|Water: A New Cash Crop
Strapped growers are selling their rights to thirsty cities and suburbs, a
transfer that can parch farmland, businesses and jobs.
By Seth Hettena
Associated Press Writer
January 4, 2004
ROCKY FORD, Colo. - Ron Aschermann could barely eke out a living raising
melons, cucumbers, tomatoes and other crops on his 300-acre farm. But
quitting the business will earn him more than $1.2 million.
Aschermann and scores of other farmers on the high plains of southeastern
Colorado are selling water, which once produced melons, to the Denver
suburb of Aurora. The prairie will retake land that has long known the
"Yeah, it's not a healthy thing to do for the area, but let me tell you:
Farming is not that great anymore either. These rural communities in
almost any state you want to go into, they're all getting smaller," said
Aschermann, 60, whose family has farmed in the area since 1911. "The best
dollar for the asset right now is the water."
The same thing is happening across the West as the nation's
fastest-growing region shifts more water from farms to thirsty cities.
Billions of gallons changed hands last year in eight Western states, and
even more will flow in years to come. California recently approved a
75-year shift of water from desert farms to San Diego.
Colorado's Arkansas River Valley serves as a cautionary example for the
West's burgeoning water market. For a onetime payment of $18 million,
Aurora bought water to flush toilets and grow flowers in new homes, and a
faded farm region will be dealt another blow. What was once the town's
pride, a 13-mile ditch that settlers dug by hand shortly after the Civil
War, will be nearly drained. When the water leaves, more jobs and local
businesses are expected to dry up as well.
"Westwide, over the next 25 to 50 years, you will clearly see additional
examples of what's happening in the Arkansas Valley," said Bennett Raley,
a Denver water lawyer who is now the Bush administration's point man for
Western water issues.
Across the Arkansas River from Rocky Ford, Carl McClure, 65, president of
the local farmers union, offers a tour of what happened to a neighboring
county that sold most of its water to Colorado Springs and other cities.
McClure noses his pickup past Crowley County's closed railroad stations,
empty storefronts and a shuttered car dealership. An alfalfa field has
disappeared beneath the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, a
medium-security state prison. McClure retired after working there 12 years
to supplement his farm income.
"This is what replaces farms when you take the water away," McClure said,
gazing at the prison's floodlights and chain-link fence.
Down the road is the newer Crowley County Correctional Facility. Together,
the two prisons house more than 2,000 male inmates, a group that has grown
to represent nearly half the county's population.
"It can be very depressing," McClure said. "Crowley County is a prime
example of what shouldn't happen."
It's a fate that California's Imperial Valley, the state's poorest region,
hopes to avoid. In October, the desert farm region, the largest single
user of Colorado River water, narrowly agreed to ship some of its supply
to San Diego for $3.5 billion over 45 years - the biggest sale of its kind
in U.S. history.
Imperial found itself under extraordinary and unprecedented pressure to
sell. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation threatened to take away some water
that it deemed the desert farmers were wasting.
The water sale is designed to give Imperial and its $1-billion-a-year farm
economy a measure of financial security, but many worry about the future
of the valley tucked in California's southeastern corner. Valley farmers
flood desert fields to produce huge amounts of alfalfa, a thirsty,
low-value crop. The question on many minds is whether growers will be
tempted to farm water rather than farm the land.
"It's much easier to go the mailbox and pick up a check than it is to go
out there and put in a 60-, 70-, 80-hour week," said John Pierre
Menvielle, a third-generation farmer in Heber, Calif., who has been
raising crops in the valley for 32 years.
Farm towns in California have gone under when they lost their water to
cities. The Owens Valley, in the high desert east of the Sierra, became a
dust bowl when Los Angeles quietly acquired its water and flushed it down
an aqueduct to the city 90 years ago. The 1974 film "Chinatown" was
loosely based on what's been dubbed the "water grab."
"Whoever brings the water brings the people," wrote William Mulholland,
the aqueduct's legendary creator.
Modern-day water speculators still stalk the waterways of the West.
Denver investors bought up Rocky Ford's sugar beet refinery and sold the
water associated with it to Aurora 20 years ago. A decade later, brothers
Lee and Edward Bass, oil barons from Houston, quietly bought up Imperial
Valley land and then tried unsuccessfully to sell the water out from under
it. Recently, another Arkansas Valley canal has attracted interest from
investors in Denver and New Orleans.
So what's the answer for the 450,000 farms in the West? Squeezed by rising
equipment prices, depressed crop prices and a brutal drought, farmers are
finding it harder to hang on. Farms use as much as 95% of the water in
some areas of the West. Growing cities will continue nibbling away at
Many believe water markets offer a way to get water to cities without
completely wiping out farms.
Over the last decade, Northern California's rice farmers have sold smaller
stakes of their sizable water supply to Los Angeles. Instead of viewing it
as a threat to their survival, growers say selling water offers them a
financial cushion in case the price of rice collapses.
"I truly believe that it could be a beneficial part of a farmer's mix at a
small level," rice grower Don Bransford said.
Similarly, a market has evolved for water of the massive Colorado-Big
Thompson Project, which brings Rockies water to northeastern Colorado
through a series of dams, tunnels and pipes. Cities have paid as much as 6
cents a gallon for Big Thompson water, some of the state's and the West's
Towns in Texas lease large amounts of Rio Grande water through
well-functioning markets; developers have set up a system to buy Truckee
River water for new homes in and around Reno, and Albuquerque has been
buying up middle Rio Grande water rights from farmers, according to the
Water Strategist, a California publication that tracks sales.
Brent M. Haddad, associate professor of environmental studies at UC Santa
Cruz and author of "Rivers of Gold," takes a different view of water
"The bell tolls when you create water markets, because all this is going
to do is shrink the number of farms," he said. "What we're talking about
is a means of moving from farms to cities."
Turn on the tap in Aurora and out comes water that once grew crops.
Three-fourths of the water that helped the sprawling suburb east of Denver
vault into the ranks of Colorado's biggest cities was acquired from
Over the last decade, most of the city's new water has come from the
Arkansas River Valley, according to Doug Kemper, Aurora's water resources
manager. Once the Rocky Ford water sale is approved by a judge, water that
once went on the Aschermann farm will start flowing into the city.
"They're going to drink it. They're going to have parks. They're going to
grow flowers. They're going to have baseball diamonds and football fields.
They're going to have all those things," Aschermann said. "When you can't
make it on the farm, what else do you do?"