Farmers Threaten Suit over Irrigation Water

Article excerpt

PLEASANT VIEW, Colo. - Farmers who were thirsting for irrigation water here in southwest Colorado 10 years ago now say it is too costly, and they are threatening to sue the federal government to stop its delivery to their farms.

"We just can't afford it - it is as simple as that," said R.R. (Junior) Hollen, a 63-year-old farmer who raises wheat, alfalfa and pinto beans. "If prices were what they were 10 years ago, we might have a chance. But we haven't got a chance now."

When the project was proposed to farmers in 1977, its economics looked irresistible. Farmers would get water at cheap, federally subsidized rates, said the United States Bureau of Reclamation. Crop yields would double. Land values would rise. The whole countryside, and its economy, would grow greener. So many signed a petition to have a dam built, obligating them to accept the water when it came.

But this month, as the first few drops of water from the dam on the Dolores River trickle onto farm fields, all that has changed. Crop prices have tumbled while the cost of the dam and its water has soared. Irrigation, the great engine of rural development in the West, no longer makes sense for farmers here and could even cost them their land if they are forced into bankruptcy, the farmers said.

"If we could see a way to make it pay, you wouldn't hear anybody crying," said Clay Hollen, Hollen's son. "But the bottom line is you've got to pay your bills. And so far nobody has showed us any figures to indicate we can make a profit."

But the project's supporters disagree. They said that agriculture could snap out of its financial slump in a few years, making irrigated farming more profitable. Further, they said farmers would not have to pay for the water until 1997.

"Several years from now, we'll be looking back on this project and thinking it was a bargain," said John Porter, manager of the Delores Water Conservancy District, which manages the project. "The only reason you can't call this cheap water now is the depressed nature of agriculture."

Years ago, when dams were cheaper and dam sites more plentiful, farmers routinely found success at the end of an irrigation pipe. But today, that is no longer the case.

"Our sense is that we are hearing more rumbling about this," said John Folk-Williams, president of Western Network, a New Mexico research group specializing in natural resource issues. …