generations, somehow.

— Bob Brachtenbach, fourth-generation wheat farmer

Farmers near the South Fork of the Republican can sign up for one of two well shut-off programs. One pays them to switch to dryland farming or grazing. Another pays them slightly more to stop all agricultural activity entirely. 

Switching to dryland farming costs the farmer-owned co-ops 90% of the business they once got from a plot of land, estimates Dan Slinger, a local hobby farmer and consultant for the Stratton co-op, formerly the general manager. Dryland farming or grazing uses far less fertilizer, pesticides, piping, fuel … and the co-op loses the grain brokering business after harvest. Stop all agricultural use, as is happening on thousands of acres, Slinger said, and farm spending goes to zero. 

“What we know today was built on full schedules of irrigation,” Slinger said. “Production irrigation. And we’re going to have to learn how to survive without it.”

Too many straws in the water

As a result of an interstate compact from the 1940s, still the time of the pokey windmills according to Brachtenbach, Nebraska got 49% of the Republican River’s water, Kansas got 40%, and Colorado, where both the North Fork and the South Fork rise, got the remaining 11%. 

The Republican also flows over the western edges of the Ogallala Aquifer, which has given supplemental lifeblood to plains farming for decades when not enough rain falls in not enough places. 

Rural electrification and the postwar farming boom added tens of thousands of wells piercing hundreds of feet into the aquifer. Conservation districts’ maps of all the Republican Basin wells are confetti dots on the floor after a party that went too long.

A federal map of the Republican River Basin, from when Bonny Reservoir still existed on the South Fork. (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation 2016 report)
Boundaries of the Republican River Water District. Green dots are active wells. (Provided by Republican River Water District)

Kansas sued Nebraska in 1998 for not leaving enough water in the Republican, and Nebraska punched down to draw in the even-drier farms of Colorado. Interstate water disputes end up at the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 2000, an appointed special master declared that all the aquifer wells were indeed sucking up water that would otherwise have helped fill the North Fork and the South Fork of the Republican. 

Colorado was on a court-ordered water diet. And a time clock. The state’s water engineer needed to find 6,000 to 7,000 acre-feet of water, “just overnight,” as the current engineer puts it, to send back to the river bed. An acre-foot can cover a football field of crops with 12 inches of water, or serve two to three households for a year. 

This is the nightmare of overuse and drought and climate change that haunts all of Colorado now, from the Republican on the east, to the Colorado River headed west, to the Rio Grande in the San Luis Valley, headed south. Sheriffs carrying state engineers’ orders to shut down farm wells, and the American ideal of farms run by families blowing away on the hot winds. Seven states, from Colorado to the Gulf of California, are furiously debating how to avoid those scenes in the Colorado River basin alone. 

As he drives across Kit Carson and into Yuma County, Brachtenbach stops his truck on another dirt road crossing a body of water dried up by the law. Bonny Reservoir, on the South Fork near Hale, was where Brachtenbach as a teenager water skied to show off for the girls, and brought his family for picnics. It was the heart of a thriving state park, an oasis of boating, fishing and high plains desert mirages come true.

Tumbleweeds are now the only thing collecting in the center of the spillway for the Bonny Dam in Yuma County on April 28. The dam and reservoir are on the South Fork of the Republican River near Hale. After 60 years of holding water, Bonny was drained in 2012 and numerous wells were voluntarily retired to help Colorado send water east to comply with the Republican River Compact. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But the enticing waters of Bonny were as much a taunt to Kansas as they were a delight to hardworking Colorado farm families. Kansas argued Bonny was evaporating and leaking water that should have trickled east instead, and the Kansas math won out.

In 2012, Colorado pulled the plug and drained Bonny, to help fulfill court orders. Bonny is now a dry basin choked with shrubs and dying cottonwoods, circled by fading “live bait” signs. 

It wasn’t enough. 

Colorado’s legislature formed the Republican River Water Conservation District in 2004 to oversee buying up well rights and delivering compact water to Kansas. The district quietly began shutting down wells on farms that agreed to join federal soil conservation programs, though some local farmers told academic researchers in the early years they’d never heard of the buy up. 

It wasn’t enough. 

After more negotiations with Kansas, the state engineer and the river district agreed to collect water bought up in the North Fork area, among Yuma County’s productive corn farms, and deliver it in a new pipeline dumping into the river bed at the Nebraska line. 

It wasn’t enough. 

The South Fork was still dry, and Kansas wanted to revive the branch flowing into the state north of Burlington, the commercial heart of Kit Carson County. Kansas had the right to demand a stop to “impairment” of the South Fork, not just the North Fork. 

Gathering South Fork farm water into a pipeline similar to the North Fork solution wasn’t feasible, Colorado State Engineer Kevin Rein says now. Instead of Colorado delivering a certain amount of water into the South Fork, Kansas agreed to Colorado’s proposal to dry up a certain number of acres instead. The hope was that by halting some water withdrawals from the underlying Ogallala sponge, flowing water might eventually return to the dry South Fork streambed. 

The legal pact requires 25,000 acres of the South Fork basin to see their wells shut off by 2029. An interim target requires 10,000 acres dried by 2024. If Colorado doesn’t get there, Rein’s job would be shutting down the basin’s wells indiscriminately. Including town water supplies.

Getting to 25,000 is a job that falls to Deb Daniel, head of the Republican River Water Conservation District. 

Center pivot irrigation systems dot the farmland in Yuma County near Idalia. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The problem with buyouts

What keeps well shut-offs from becoming the start of a civil war in the Republican Basin is money. 

Deb Daniel can pay farmers up to $5,450 an acre, spread out over 15 years of payments, to shut down their wells and permanently dry up their land. That includes an extra pop for being among the first 10,000 acres to sign up. The highest payments are to landowners who agree to stop all agricultural activity on that property, including cattle grazing and planting dryland crops like winter wheat. The land stays under the farmer’s ownership, but gets placed in the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program — everyone in the county assumes everyone else knows what CREP means. 

For farmers who want to continue grazing or raising crops without pumped water, the well shutdown payments are up to $4,450 an acre, paid out over five years. 

Much of the money comes from a 2022 law passed by the Colorado legislature, allocating $30 million in federal COVID stimulus funds to the Republican River buy-up. But even that primed pump was not enough: Early buyout proposals by the district were not gaining traction, and the deadlines loomed. And just when the well retirement offers were launched, the price of corn and wheat went up. 

Until 2022, local farmers had been paying the district a fee of $14.50 an irrigated acre. That more than doubled to $30 an acre, meaning farmers who are keeping their wells could be paying $3,900 a year to irrigate a 130-acre circle under a center pivot to help buy out those leaving the business. 

“We were struggling to get people interested at the prices we were offering,” Daniel said. The same pricing phenomenon plagues a big buyout experiment on the Colorado River, where a $125 million federally funded pilot is failing to land enough takers to save significant amounts of water in the Upper Basin. 

With the South Fork program so precisely targeted, drying 25,000 acres means shutting down 25%-30% of all the irrigated acres, Daniel said. “So that is going to have an economic impact.” 

For the farmers, setting the shut-off price triggers a dizzying economic and generational calculation. They’ve invested millions of dollars in center-pivot equipment, $200,000 satellite-controlled tractors, years of fertilizing the land toward viability. 

Bob Brachtenbach has seen first hand the changes in the land and the population of Stratton. Nothing has changed more than access to the most important resource for life on the Colorado high plains: water. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Many Eastern Plains farmers may have children who’d like to buy into the farm and keep it going, but lack the resources. Or they can’t divide their thousands of acres in a way that can provide a living. There’s also the dilemma of the buyout offers — if not enough other farmers agree to the program, then the state swoops in and everybody gets shut off. And when stimulus money runs out, the next offer may be far worse. 

Taking the money and switching to the annual gamble of dryland farming is attractive to some, Brachtenbach said. His own son who was interested in farming now lives in Kansas, working for the international conglomerate Bayer in experimental seeds and techniques. 

Brachtenbach himself now works for Bayer after shutting down his wells, hoping the right combinations of high-tech seeds and precision planting and fertilizing can deliver Kit Carson County safely to a low-water future. 

Brachtenbach rented part of his dried-up property to a neighbor who has planted dryland winter wheat, the plot glowing green on a late April day in a sea of dry sage and leftover corn stubble. 

Absent pumping up the Ogallala, the Republican Basin must rely on what falls from the sky. It’s shut-off from the South Platte or the Arkansas rivers, and thus doesn’t benefit from a good mountain snowpack watering the plains. 

Gambling odds vary within a half-hour’s drive. A farmer near slightly wetter Idalia in Yuma County can get 100 bushels an acre of dryland wheat if the rain falls at the right time, while Brachtenbach to the south may get only 50 to 80 bushels. 

And that’s only if the “great white combine” — hail — doesn’t strike from the June skies. Hail “cuts down the crops pretty well, but it doesn’t pay the bills,” Brachtenbach shrugged.

Where we are now

There’s a scoreboard for the Republican River’s South Fork, watched by locals as well as policy prognosticators on the Front Range. The tally currently sits at more than 7,000 irrigated acres retired, with contracts in the works for a few thousand more. 

“By the end of June, we hope to have our first 10,000 acres retired,” Daniel said, well ahead of the December 2024 deadline for that interim target. “I’m thinking we’ll have a total of 13,000 acres by the middle of 2024.” 

The money to do it is stretching, for now. With just over half the needed acreage committed to the dry-up, the district has pledged about 62% of the $30 million in federal money transferred by the state, Daniel said. Farmers can commit a maximum of 285 acres over 15 years to the CREP program, for example, capping the highest payments at about $1.5 million over that time. 

The farmers who retain their wells are now paying the district about $3,900 annually in well fees from a pivot covering 130 acres, Daniel said. 

“Some people are saying we’re getting the low-hanging fruit,” Daniel added, and the next 12,000 acres will be much harder between then and 2029. She thinks, though, the basin will get there. 

A functioning high-capacity irrigation well in Yuma County. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

State Engineer Rein said he feels the same. On the progress toward 2029, Rein said, “I’m very satisfied.” 

That does not mean, Rein added, that Colorado is safe from ever having to talk about the Republican River compact again. Kansas and Colorado agreed on the mechanism for 2029 compliance: Shutting down wells serving a defined number of acres. But the greater goal of a restored river flow remains in doubt no matter how many Colorado acres are retired. 

In the quirks of Great Plains hydrology, Rein said, “impacts to the river are delayed by months, years and decades. It takes years and years to put water back in the river.” 

A changing way of life

Two things can be true at once: Farmers along the dry South Fork are getting paid fair money for shutting off their water. And yet the changes to life and culture in the region make people sad. 

“You retire 25,000 irrigated acres, it’s going to have a huge economic impact on the entire area,” said Rol Hudler, director of economic development for Burlington. “I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer here, but let’s be realistic.”

Instead of four fertilizer dealers, the region might need only three, Hudler said. Three farm implement dealers might be one too many. The economic landmark many people compare the dry-up to is the 2016 closure of Kit Carson Correctional Facility, which employed nearly 150 and was the largest taxpayer in the area. 

Slinger, from the co-op, said most farmers taking the water buyout will put that money in three buckets: One to keep paying off their land, two to finally create a retirement account or leave to their children, and a third to buy or rent irrigated farmland elsewhere. Slinger is not being critical; he’s simply noting that the money does not circulate in Kit Carson County the way it used to. 

The farmers involved with the water conservation district know $30 million of the buyout came through the state legislature. But they still wonder if Front Range leaders appreciate the changing way of life for the Colorado-Kansas-Nebraska borderlands. 

Bob Brachtenbach crosses the bridge over the Bonny Dam in Yuma County on April 28. “It’s hard for me to come here now and see it this way,” he said. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Nebraska seems intent on spending $500 million to build a canal into northeastern Colorado to find more water for its farms, no matter how ill-considered the project, Brachtenbach noted. The South Fork buyout plan started from Kansas suing Nebraska and eventually drawing Colorado into the fight. 

“Kansas and Nebraska darn well take care of ag,” Brachtenbach said. “We don’t. That’s where folks out here tend to get a little growly.” 

Brachtenbach’s pickup tour of the dry-up includes a drive-by of one of those ongoing irritations, state-owned fields around the South Republican State Wildlife Area that are not among those volunteering to shut off their water wells. 

I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer here, but let’s be realistic.

— Rol Hudler, director of economic development for Burlington

“They make money from renting that ground, and they won’t give up theirs,” he said. “That really chaps a lot of farmers.” 

Colorado leaders are indeed paying close attention, says state Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg. She’s particularly sensitive to the complaints having grown up in far southwest Durango, where reservoir managers turn irrigation taps on and off like so many weather gods. 

“We give credence to every part of the state that’s struggling,” Greenberg said. “And so even though the Republican River Basin might have less of a population, or folks in Denver might not see it as much of an economic hub, from my vantage point and the state’s vantage point, it’s just as important. Because these are people’s lives, and lives are changing out there because of water.”

That’s why the state’s assistance is designed “from the ground up,” Greenberg said, with the $30 million legislative appropriation meant to create incentives for farmers to change, rather than a threat of government action. 

Now Colorado officials are focused on “adding more tools to the toolbox,” Greenberg added. In early May, federal agriculture leaders joined state and local officials in eastern Colorado to announce an enhanced conservation reserve program

It will provide more incentives for those drying up and conserving natural habitat, and allow more to keep grazing or raising alternative crops on the shut-off lands. 

There’s far more work to be done on the larger regional impacts, Greenberg said. The loss of property taxes to local schools and other government services is real, and state leaders need to help the counties figure out solutions. The answers, though, will not be imposed from above, she said. 

“It’s not telling the basin what to do,” Greenberg said. “It’s the state saying, we know you know better than us, let us help you with resources to achieve that.”

A potato field is watered by an irrigation system near Center, Colorado, in July 2022. The irrigation system uses water from the Rio Grande delivered by a system of canals and headgates that form the largest water delivery system in the San Luis Valley. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Shared sacrifice

Colorado leaders are watching the Republican Basin dry-up play out for broader reasons as well. When the state set aside $30 million for the Republican, it also set aside $30 million to pay for well shut-offs in the Rio Grande basin, where the stream rises in the San Juan Mountains and exits Colorado through the bottom of the San Luis Valley. 

State water leaders are also struggling to set attractive prices for renting farm water rights in the Colorado River basin to leave more flow in the river to battle the long-term drought there. 

Daniel, who runs the Republican River water district, has some advice. 

“You have to set the right price,” she said. “And you have to be lucky.” Water officials have no say in national commodity prices, but if they make shut-off offers at a time when crop prices are low, more farmers will take it. 

“And the dry-ups have to be permanent, when possible,” Daniel added. “Farmers will go back to what they love, farming, as soon as food prices rise and they can make a profit again from using their water.”

Cruising the dirt roads of Kit Carson County between plots of land dropping like dominoes to the well shut-offs, Brachtenbach renews an old plea for mutual respect and shared sacrifice among farmers and city folks. 

These are people’s lives, and lives are changing out there because of water.

— Kate Greenberg, Colorado agriculture commissioner

He recalls a stroll through a Front Range Whole Foods grocery aisle a few years back, past the bins of raw grain favored by health-conscious foodies. Hard wheat in the bulk aisle was selling for the equivalent of $56 a bushel. 

At the time, Brachtenbach was getting paid $3 a bushel for his wheat. 

Eastern Plains farmers drew unlimited life-giving water from a limited pool for a long time, Brachtenbach said, and are now living with the consequences. 

“All those developers on the Front Range who keep building things without a plan to get water,” he said, shaking his head, “that makes me very angry.” 

Long-term planning may not yet be the strength of many Americans, wherever they choose to live, Brachtenbach said. The subtly curved banks and bottomland gravel leftovers of what used to be the South Fork of the Republican River will not be gushing water anytime soon, even if the well buyouts are a success. 

“It may take hundreds of years for those streams to come back,” he said.  “Not in our lifetime, anyway.”

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Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver