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To reduce water use, farmers in Colorado tax themselves

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Duard Fix is torn.

On the one hand, the wells with which he irrigates his corn crop are producing lots of water on good land, and corn prices are at near-record highs. On the other, several of those wells – the ones closest to the Republican River – may soon be shut down, as this area struggles to reduce the amount of water it uses from the river.

His neighbors here in eastern Colorado have been raising money for a program to pay farmers like Mr. Fix to retire some of those wells, but it would mean giving up on productive land in a great market. If he doesn't participate, they could get shut down anyway by the state, without compensation.

"It's a tough decision to make," says Fix, who lives on the same farm where he was born more than 70 years ago. "I don't want to give up my water with no chance of ever getting it back. We're going to wait until the end of this year and see where we are."

As the once-plentiful water in the aquifer in this and other areas dwindles, farmers needing irrigation, like Fix, are beginning to see it as a limited resource. Interstate compacts like the one governing the Republican River and other competing water demands are forcing tough choices.

Against that backdrop, farmers in Yuma County are taking significant steps to voluntarily reduce the water they use. They've taxed themselves to kickstart a federal program to get farmers like Fix to retire certain wells. And they're working with conservationists and other unlikely partners to come up with the softest landing possible for farmers, who regard their wells as liquid gold in a region with frequent droughts and little rain.

"They're being very proactive," says Ken Knox, Colorado's chief deputy state engineer, who says he's been receiving calls from other Western states that would like to emulate the Republican River farmers. He is trying to help farmers in the Rio Grande valley set up a similar model, he says. "They're assessing themselves. So even at a personal cost they're trying to work with the state – which I find refreshing – and they're looking for a long-term solution. It's a bit unique."


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