Today I want to take you along on a journey. It’s one I took a few weekends ago. We’re going to not necessarily the most glamorous place. In fact I know it’s not the most glamorous place. We’re going to Southeastern Colorado, the lower Arkansas Valley.
We’re going to two places primarily- Ordway and Rocky Ford. We’ll come back to this aerial photo, but just keep it in the back of your mind for now. Is there anything that jumps out at you?The first thing you need to know is that this valley has a long history. It was part of the Santa Fe Trail that connected the Missouri River and what we now call New Mexico; from there American commerce reached the trade routes to California and Mexico City. Why did the route follow this valley? To paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the water is.
It is the river more than anything that makes this area possible.The trail only lasted about fifty years, until it was replaced by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe south of the river, and the Missouri Pacific to the north. By this time the railroads profited not only from connecting Southern California or the Rocky Mountain mines and depots at St. Louis and Chicago, but also by moving the goods and settlers in between.These settlers grew crops. And to do so, they needed water. To get the water, they had to dig ditches. This is the Otero Canal, filled with water and serving its farmers.Diverting the Arkansas River through more than a half-dozen ditches turned the five counties of the lower valley into one of the great agricultural regions between the Mississippi and California. The region still produces the best cantaloupe in the world, and was once the home of much of America’s domestic sugar industry.Here’s the map again as promised. The river is flowing at the top end of the bottom green swath. The green on the south side of the river is fed by as many as five canals that follow the contours of the land. Everywhere “under the ditch” was able to receive irrigation water and grow intensive crops.You may have noticed the north side of the river doesn’t look the same. At that scale you may not have noticed a key detail- these lands are also “under a ditch.” You can barely see it winding its way toward Lake Henry through the top half of the image. This place is Crowley County, and I came here to see for myself why it doesn’t look the same.
Of course, you already know the answer. The ditch has lost its water. The fields are dry because they have not been irrigated in thirty or forty years. This ditch is the Colorado Canal, and it is one of the classic case studies of a phenomenon that impacts both the human and natural elements of the landscape of the rural West. That phenomenon is called Buy and Dry.
The “buy” in the name refers to the purchase of water by fast-growing cities, usually distant cities, at market price. Farmers sell their water because it is their most valuable asset and often because their debts are high, their crop values are low, and their descendants don’t wish to carry on the family business. This is a good deal for the selling farmer- they get to pay off their debts, and often, to retire. But remember that “Dry” is also a part of the name, and as you can see there are unintended consequences of taking water away from a place, starting with the land and the ditches that run through it. This is the ubiquitous tumbleweed of the West, actually an invasive species called Russian thistle.Weeds grow rampant on dewatered lands and accumulate in ditches, on fencelines, and most notably, on neighboring farm fields where non-sellers may be trying to continue growing weed-free crops. Dewatered soils quickly lose their previous land cover and often become vulnerable to soil erosion into ditches, washes and creeks, which impacts water quality for downstream users.The effects are obvious even to a visitor. Crowley County lost 92.5% of its irrigated farmland to buy-and-dry in the span of one generation.Meanwhile, not half an hour away, most farmers in Rocky Ford have been essentially unaffected, thanks to the vagaries of their water rights and odd legal-economic coincidences.
One might think that Ordway and Sugar City and their neighboring towns would be complete ghost towns- their primary economic and cultural raison d’etre has vanished, along with the tax base that funds county services- but the towns themselves carry on, and you might not know that any such event took place here. These are from the main streets in Ordway and Sugar City. Ordway essentially looks no worse or better off than any other rural center in Colorado- though Rocky Ford, it must be said, is much busier. You find the same small businesses and abandoned lots you might find anywhere. Sugar City was essentially empty at my visit, though there were a few establishments waiting to open.
Make no mistake- the water sales were hard on this community.
“Controversy … is too mild a term for describing local feelings such as when farmers felt obliged to carry firearms with them as they went out to irrigate. Controversy is less than adequate for describing the tension that developed in community meetings, and privately, as the water rights owners determined whether they were going to sell. Controversy inadequately describes the frustration, anxiety, and tension felt by those who chose not to sell as they saw their position eroded by the increasing number who chose to sell. Controversy is inadequate for describing the resulting polarization of communities which previously took pride in their neighborliness, their cooperation, and their kinship ties.” -Ken Weber, cultural anthropologist, on Crowley County in the 1970s and 1980s
But there is still football to be played. There is “Crowley County Chargers” stuff all over Ordway- on every business, on every sweatshirt, even on the street itself.The Chargers won handily that Saturday, by the way.It is a truism in economics that factors of production are mobile. When the market dictates that an asset moves to a more economically viable location, labor and capital will follow. But asking 92.5% of Crowley County to get up and move to the Front Range in the name of the market is a tall order indeed.Communities adjust. Politics and economics managed to site a new economic driver of sorts in Crowley County. The local industry has gone from irrigation to incarceration. This is the state’s Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. It is one of two prisons to open outside of Ordway since the big water sales.
Ironically, there is still plenty of water in Crowley County. But it too benefits the Front Range through water exchange and is not used by local farmers. This is Lake Meredith, one of two major reservoirs built by ditch companies and now owned by cities. It was full of water last weekend, yet quite devoid of people.
And there’s plenty of beauty too, in the parks and fields, in the homes and businesses, and the cornerstones of the community. It was difficult at first for me to remain objective and not insert too much of my own narrative into this place- the greedy cities, the erased small farmers, the empty townsite- but by the end I found myself adding more balance to Crowley County than perhaps it deserved- well it’s still got a nice park! There are a few fields! Some people run cattle! They even have a bar!The truth is, though, that, like any working lands, the lower Arkansas Valley is complicated. It is connected by infrastructure, economics and hydrography to the Front Range and to market forces beyond its control. It is subject to drought, crop prices, water prices, population growth, and now even the budget of the Department of Corrections. Within the county ecology, politics, economics and culture interact in myriad unexpected ways.
Everything that happened here in the 1970s and 1980s was a tremendous upheaval to the local economy, the local society, and the land itself. But life goes on.