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Reservoir empty, farm wells retired amid high demand for water on Colorado's Eastern Plains

Colorado reservoir empty, farm wells retired amid high demand for water
Colorado reservoir empty, farm wells retired amid high demand for water 06:11

Growing populations and changing weather patterns have made water resources more valuable than ever. While the dwindling Colorado River is a focus for conservation now, the Republican River Basin in eastern Colorado is a potential roadmap for what's to come.

A decades old compact requires that a certain amount of the water in the river must flow into Kansas, meeting the requirement today means emptying reservoirs and asking farmers to retire wells that have fueled the agriculture industry in the area.

Once a launching point for recreation on the Eastern Plains, the boat ramp at Flagler Reservoir in Kit Carson County today is nothing more than a sidewalk to a dried up lakebed.


"The saying is: whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting and that old adage is getting to become more and more of a realization as we move forward here," said Bob Brachtenbach, who lives on a farm near Stratton about 150 miles east of Denver

While he sees a beauty in its emptiness, Brachtenbach, remembers when Flagler Reservoir was filled with water and created an escape for local families and a destination for visitors.

"Well, I just remember people fishing and a little bit of swimming and so forth is what I remember being here," he said.

The largemouth bass and bluegill that once inhabited the waters have disappeared, much like the words on the signs that once welcomed out-of-towners.

"It makes you very aware of how precious water is and to the livelihood of everybody out here," Brachtenbach said.


Demand for water was the catalyst for the now-empty reservoir.

"We were out of compliance with the acre feet of water that's supposed to be delivered out of Colorado through the Republican River Basin."

It's just one of several changes his family has seen over generations of farming the land.

"It's all just local what precip we get here helps to feed the river and give us what we get. So yes, there's no other supply from anywhere else," he said.


The rain and snowfall they do see isn't what it once was, making farming and ranching tough to sustain.

"I mean, that's the thing. You look at economically it has effected the community. It wasn't probably a huge impact, but it all adds up."

He sees those impacts every day driving down Main Street in his hometown.

Stratton, Colorado   CBS

"The water issues and other things have led to the drop in enrollment," he said. "There are just less people out on the land, less people in the community."

A good rainy season this past spring was enough to excite the Coloradan, who snapped photos of streams in the area flowing with water. It an occurence he'd only seen once before. That was in 1993. A bed of sand now is all that's left behind.

"What I've seen is more than anything is we don't get the snowfall that we got when I was kid."

Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, says it's a result of climate change.

"One of the big challenges is that we are seeing significant warming across the state particularly in our fall months."

Bolinger says a hot fall season not only shortens our snow accumulating window but changes where that precipitation ends up.

"We are evaporating that extra moisture out of the soils and then we are kind of locking in those soils to be dry throughout the winter and then that's something that is going to come back to remind us of a bucket that needs to be filled," Bolinger said.

Over the years, wells on the Brachtenbach family farm that once pumped 1,000 gallons of water out of a minute dropped to just over 100 gallons, leading to their decision to seal up the wells used to irrigate their crops for years. They've stopped pumping water out of the aquifer underground.

"We knew kind of what the writing was on the wall: eventually we were going to get to the point there wasn't going to be any water to pump anyway," Brachtenbach said.


 They chose to put some of the land into the Republican River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. That means they've agreed not to farm or graze their land for at least 10 years.

"Eventually either (it was) willingly give it up and get paid to give it up or it could have been a case where the state or the district may have said it's a cease and desist."

As a climatologist, Bolinger says programs like CREP are good options, but not a long term solution.

"But there's the other side of it and that we need to grow things. We've got an agriculture industry that helps us economically and gives us food."

Adapting to change, she says, is key: "Smarter farming and ranching and climate, smart agriculture. Updating management practices and realizing that you might not be able to do things on a farm the way they were done 100 years ago."

It's a message Brachtenbach himself is helping to spread. With the land he can use, his operation now focuses on dryland farming. And his job now is in field research and helping to develop more resistant seeds, some for drought specifically.

"There's a lot of dollars spent in the research side for this kind of stuff just so we can hopefully develop something that will benefit the farmer."

That's a benefit he hopes will stretch far beyond his own.

For stories about rising sea levels across the country, and to watch the documentary 'On the Dot' please visit Arctic melting foreshadows America's climate future.

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