Drying up the Melon capital

Farmers in a small Colorado town plan to sell their water

 

ROCKY FORD, Colo. - In this southeastern Colorado community, the self-proclaimed Melon Capital of the world, only agriculture rivals the wide, blue sky for attention. Every summer, this town of 4,256 sends hundreds of thousands of melons to cities like Denver and Kansas City.

Yet something is amiss here. While beautiful turn-of-the-century brick buildings hover over this two-stoplight downtown, storefronts are nondescript. Secondhand stores, hair salons and hardware stores rule the strip. Farmers here, whose average age is about 65, have debts that run deep from years of depressed agricultural prices. Few of their children are interested in the family business.

Last December, more than 60 Rocky Ford farmers filed transfer papers to sell their water rights to the city of Aurora, 160 miles away on the outskirts of Denver. They hope to get $50,000 to $60,000 for each share of water.

"We have all accumulated a lot of debt," says 56-year-old Ron Aschermann, a tall, outspoken farmer. If the sales go through, he says, "I'll be out of debt for the first time in 35 years, since I started farming."

But some of the town's residents wonder what will happen to their economy if the water leaves.

"Of course, the water transfer will hurt this community," said Bill Keck, Rocky Ford's 78-year-old economic director. "I'd say in the Rocky Ford area, at least 75 percent is agriculture. Water is a big thing for us."

Sucking the life out


In Crowley County, just north of Rocky Ford, residents sold much of their water to Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo during the 1970s and 1980s.

After the water sales, many farmers turned to ranching to put their dry land to use. These days, acres of brown weeds have replaced crops, and cattle speckle the barren landscape - a haunting reminder of how the sales changed the fabric of the county.

Dwindling land values will be an immediate effect of the Rocky Ford sales, since land values depend on whether water rights exist on a given piece of property. Currently, the price for irrigated land is about $1,700 per acre, according to the county assessor's office. Nonirrigated land, however, runs at an estimated $300 per acre.

Opponents fear the sales will lead to a steady economic and social decline in Rocky Ford. "That's what is happening to little communities like ours," said Mike Bartolo, a research scientist at Colorado State University's center in Rocky Ford. "The larger communities, the Auroras and Denvers of the world, have so much inertia that they are literally sucking the life out of little communities."

But for urban Colorado, the transfers are one of the least invasive ways to increase water supplies amid a sea of environmental regulations, such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

A decade ago, the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the $500 million Two Forks Dam project in Colorado, citing violations of the Clean Water Act. The project, which involved 40 municipalities, would have created a 615-foot-high reservoir with enough water to supply 400,000 Denver area homes.

"Municipalities are put between a rock and a hard place," says Dale Kralicek, the administrator of water resources and environment in the suburban city of Northglenn. "We are highly regulated, and it is not politically correct at this point to construct large dams. We are all environmentally minded, but we also have a task of finding our citizens water."

A national problem

No Front Range municipality has been more aggressive than Aurora in searching for water. Since the 1950s, Aurora has purchased water from three river basins 180 miles away to supply its growing population with water.

The city's projected demand for new water supplies is expected to increase by 10,000 acre-feet of water every decade. This matches a population growth of about 50,000 people every 10 years, according to city officials.

"As a native Coloradan, I look at the faith I had in comprehensive plans and local zoning, and I am not so happy now," said Linda Capra, a former Aurora councilwoman.

"I have to drive 10 miles to work, and it takes one hour to get home because of traffic."

Rocky Ford residents such as Bartolo also question whether Front Range residents want more growth. "I don't know if people understand where their tax dollars are going," he says. "If the average Aurora resident knew about the water sales, they might think, "Why do I want another 200,000 people here?' "

Today, the Rocky Ford water transfer is in its legal infancy. Opponents of the sales filing objections included the City of Rocky Ford, Attorney General Ken Salazar and members of the local community. A final ruling on the transfer is expected to take two to three years.

While the farmers who wish to sell their water understand that the sales will hurt the community, they feel there is no other way to escape decades of economic drought.

"Some people understand the economics of agriculture and understand the message we are sending," says farmer Ron Aschermann. "Whatever you say the future of agriculture is here, you are talking about agriculture nationwide."

Victoria Peglar is a writer living in Boulder, Colorado.

YOU CAN CONTACT...

  • City of Rocky Ford and economic director Bill Keck, 719/254-7414;
  • Doug Kemper, Aurora water resources manager, 303/739-7386.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Victoria Peglar

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