While a series of hurricanes were bringing catastrophic flooding to America's overdeveloped coastline, Tershia d'Elgin was drawing on her experiences helping to manage an irrigated farm along the South Platte River in northeastern Colorado to make the point that unchecked urbanization that displaces farms makes the environment less adaptable and resilient, with dire consequences for urban and rural residents alike.
While a series of hurricanes were bringing catastrophic flooding to America’s overdeveloped coastline, Tershia d’Elgin was drawing on her experiences helping to manage an irrigated farm along the South Platte River in northeastern Colorado to make the point that unchecked urbanization that displaces farms makes the environment less adaptable and resilient, with dire consequences for urban and rural residents alike.
“What should be natural buffers are no longer there,” she noted recently in an interview, adding that flood plain maps are being revised all over the country due to pervasive new roads, roofs and pavement.
“When are people going to figure out that development is causing it?” she said. “The water has nowhere to go.”
Anyone who thinks the massive storm surges in Houston or Miami is a distant problem applicable only to coastal cities has not made the connection with 2013’s historic flood along the South Platte. But the parallels are obvious to d’Elgin, who spells out why in a sweeping historical study, which was published last year by the University Press of Colorado and later honored with a Colorado Humanities Nonfiction Award.
Structured largely as a family memoir, the book is her attempt to awaken urban readers to the plight of American farms and the consequences to wildlife, food and water.
D’Elgin recently signed books and made presentations to conservation groups in Colorado. She also published an op-ed about the shortcomings of the state’s new water plan in Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly. All of these activities flow from her master project — the sometimes funny, often impassioned, highly personal chronicle of her family’s experience running an irrigated farm in northeastern Colorado.
"The Man Who Thought He Owned Water," the book’s title, is a reference to her father, William Eaton Phelps, who left Denver in the 1960s to pursue life as a farmer. He bought land with valuable irrigation rights along what was then a sparsely populated stretch of the South Platte called Big Bend Station.
“He was a version of all who trust that weather, rivers and government will deliver the wet stuff,” she writes in her prologue.
But that was long before the confluence of runaway urban growth, historic drought, changing water augmentation requirements and stricter enforcement of interstate water compacts led to the curtailment of hundreds of irrigation wells across Northeast Colorado. It’s a riveting story, but somewhat surprising that d’Elgin emerged as the one to tell it.
By her own admission, she’s “a liberal social activist and environmentalist” who moved to San Diego in 1974 to pursue journalism, editing and wetland restoration, and grew up with only a passing interest in her father’s farming.
Still, when her family’s wells became imperiled, along with many others, she undertook a massive research effort to better understand their water rights and the forces threatening them. After 10 years of digging, including countless meetings with water engineers, hydrologists and ditch managers, she gradually shaped her findings into a manuscript.
In 2013, when a monumental downpour inundated Boulder Creek and triggered a chain reaction that pushed the river over its banks all the way to western Nebraska, d’Elgin knew she had both the story’s climactic ending and a persuasive reason for CU’s press — which is located near where the tragedy began — to publish it.
In the book, she blames man-made structures like paved roads, parking lots, and buildings along the Front Range with intensifying the deluge of water. Additionally, she explains how ditch diversion structures, increasingly restrictive due to all the calls on the river’s water, also backed up the flow, causing the onslaught to overspill dams and bust through dikes before submerging her family’s house and yard.
Such a catastrophe should not have come as a total surprise. “Everything’s paved and the reservoirs are all full and the groundwater is all full,” she lamented.
The book begins well beyond that fateful moment, however, by painstakingly recapping the area’s early historical settlement and the convoluted legalese that came to rule over water appropriation, and does it in such a way that makes the tale surprisingly comprehensible for a general audience.
She is in a unique position to narrate the story. It was her great-great-grandfather, Ben Eaton, the state’s fourth governor, who developed the ambitious irrigation system that paved the way for today’s population boom.
In her recent editorial, she reminds readers that “food is made of water” and that’s why farmers have to use so much of it.
She also asserts that the new state water plan caters most to the one group that caused the need to draft it in the first place: the developers.
Maintaining the current rate of growth will ultimately result in fewer farms, more fallowed acreage and more food coming from overseas, she reasons.
“In the last 20 years, food imports have tripled but exports have gone up by only one-half of one percent,” she writes. “We have only to look at ancient Rome and present-day Venezuela to learn that civilizations that can’t feed their populations crumble!”
“When you think about the water and energy footprint, the refrigeration and transportation needed to import food, you’ve got a math problem that isn’t looking so great,” she said in the interview. “Not to mention that food is most nutritious when it’s harvested, not two months later.”
“Farmers know this stuff, but people in the cities don’t think holistically about our economy, and they’ve lost a sense of personal responsibility,” she said. “Everybody is in their own little cell and doing that one thing, not looking at the consequences of everything together.”
Since d’Elgin’s book came out, her mother passed away quietly at home. Neighboring farmers continue to cultivate the land. With big feedlots located just up the road, the farm grows mostly corn to sell as feed, although d‘Elgin is interested in exploring the possibility of using rotational grazing to raise grass-fed beef.
Every move regarding the five irrigation wells on the property is carefully considered so as not to jeopardize existing water rights. “Developmental interests can afford sharp attorneys, and so we have to be watchful,” she said. “For them, it’s a game. Farmers have the water, and they spend all of their time strategizing about how to get ahold of it.”
While she visits Colorado several times a year, d’Elgin still lives in San Diego, where she’s surrounded by urbanites quick to point fingers at farmers and wring their hands over Middle America’s support of Donald Trump.
Her ties to the farm give her an unusually broad and nuanced perspective.
“It’s easy to be in favor of the Endangered Species Act when you’re sitting in town, because you don’t have any actual experience with it,” she said. “The Waters of the U.S. was positive for me, because it created a way to raise money for wetlands restoration. But for farmers, it was seen as taking away authority over their land and water. Like so many other things, it’s more complicated than people realize.”
“Lots of people fantasize about a country life, but few grasp the desperate and complex water issues that challenge the American-grown food on which we all depend,” she writes in her book.
“I don't know how to bridge that,” she said during the interview.
Still, she hasn’t given up trying.