Urbanization of Agricultural Land

Jul 16, 2015

An additional 2.5 million people are expected to move to Colorado by 2040, the vast majority of them headed for the Front Range.   As part of Connecting the Drops, our state-wide water series, Maeve Conran looks at the impact on Colorado as its landscape changes from crops to houses.

The traffic on a stretch of I-25 north of Denver is the soundtrack to the changes that farmer Kent Peppler has seen happening in Weld County. 

Kent Peppler is a 4th generation farmer near Mead in Southern Weld County Colorado. He has seen farmer after farmer sell agricultural land and agricultural water. "Money rules and some of this water is awfully valuable."
Credit Maeve Conran

"We have a culvert that goes underneath I-25 that brings water to this farm actually and there's a screen on the other side," says Peppler.  "When I was in high school I used park in the barpit and run across I-25 and clean that screen out.  Nobody's fast enough to do that now, there's so much traffic."

This is the epicenter of urban growth and changing land use in Colorado.  Weld County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation.  Its population grew by 40% since 2000 and it's projected to double in the next 25 years.  At the same time, 75% of its 2.5 million acres is devoted to agriculture, and it's Colorado's leading producer of sugar beet, grain, and beef cattle.

This dichotomy of urban growth and increasingly valuable agricultural land and water has led many farmers in the county to sell both resources.  Peppler, who is also President of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, says he's seen this happen time after time. "Money rules and some of this water is awfully valuable."

Weld County is working to preserve its agricultural roots. Its county code has a specific Right to Farm Statement.  Farmers, water managers, land planners and policy makers are looking for alternatives to the traditional buy and dry process, where cities buy ag water rights, shifting them to municipal use.

Some cities are buying land and water then leasing them back to farmers. MaryLou Smith at The Colorado Water Institute at CSU-Fort Collins says that just delays the inevitable. "That land can stay in production for a certain number of years," Smith says, "but eventually, the City of Greeley for instance, will need that water.  That's when the land will be dried up."

The Colorado Water Institute has been working with the Keystone Institute to get land planners and water managers together, and throughout Colorado some solutions are emerging. In the Arkansas Valley, some farmers practice rotational fallowing, so they can lease, but not sell, water not being used.  But a bill that would have allowed other types of temporary transfers of irrigation water failed in the state legislature this year. Smith says solutions to water problems can look good on paper, but it's hard to get everyone on the same page.

"The devil is in the details," says Smith. "So even those who are trying to develop ag and urban water sharing don't necessarily agree on the way to do it."

But Smith says she sees solutions to our water problems coming with the next generation in agriculture who are moving away from the win-lose paradigm so prevalent in water discussions.

"It may take a new generation. It may take some of us my age dying off before we finally catch on that we can figure this out and we can incorporate all of these values. I really believe it."

Kent Peppler remembers Mead in his youth as a sleepy town of 200-300, now the population is over 3500.
Credit Maeve Conran

Back at the Peppler farm in southern Weld County, the next generation of farmers pulls up.  19-year-old Tyson Peppler pulls up in his pickup truck, home from Farmers Union Camp where he's been a camp counselor for the past three weeks.  He's set to be the 5th generation farming this land. He's currently majoring in agricultural economics at CSU, and he's already borne witness to how development has encroached on farm lands.

"As long as I can remember people have been selling their farms," says Tyson Peppler. "It's just how it's been going, you sell your land...it is a little concerning."

This is something Tyson and the next generation of farmers will have to deal with and it's happening faster than his father Kent could have predicted as he surveys the housing developments that now dot the landscape surrounding his farm.  

"I really didn't think it would be my generation that has to deal with development," says Kent Peppler. "We all knew it was coming, but I didn't think it would be in my lifetime and here we are in the middle of it."

Kent Peppler says he gets regular offers to sell his water rights to developers. "Oh yeah, I'm tempted every day, especially when things don't go well round here."

But Tyson Peppler says he's ready to take on the challenge, and he says, there's no way he's selling the water.

Connecting the Drops is a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.  KRCC's Andrea Chalfin serves as the primary editor. Find out more about water in the state at YourWaterColorado.org.