Article #3, the last in our Summer Wrap Up Series
This past water season felt like a welcome gift in almost every part of Colorado. For a glorious, albeit brief, couple of weeks, climatologists even declared the state officially drought-free. Like some gifts, though, this one felt like it came with a few strings attached, especially for the Eastern Plains. While many parts of Colorado received severe weather, including thunderstorms with immense amounts of rain, hail, wind, and even a few wildfires here and there, none felt more hammered than the northeast corner of our state square.
Months before, state agency staff from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (Colorado Water Conservation Board, Division of Water Resources, and Colorado Parks & Wildlife) and CDA, partnered to plan the bi-annual Climate Resilience Tour (formerly known as the Drought Tour). Presciently, they believed this summer’s tour should highlight the hard work and collaboration across Logan, Washington, Phillips, and Yuma counties. Little did they know that these counties would face some of summer 2023’s most severe weather, including a large twister touching down just outside the town of Yuma and a record-setting hailstone the literal size of a ham, just a week before the tour.
Resilience is the ability to work within difficult constraints and still move forward. When you add the ups and downs of climate conditions, it also naturally must include a livable, sustainable environment, which has been increasingly challenging over the past two decades of long term drought. But as the ham-sized hailstone super storm illustrated, drought isn’t the only challenge rearing its ugly head for farmers and ranchers.
Our climate resiliency tour goals, which were formed in part from CDA’s departmental goal to expand water resilient agriculture, included providing an in-person look at the Eastern Plains to legislators and policymakers who might not be as familiar with that region and highlighting the collaborative work being done to support a thriving agricultural and wildlife community. We also wanted to allow plenty of space for producers, water managers, and community leaders to share their stories of how and why the Eastern Plains of Colorado is not only facing extreme climate challenges, but also showing tremendous resilience in addressing them.
On the bus, agency partners gave overviews of state programs designed to support producers. The first stop was at the Akron-based USDA Research Station, where scientists explained how research plots filled in data gaps and promoted on-the-ground field studies to better understand exactly how different types of crops, soils, and weather conditions might react on a producers’ own fields.
After the research station, the tour stopped in Yuma to visit a fifth generation ranching operation run by the Blach family of David, Karla and their sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. Local producers provided lunch, which was coordinated by the Farmhouse Market, another Blach family venture, this one helmed by daughter-in-law Meghann Blach.
The afternoon was full of discussion about the realities of how climate has affected traditional operations in the area. Deb Daniel and Rod Lenz with the Republican River Water Conservation District provided context and action-oriented plans for the District’s groundwater supply in connection with Senate Bill 21-028, which provides funding to help producers meet their federal Republican River Compact obligations. While not as flashy as other Colorado rivers, the Republican has a very real impact on the water resources across state lines in Nebraska and Kansas, whose citizens are closely watching Colorado’s every move.
Deb and Rod were joined by Russ Schumacher with Colorado State University’s Climate Center, who showed a 3-D model of the last record-breaking hailstone and walked the group through what the area could expect weather-wise in the coming years.
A tour of Roy Pfaltzgraff’s farm in Haxtun concluded the day’s field trips and it was worth the wait, as participants almost unanimously flagged it as one of the most enlightening and inspiring parts of the entire tour. Roy and his family’s work in soil health with the Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources (STAR) program means that he isn’t afraid to try new ways of running the farm, whether it’s implementing new technology, growing “seldom seen in those parts” crops, and always thinking about how soil is his best partner in holding water in the thirsty ground.
After an economic breakdown of Logan County’s agricultural and community value by CSU Extension agency staff Brett Young during dinner, the group ended the first day in Sterling, fully apprised of Northeast Colorado’s agricultural heritage and future.
The second day of the tour focused on water management and administration, starting with a stop at the Julesburg gage on the South Platte River. Later, the group had a robust discussion about Nebraska’s proposed Perkins canal project with a landowner whose property features scars from the first attempt at canal-digging back in the early 20th century.
Next were visits to a recharge area that works in collaboration with water districts to hold water in ponds for groundwater recharge to the benefit of wildlife, the environment, and agriculture. Speakers included state water engineer Kevin Rein and Joe Frank with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District. Jay Goddard, a local banker, offered concise, thoughtful analysis of the legal and administrative struggles facing northeast Colorado without a doom and gloom approach. Their discussion on the area’s willingness to work with as many partners as possible to address these very real water administration issues might as well have come with a flashing “Resilience” sign overhead.
As the group moved to Tamarisk State Wildlife Area, Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff and Kyle Whitaker, employee with the traditionally more urban-oriented organization Northern Water, gave everyone an in-depth look at the partnerships developed for that watershed’s unique environmental, municipal, and wildlife needs. The augmentation plan developed for Tamarisk allows wildlife to enjoy the vast expanses of summer grasses and keep water intact for municipal users along the South Platte
The ability to provide multiple benefits for the community (both animal and people) continued to be a theme until the end of the day. Jim Yahn with North Sterling Irrigation and the North Sterling and Pruitt Reservoirs, local Division of Water Resources water commissioners and staff, and Justin Bieri with the State Land Board, were integral to explaining various solutions to regional water concerns. A particularly salient example of regional and state partnership, the Land Board’s locally managed farm of over 30 years works with their agency’s water resources to efficiently irrigate crops and provide environmental and wildlife benefits. All agency staff explained that quite literally, at the end of the day, resilience will always come back around to the people working and living on the land.
As Bieri described, “It’s not the land that’s climate resilient. The people are creative and have hope.”
The consequences are not absorbed into the watershed and river systems so that one producer’s actions have little impact. To the contrary, depending on when and where the water is taken out or added, that action can knock an entire basin and thousands of acres on their backs. Instead, the resilience built into these systems comes from an individual’s determination to make a difference whenever and wherever possible.
For hundreds of years, land and water stewardship has been a delicate balance of the individual’s impactful decisions. In the 21st century, with climate conditions butting even more aggressively into the system, those decisions of partnership, collaboration, economics, field operations, and just the sheer will power to gut it out another season, can mean a Colorado that is thriving, even under less than optimal conditions, into the 22nd century.