A fight over water rights in the High Plains

Market to Market | Clip
Aug 12, 2022 | 7 min

During the megadrought, Colorado and Nebraska fight over water rights.


Commissioner Kate Greenberg, Colorado Department of Agriculture: “At the Colorado Department of Agriculture we are eyes wide open that we are dealing with, with a real climate crisis. And agriculture is among the first impacted.”

Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg is well aware that this climate crisis has impacted farmers in the eastern part of the state. Each year, those farmers play a waiting game to learn how much water will be in their allotment. 

Marc Arnusch is a third generation eastern Colorado farmer working the land purchased by his grandfather who emigrated from Austria in 1952. 

Marc Arnusch, President, Marc Arnusch Farms: “The underpinning water supply that we depend upon year-over-year is from the South Platte River. And imagine not knowing what you could do on your farm, because you didn't know what your allocation was for water.”

The start of that waiting game goes back to 1923 when Colorado and Nebraska ratified a water sharing agreement involving the South Platte River. One section of this interstate compact allows Nebraska to develop a canal in Colorado to divert water from the South Platte River for irrigation on farms in the western part of the Corn Husker state. As the megadrought scorches the High Plains and Western U.S., water officials in Colorado closely monitor flows on the South Platte River to ensure farmers and ranchers in both Nebraska and Colorado are getting their fair share. 

Kevin Rein is the director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. 

Kevin Rein, Director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources: “The compact recognizes that during the irrigation season, that is between April 1st and October 15th, we'll measure that flow. And if that flow is above 120 cubic feet per second, then there is really no action to take.”

But with no end in sight for drought conditions, both states are laying claim to the precious resource that stretches through three states. In this year's legislative session, Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill greenlighting the construction of the Perkins County Canal, which is the source of the dispute between the two states.

Governor Pete Ricketts, R - Nebraska “Obviously we’re going to be praying for rain here to be able to help us out, but again it just emphasizes the importance of these projects, especially this Perkins County Canal Project, that we go forward with this to ensure that we will continue to have the water resources for the future. If we allow Colorado to take our water, that is that much less water we’ll have for Lincoln drinking water.”

There is a hierarchy for water in the two states with Senior Water Rights, all operations with allotment agreements started before 1897, and Junior Water Rights, all those operators who started after that year. Drought conditions can interfere with the seamless allotment of obligated water as the Compact puts a priority on farmers with Senior Water Rights.

Kevin Rein, Director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources: “If the flow drops below 120 cubic feet per second. Then Colorado needs to curtail water rights on the lower end of the South Platte. If we curtail those water rights, then we are in compliance with a compact during the irrigation season.”

One season of cutbacks in water allotments can seriously affect a farmer's bottom line. 

The agreement arranged between Nebraska and Colorado is one of nine interstate water compacts the Centennial state has with neighboring states.  

Commissioner Kate Greenberg,Colorado Department of Agriculture:“We're a headwater state, we're responsible for delivering water to many states and the country of Mexico down river from us, that adds yet another layer to our responsibility, uh, as a headwater state and to the challenges that we see, uh, with hydrological drought here in the headwaters.” 

Officials with the Colorado Department of Water Resources note when drought conditions are low, these water sharing agreements rarely become an issue long drawn out.

 With  drought conditions in Colorado extending their stay   in 2022, farmers continue to worry about how much water will be available for this, and future growing seasons. 

Marc Arnusch, President, Marc Arnusch Farms: “We have a lot of competing interests for our water here in Colorado, not just amongst commodities, but even with the urban rural divide that we have here within agriculture, we try to add value to our of water, uh, whether that's, um, growing a value added crop, uh, being a little bit divergent in the marketplace, but here on our farm, we're trying to add value by creating markets.”

Creating those additional markets can be a struggle when farmers have to fallow fields and still attempt to make the remaining acres cover the loss.

Marc Arnusch, President, Marc Arnusch Farms: “When we Idle acres, it's like a death by a 1,000 paper cuts, you know, we're, we're, we still have those overhead costs. We still have taxes to pay. We still have the carry cost of that land for, for that year. And yet we're not gonna have a crop until the following year, but it helps us be better managers. It helps us be better planners. And it helps us to think out two and three years, instead of just trying to, you know, provide that crop this year.” 

Marc Arnusch, President, Marc Arnusch Farms: “Drought is something that I've had to deal with almost my entire farming career that, that goes with farming in the high Plains of Eastern Colorado. We rely upon snow melt. We rely, a rely upon a lot of, uh, weather from time to time. So in the 25 years that I've been farming, drought seems like it's just right around every corner.” 

Arnusch and his family farm around 2,200 acres in what’s called Prospect Valley, a diverse agricultural area located 45 miles northeast of Denver. Arnusch has been forced to change the makeup of his row crop farm nine times to adapt to the changing climate.

Marc Arnusch, Owner – Marc Arnusch Farms: ” You know, water touches everything here in Eastern Colorado and, and the way our, our rules and regulations have changed over time in Colorado are really impacting my farm.”

Noting changes in the amount of available water, Arnusch has changed his business plan to growing certified seed wheat, certified seed grains for the spirit and beer industry, and value added feed ingredients.

Marc Arnusch, President, Marc Arnusch Farms: “We're trying to be different in the marketplace. I, I wouldn't say niche, I would say value added, but the things that we do on our farm that are rewarding us and rewarding, the value of our water.” 

With a La Nina weather pattern currently calling the shots  for the remaining months of summer , farmers and ranchers in eastern Colorado may have to continue the same kind of flexible approach.

Commissioner Kate Greenberg, Colorado Department of Agriculture: …as a state of Colorado it's complex and our agricultural community is at the front lines of all of those issues, climate change, persistent, ongoing drought, and making sure we are meeting our obligations to other states in the country of Mexico, uh, in a way that also helps preserve and advance agriculture.”

For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy