For a very long time, Kenny Helling’s family history has been rooted in the outskirts of Idalia, on Colorado’s eastern plains, in the region surrounding the south fork of the Republican River. Driving around these dusty county roads with Helling is like stepping into a time warp. His plains are the same plains where his great-grandfather claimed his first quarter section under the Homestead Act in 1886.
The landscape is a continuous reel of Helling family story. Southwest of town, on County Road 7, there's the quiet plains cemetery his great-grandfather built in 1888. “Because his little son was the first one buried here,” according to Helling. “And they didn't have a cemetery yet.”
A few miles away, you can find the spot where a sod hut kept his grandfather alive through a blizzard one night in 1900. “When you homesteaded a quarter [section] you had to build a soddy,” Helling explained. “One real bad spring, he got stuck here. Just him and his horse. Well, he took his horse into the sod house and was able to survive the storm with his horse in there creating a little heat.”
Those first two generations of Hellings made their mark on the land as dryland farmers. Like pretty much everyone else back then, their crops made do with whatever water the clouds blew in. That’s no easy proposition on the wind-swept high desert plains and those early Hellings eked a meager living out of winter wheat and dryland corn.
“When my great-grandfather and my grandfather started farming, nobody knew that the Ogallala Aquifer set underneath us,” Helling explained.
That Ogallala Aquifer Helling’s ancestors didn’t know about is a vast, but shallow reserve of groundwater that lies underneath eight Great Plains states, including Colorado. The Republican River Basin is part of the Ogallala Aquifer. By the middle of the 20th Century, agricultural producers in the area realized what lay beneath their feet, and they were quick to take advantage.
Helling’s father and uncles were among those tapping into that newly discovered groundwater in the Republican River Basin.
“This is the where my dad and his brothers developed their irrigation. It was on this section right here,” Helling said, driving up to the edge of a vast circle of ridged dirt - a recently tilled field. In the distance, 8 tower of an irrigation pivot idled for the season.
The well sat just on the side of a county road.
The surface equipment isn’t particularly remarkable. A dusty metal pump-and-meter combo sits on a concrete pad. A wide blue pipe jutting out the side delivers water underground to an irrigation pivot in the middle of an adjacent field.
But that well, and thousands of others like it, mostly drilled in the 1950’s and 1960’s, completely changed the high plains basin.
“It was a great economic boom,” Helling said. “It gave people great opportunity to grow their farms.”
Groundwater irrigation allowed Helling’s family to expand into entirely new crops, fields and sources of income.
“We were able to get into the sugar beet business, which was a huge boost to return on our investment,” Helling said. “We were able to raise more livestock.”
And it wasn’t just the Hellings who benefitted. The newfound water enriched the entire community and dramatically improved quality of life for producers on the plains. “It's been so beneficial to the people in eastern Colorado because their tax base went up,” Helling said “We were able to have fire protection districts, ambulance districts, hospital districts and our schools. We were able to educate our kids. It's been such a huge, huge thing for this county.”
Fighting over a limited resource
Irrigation wells are a game-changer for farms and entire communities on the high plains, but they also changed the game for the Ogallala Aquifer. The more groundwater that gets pumped to irrigate the agricultural landscape, the less water remains underground. The Ogallala Aquifer is being pumped at a faster rate than it can be replenished, making the water underground a non-renewable resource.
The wells that Helling’s father and uncles drilled back in the 1960’s are a case in point. “We've seen those wells deplete. We've seen those wells go from when my dad put them in, 1,000 to 1,050 gallons a minute, to 400 and even down to 275,” Helling said.
That’s why irrigation wells in Colorado are highly regulated. Thousands of well drilling permits were issued within a few decades of groundwater development, before water managers realized the groundwater was over-appropriated and stopped issuing permits for new large-capacity wells in the 1990’s. Irrigation wells significantly increase land values, and they are a coveted limited resource.
As groundwater levels in the Republican River Basin continue to fall, those irrigation wells are becoming increasingly scarce.
In 2016, Colorado settled a legal dispute with Kansas by pledging to eliminate irrigation on 25,000 acres in a small part of the Republican River Basin known as the South Fork Focus Zone. The Focus Zone is home to about 90,000 acres of irrigated farmland. It’s where Kenny Helling’s family has their fields.
To avoid larger disruptions to irrigation, the state told private farmers they had to permanently give up nearly 30% of the irrigated acres in the South Fork Focus Zone. The stakes are high. If landowners in the South Fork Focus Zone can’t find a way to retire those 25,000 acres before the end of 2029, the Colorado state water engineer has threatened to shut down all irrigation across the entire Republican River Basin.
Helling does not believe the local farming economy, and the community that depends on it could not survive such a jolt.
“I guess you wouldn’t need banks, would you?” he said, contemplating a basin with no irrigation. “You wouldn't need too many schools. People would have to leave. I mean, these towns would dry up.”
Deb Daniel is General Manager of the Republican River Water Conservation District, the entity in change of making sure Colorado stays in compliance with an 80-year-old tri-state compact with Kansas and Nebraska that governs local water rights. Part of that job entails finding landowners who agree to accept payment in exchange for permanently shutting off the water pumps on their fields.
Daniel agrees with Helling. “It's going to hurt everyone, whether you are farming or not,” she said. “Because everything in our basin, it's touched by irrigated ag.”
The Republican River Water Conservation District has signed contracts with landowners to retire nearly 6,300 irrigated acres in the Focus Zone so far. That’s about a quarter of the total needed. But it’s not at all clear where the rest of the 25,000 will come from.
According to Daniel, the community is concerned about the situation with the Focus Zone irrigation wells and hopes to find a collective solution. “Everyone is talking about retiring a portion of their acres and trying to contribute and to help out,” she said.
Public Lands, Public Wells
In spite of the mandate to retire irrigation wells, the lasting value and limited availability still make them attractive investments for public entities. KUNC found that state agencies, like Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the State Land board, own irrigated farmland on the eastern plains that they lease out to local farmers to work. About 15 years ago, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer offered Kenny Helling one of those deals.
“I was putting the electric fence in one day, walking down the gravel road,” Helling recalled, “and the one of the CPW rangers driving down the road, saw me stop and said, 'Kenny, would you guys be interested in farming the Colorado Parks and Wildlife ground?' And I said, 'Well, I don't know, but we'll give it a thought.'”
Irrigated corn grown on a CPW-owned field in the South Fork Focus Zone
He and some of his cousins leased the land soon after. It was a sharecropping deal, growing corn. And it the land came with water.
“When we started farming it, they had two irrigation wells,” Helling said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife made similar deals with other local producers, who grow corn and alfalfa on another two irrigated fields owned by CPW nearby. It was a good arrangement for all involved. Farmers got some extra irrigated acreage to cultivate. The state agencies got rental income.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Tim Kroening said the agency’s fields provide another benefit: The corn and alfalfa help feed local wildlife, like deer, elk and turkey, and lure them away from neighboring farms.
“It's with the wildlife in mind," Kroening said. “Part of that is looking at what's going to alleviate that game damage and then also what's going to be good for wildlife because we want to benefit wildlife.”
Water Use and Water Restriction on the South Fork
For more than 50 years, Bonny Reservoir was a popular outdoor recreation spot for boating, camping and fishing on the eastern plains. The reservoir was created with a dam on the south fork of the Republican River in the 1950’s. Kenny Helling used to go boating there as a kid. It’s where he learned to water ski.
But in 2011, legal disputes with Kansas and Nebraska over the dwindling amounts of water flowing through the South Fork of Republican River prompted the State Water Engineer to drain Bonny Reservoir. The loss was a blow to the community.
“It was a great little beautiful place on the eastern plains,” Helling reminisced. “It's the only recreation we had.”
This campground, near what used to be the shore of Bonny Reservoir, is no longer in use, since the Reservoir was drained in 2011
Today, the old Bonny Reservoir is a tangle of boarded-up visitors centers, disused campsites, and invasive weeds. KUNC also found that Colorado Parks and Wildlife owns three irrigation wells there, including the one farmed by Kenny Helling’s family.
Altogether, CPW’s wells irrigate 340 acres on the old Bonny Reservoir site.
Although those irrigation wells fall within the South Fork Focus Zone, and could contribute to the 25,000-acre goal, Kroening said they have no plans to retire the wells. “We're continuing operations as we have done for decades,” he said. “It's a benefit for our wildlife and frankly, it's a benefit for the whole community that's out there.”
This used to be a bay for docking boats in the Bonny Reservoir, before it was drained. Now the reservoir bed is choked with silt, weeds and invasive trees. The land is still managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, but it is no longer a popular center of outdoor recreation, now that the reservoir has been drained
Kroening argues that CPW’s irrigated acreage is minimal. “It is very much so a drop in the bucket compared to some of the larger operations that are going on in the area,” he said.
But Kenny Helling doesn’t see it that way.
“They may look at it as a tiny drop in the bucket. But the family that owns that 200 gallon-a-minute well, they probably think they're just a tiny drop in the bucket. It takes everybody to participate. Not just one segment of society," hee said.
And for Helling, that especially includes state agencies. “The state has made a decision to retire at 25,000 acres. I feel it's only fair that they participate in that process,” he said.
For family reasons, Helling pulled back from irrigated farming a few years ago, so he is no longer benefiting personally from CPW’s groundwater well. His cousins still work that CPW field.
Helling still feels a deep connection to the land his family stewarded for more than 100 years. And to his entire community that is supported by groundwater. He feels his way of life is under threat. He worries that without irrigation, there won’t be any farming community left to leave to future generations.
”When I see my neighbors and my family have all their wells in the focus zone, and they're expected to retire their water,” Helling said, “I never once saw the state of Colorado come out and say, ‘You know what? We understand. And we're going to retire some of ours.’”
Deb Daniel, with the Republican River Water Conservation District is eyeing those publicly-owned wells in the South Fork Focus Zone. “There are some in this basin who feel like the state should definitely be one of those players that helps to contribute and sacrifice too a bit,” Daniel said. “I'm going to be visiting with Parks and Wildlife and discussing their acres.”
KUNC found that other state agencies, like the State Land Board, also own irrigation wells in the South Fork Focus Zone. The State Land Board currently owns 500 irrigated acres there.
The State Land Board is a state agency that owns millions of acres across Colorado, which it holds in trust for the benefit of the state's public schools. According to Kristen Kemp, the State Land Board Communications and Outreach Officer, the State Land Board would be interested in considering financial incentives offered to landowners to retire their irrigation wells.
"Because we're fiduciaries of these trust holdings, which includes all of this land, if there are opportunities for us to take advantage of the incentives, it would be our obligation to at least examine those opportunities," Kemp said.
But, the State Land Board's hands are also tied by those fiduciary duties.
According to Kemp, "Ultimately the state land board and our commissioners have to make decisions only in the best interest of our trust beneficiaries, which are the public schools of Colorado."
Between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the State Land Board, state agencies currently own at least 840 irrigated acres in the South Fork Focus Zone. But the state has no active plans to retire them.