We talk a lot about Crowley County and the impacts of “buy and dry” when cities and industry dry up farmland to buy rural water. It’s these kind of practices that the Colorado Ag Water Alliance even exists in the first place. There is no shortage of articles and videos about Crowley's water problems (here, here, here, and here) and just how much the county has changed since the majority of the water was sold off. The intrigue, shady deals, and depressing outcome makes for great editorials, and the county is held up as an example of how bad buy and dry can get.
More than 90 percent of the irrigated acreage in Crowley has disappeared, but what is left centers around Olney Springs where farmers like Matt Heimerich continue to grow alfalfa, corn, and sorghum and that is where my tour began. A lot of the production serves the cattle lot in Crowley that used to be part of the Fowley Cattle Company, but farmers in the county provide feed to other parts of Colorado and even outside of the state. However, farming isn't enough economically to sustain a family. Many have second jobs or rely on a spouse's income.
Olney Springs is also the first stop for the Colorado Canal, which once provided irrigation water throughout the southern portion of the county.The Colorado Canal provided water for the first irrigation systems in the county in the 1890s. A canal that once ran over 700 cfs of water through its diversion gate, is now a slow moving. The water slowly seeps down the middle, making the century old ditch seem even larger than it is. It's hard to not think about how this infrastructure was meant for a different time with more water. I was struggling to think of what you can even do to improve a ditch like this. Building a smaller trapezoidal cement lined ditch down the middle of the canal isn't cost effective, or running a pipe down the entire length of the canal.
The impacts of buy and dry on the landscape was noticeable to even me. There's prairie and then then there's dried-up land. It's more dirt than anything, with tufts of grass here and there that have managed to take root. While there have been successful efforts at revegetating dried up farmland in the Lower Arkansas River Valley, successful revegetation can take a lot of time, investment, and event applications of irrigation water. Apparently after the Crowley County Land and Development Company dried up part of the area, efforts to revegetate included dropping grass seed from a small airplane.
On the way to Lake Meredith and Lake Henry (the two reservoirs in the county) you pass through Ordoway, the county seat, on the way to Sugar City, which was the hub of agriucltural production in ac ounty that used to rival all of its neighbors in terms of production.
Driving down the main street of Sugar City, Colorado St., you pass the old sugar beet silo that now houses grain. Next, you slowly make you way to the end of the drive where the National Beet Sugar Company factory sat for decades. Now, all that's left is an imposing gate that leads to an empy field. Every brick of the factory and large company-owned houses are gone, taken away for another construction project.
The gate to the former National Beet Sugary Company factory in Sugar City
The silo in Sugar City that now stores grain instead of sugar beets
While in Crowley County, places like the old entrance to the sugar beet factory, dried up fields, and canals holding a fraction of the water they used to hold are a constant reminder how things used to be. This is what a median household income of $26,000 and the 48% poverty rate looks like. Even though what happened in Crowley County was decades ago, It's easy to see why talking about the past there is easier than talking about the future.
A Google image of the southern part of Crowley County. Much of the land north of the winding Arkansas River is what was dried up decades ago. Otero County is on teh south side of the river. Notice the largest concentration of green fields in Crowley is near Olney Springs.