Many farmers along the upper South Platte are grateful to have someone like author Tershia d'Elgin sharing their plight in the modern-day water wars.

Many farmers along the upper South Platte are grateful to have someone like author Tershia d’Elgin sharing their plight in the modern-day water wars.

Gene Kammerzell, of Milliken, owner of Arborland Tree Farm, is one of them. He lives on the north side of the river across from the farm D’Elgin’s family owns.

“She’s told a very factual story,” he said of her book, "The Man Who Thought He Owned Water," published last year by the University of Colorado Press.

Like her family, Kammerzell has irrigation wells that were curtailed after the courts handed down a controversial decision on groundwater augmentation requirements.

“We used to operate our well 140 days a year, and now we are down to 10 days,” he said. “That groundwater is tied up legally to where we can’t touch it, but meanwhile a million acre-feet of water a year is going downstream to Nebraska.”

“According to the latest engineering calculation, our aquifer has 10 and a half million acre-feet that is being stored right under our feet. That aquifer is brim-full and valuable land is being destroyed because the high water table is pushing dissolved salts up to the surface, so the soils are now so alkaline nothing will grow,” he added.

Kammerzell is lucky compared to many of his neighbors. Produce growers are forced to monitor and treat their water. A couple of miles downstream, the ground is so poor that nothing will germinate.

“It hasn’t hampered me from growing shade trees and shrubs, because most of those things are tolerant to the water conditions I have,” he said.

Still, at 71, he’d like to be able to sell his farm and use the proceeds to retire. He feels like some of his wealth has been stripped away.

“If only a limited spectrum of crops will grow, that limits the value of your property,” he said.

D’Elgin’s book is popular among members of the Weld County Farm Bureau, who have also shared it with legislators, according to Bob Winter, of Windsor, the group’s past president.

“We’ve had her at our county meetings, and we just appreciate all the work she’s doing,” he said. “It is a comprehensive book. She did a lot of research, and she lived part of it too.”

Winter’s irrigation wells weren’t shut down by the same guidance as those closer to the South Platte, because they weren’t considered a tributary. He had no idea about any of that, however, when he bought the farm.

Using flood irrigation, Winter grew sugar beets, pinto beans, alfalfa, barley, onions and carrots before retiring in 2005.

“The courts are dictating our water laws, and municipalities have more money to pay attorneys than the farmers do,” he said. “Farmers can’t go down the legal path of protecting their rights because they can’t afford it.”

Greg Peterson, executive director of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance, has read d’Elgin’s book and recommends it often.

“I’ve read a lot about water in the West, but that book is unique,” he said. “It’s very emotional, but that’s something I’ve found, that when you start talking to farmers and ranchers about water, the conversation quickly turns to their home and their family history. I thought she did a good job of showing that.”

“What I got from it, and maybe what she was trying to get across, is that we’re all reliant upon agriculture and the oil and gas industry,” he continued. “It’s very easy to blame another group for everything, but it’s a lot of harder to look at yourself.”

While farmers along the upper South Platte and those along the lower portion of the river might have different views on whether the new augmentation requirements are fair, they all understand the importance of educating the public about why keeping water tied to agriculture is critical to the state’s future, Peterson said.

Peterson himself is uniquely positioned to help get that story across. He grew up in the suburbs of Denver and studied history and politics before becoming interested in water issues. He continues to reside in Denver.

“I live in one world and work in another,” he said. “Here in Denver everything is getting better, whereas the tone in a lot of these rural towns is everything’s getting worse. When I explain to people in the city what I do, it is not a short conversation. A lot of the stuff I work on is totally foreign to them.”

Concepts like improving irrigation efficiency and switching to lower water use crops sound easy but the truth is messier, he said, adding that he finds it odd that farmers are lectured about changing their practices while consumers seem to get a pass.

“Nobody’s asking me to drive less or re-introduce wolves into my neighborhood,” he said.

Having learned more about agriculture’s challenges, he hopes to lead others down that same path.

Part of the problem, he believes, is that too many leaders and influencers have given up on educating the public, choosing instead to accept “dumbing them down.”

“Consumers are often thought of as baby birds that need to be fed, but that’s condescending, and it limits our potential solutions,” he said.

Colorado Ag Water Alliance is making a strong push to do its part to provide outreach to non-farmers. Two bus tours were held in northeast Colorado this summer and another is planned for Sept. 27 in the Arkansas River Basin, designed to allow conservationists, legislators, lobbyists and others to visit farms and learn about production practices firsthand.

The group has also started developing educational webinars and planning a summit on Dec. 5 designed to appeal to the general public.

“We’re just trying to figure out how best to tell the story of rural Colorado and of agricultural water use,” Peterson said.

Leaders of the group think the effort is paying off.

“I thought the tours went real well, and it’s something we should keep doing,” said Carlyle Currier, who ranches on the Western Slope near Molina.

Peterson has also been pleased. “One person came up to me afterward and said, ‘Well, I guess maybe farmers are making responsible decisions,’” he recalled.