WELD COUNTY, Colo. – After knocking heads with the state for years over a mandated shutdown of irrigation wells, some Weld County farmers have decided that it’s time to sell their water.
The sale will make the water supply more dependable for Aurora residents, as the city just spent $4 million buying 324 acre-feet of water from two Weld County farmers.
But some are worried that it might dry-up prime cropland in parts of the county, which is one of the country's most productive.
"It was tough making that decision," said Chuck Sylvester, whose farm near LaSalle has been in his family for 150 years, "knowing how hard my ancestors worked when they built the ditch there. It had to be with horses and here I come along four generations later and sell it."
Sylvester told Denver7 that the value of his irrigation water, based on consumptive use, has declined by one-third over the last 12 years. He said that's the reason he selling it now.
"I see this consumptive use going down 3 percent per year," he said. "Water will have less value years from now because they keep saying, 'Well, you've got this seep water, your plants don't need as much irrigation.'"
Sylvester said his frustrations have been compounded by a rising water table, which he attributes to a court order that forbids many farmers in the LaSalle area from activating well pumps. The order is intended to help provide more river water to farmers with senior water rights downstream in Logan County.
He said the water table is creating havoc on and off the farm.
“It is flooding basements. It is causing septic systems to not work,” he said. “The town of Gilcrest, their sewage treatment plant is affected.”
The longtime farmer said the state is essentially using the area between Greeley and Denver to store eight times the amount of water that Lake McConaughy holds, underground.
“Water Court – I hate to say it – is a Kangaroo Court,” Sylvester said. “Decisions are not based on science and fact. They are based on politics and money.”
He said if other LaSalle-area farmers want to reap the full benefits of their farms and water rights, they would be wise to sell now before the value drops further.
When asked if the sales will mean parts of Weld County could end up looking as barren as the Arkansas River Valley, Sylvester said, "Yes."
“They’re almost forcing it…because they’re taking away the value,” he said. “We have a diminishing product and that’s going to happen.”
Sylvester has nothing but good words for Aurora, however. He says they’re allowing him to lease back the water for 10 years, and says the money from the water sale will go into a 1031 company. He says he plans to buy a farm in Wyoming, where water law is a little different, and plans to help a young farmer get started there.