YOU CAN DRIVE for miles here in Crowley County and not see another human. The parks are empty. The storefronts are empty. The fields are empty. Walk down Main Street in Ordway; up Broadway in the town of Crowley; across Colorado Street in Sugar City; you’ll be hard-pressed to run into anyone. That’s not to say there’s nothing here. There are ghosts—not apparitions, but rather the remnants of what once was. There’s the sugar plant that closed 47 years ago; there are the rusting railroad tracks. Everywhere you look, you’ll find emptiness, a thirsty patchwork of eroding dirt that stretches toward the horizon.

Drive through the isolated towns and empty farmland for long enough, though, and someone will finally appear. At JR’s Country Store & Restaurant off County Road G; in the basement of the old schoolhouse that’s been turned into a museum; inside the shared office of the three county commissioners. A smile and a handshake, that’s what you’ll get. And because you’re an outsider, these people will want to talk to you about the past: the sugar plant and the railroad, the farms and their crops. They’ll tell you about the five grocery stores that once operated in Ordway, about the old Ford dealership and the movie theater. Someone might even show you the water-filled canal that veers off the nearby Arkansas River, once the source of life for so much of this region. They’ll tell you the history of that water here, about how it once was used to grow tomatoes and melons, wheat and corn. They’ll point to that water still flowing through the canal—the absurdity of it all-—and tell you that hardly any of it belongs to them anymore.

cows in a pasture
Dust Bowl. Most of the topsoil in Crowley County is fallow after years of being completely dry. Photo by Matt Slaby

IN THE DISTANCE, a tractor bumps along the hard earth, a trail of dust behind it. It’s late summer and there should be corn rising from the ground this time of year, but there are hardly any crops in sight. There’s mostly sunlight and dirt. The mower behind the tractor is shredding acre after acre of weeds.

Because you’ve never seen anything quite so strange, you come to a stop along County Road F to watch. The edges of the land look like parapets from a long-forgotten war. You wade through the blowing dirt and walk toward the tractor. The farmer eases out of the cab but keeps the engine running. This is Matt Heimerich.

Heimerich is not the type of person you think of when you imagine the Colorado prairie. Born in Brooklyn, he came to this land of fields and farmhouses almost 30 years ago because of his wife, who grew up just a couple of miles away. Since arriving in Crowley County, Heimerich has served as president of the Chamber of Commerce, as a commissioner, and as a prominent name in one of the area’s last farming families. He’s now 57, and in many ways, Heimerich might be described as a survivor simply by standing on this ground.

Today, Crowley County is a case study in what happens when the water runs out, when the fields go barren, when hope dries up. The place is whatever you want to make of it. For some, it’s an environmental disaster worthy of academic papers; for others, it’s a crucible in which you can assess the psychological impact of what happens when good people make shortsighted decisions. Whatever you think, this is a fact: Beginning more than 40 years ago—and continuing for the next two decades—the county’s farmers sold off the rights to more than 80,000 acre-feet of water that previously fed their fields, enough to fill nearly 50,000 Olympic-size swimming pools every year. The water then was flipped to Front Range cities to use for everything from lawns to showers to aquariums. While the sales have been something of a gift for growing municipalities such as Aurora and Colorado Springs, the lack of water on this stamp of southeastern Colorado has been devastating.

“Dad said when he came here in 1950, it was a really great place; it was good farm ground. I’m not so sure now.”

Heimerich beats the dust off his jeans and plants a pair of tortoise shell–frame sunglasses atop his graying hair. “My neighbor,” he says. For the next several minutes, Heimerich complains about the man across the road—one of hundreds of property owners here without water for crops—who isn’t taking care of what remains of his land. First the weeds came, then the drought destroyed whatever topsoil remained. Now the dirt is blowing everywhere, piling up across the fields, threatening Heimerich’s land just 80 feet away. “It’s a recurring nightmare,” he says.

Over the years, this former city boy has learned how fragile the ground is. He’s learned the difference between being prepared and getting lucky and how a good farmer brags about neither. He’s also learned about regret. “I’ve seen the pictures,” says Heimerich, whose wife’s family is one of the few that didn’t sell all its water rights. “Dad said when he came here in 1950, it was a really great place; it was good farm ground. I’m not so sure now.” The feeling’s not specific to this place, but people here will tell you theirs is a unique pain, a special kind of hurt. This is the understanding that things will never get better. It’s a regret that comes with the stoic acceptance that the past is the past and the future was mortgaged long ago.

Frank Grant and Tobe Allumbaugh standing near Crowley County’s Lake Henry.
At Water’s Edge. Frank Grant (left) and Tobe Allumbaugh, near Crowley County’s Lake Henry. Photo by Matt Slaby

IT WAS THE PIONEERS who saw the land’s potential. The first horse-plowed canals off the Arkansas River were constructed in the 1880s, followed by some of Colorado’s earliest claims on water rights. In 1911, Crowley County was formed out of a section of Otero County that included some of the lower Arkansas River Valley’s most productive soil. By then, hundreds of farming families—including German-Russian, Japanese, and Mexican immigrants—had settled in the area and watched as the intricate maze of canals brought millions of gallons of Arkansas River water to their properties.

One of the visionaries was a man named T.C. Henry, a Kansas entrepreneur whose appetite for agricultural water was obscured only by his penchant for overreaching. Only a third of a 150-mile canal he planned to build in the 1880s was completed. Even so, Henry is responsible for most of the county’s canals, work that earned him the nickname “the Apostle of Irrigation.”

Since those early days, land speculation and water have gone hand in hand in the region. Looking to cash in on the late-1800s land-grab across the American West, speculators from New York tapped into two lakes near Leadville and devised a system to run the water through the Rocky Mountains along a series of creeks and rivers and into present-day Crowley County. Via the so-called Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company, farmers were offered shares to an estimated 100,000 acre-feet of previously unavailable water. Thousands of people moved to the area. Beets and cantaloupes were turned out by the railcar; agriculture was king, and everything in the county, from its financial security to its pride, flowed directly from the fields.

Agriculture was king, and everything in the county, from its financial security to its pride, flowed directly from the fields.

Then came the stock market crash of 1929 and, two years later, the Dust Bowl. In 1932—with canal water drying up—a group of Crowley County farmers came up with an idea as progressive and gutsy as anything Henry could have dreamed up: They’d return to the mountains and claim even more Western Slope water, then divert it to Twin Lakes. The project would increase the county’s water supply by more than 20,000 acre-feet. Approval for the plan seemed unfathomable given the financial constraints of the time, but by 1936, the county got Colorado’s political delegation to sign off, had the state’s water board behind it, and secured $2.2 million from the federal government to build the Independence Pass Transmountain Diversion System, an engineering masterpiece that included a water tunnel under the Continental Divide.

In the years after the transmountain diversion’s completion, interstates were built and postwar prosperity allowed citizens around the country to move from farms to the nascent suburbs. By the 1960s, Crowley County was struggling. Sugar City’s sugar factory was sliding toward bankruptcy. Jobs disappeared. Farmers were suffering through the back end of a 10-year drought that had them questioning their solvency. Children who’d once envisioned their futures on tractors told disappointed parents they wanted to move elsewhere. Farmers began to look for a way out.

Crowley County became ripe for a takeover. The first large-scale transfer of valley irrigation water for urban use happened in 1955 when the Otero Canal Company sold the Ewing Ditch and Clear Creek Reservoir—both near Leadville—to Pueblo. That opened the door for what would happen in Crowley County about 15 years later, when water developers formed the Crowley Land and Development Company (CLADCO) and started to buy farmland and connected water rights for between $300 and $400 per acre, which was significantly more than the market price. What seemed like a prudent way for families to pay down debts and build retirement funds ended up being an intentional plot—one that had long-term and disastrous consequences for the community.

Canal company rules at the time stated that water rights were tied to the land. For years, CLADCO bought up acreage, focusing initially on less-productive farms. Each sale became more important to speculators: CLADCO wouldn’t get a dime from its investments until it owned two-thirds of Crowley County’s farmland and its attached agricultural water. By 1972, it finally happened. Then the company began pressing to separate the water from the land—an unthinkable proposal for families who’d never considered their water a bankable resource. In 1974, after a contentious legal battle, a state water court ruled that the county’s water could be used for purposes outside farming.

Crowley County’s most valuable resource was first marketed to urban utilities in Pueblo and Colorado Springs. As other county farms began to fall apart and the land started to run dry, more residents cashed in. Eventually, farmers started selling their canal rights but keeping their unirrigated land—a process now known as “buy-and-dry.” Almost all of the Twin Lakes water shares had been resold to sprawling Front Range cities by 1980. Another spate of sales, this time with shares from a second canal company, began in the mid-1980s; farmers were paid $1,500 to $2,500 per share for water rights. Speculators, in turn, sold those shares to municipalities, including Aurora, which had been growing at a breakneck pace over the previous decade. Between the ’70s and ’80s, the consumptive use rights for more than 80,000 acre-feet were shipped off. By the late 1980s, Crowley County had been effectively sucked dry. Just as quickly as the frenzy began, massive water sales were done. And so was Crowley County.

LAST YEAR, THE WEEDS got so big in the county that when they finally dried up and blew away, they created thousands of tumbleweeds that caught on wire fences, piled up in ditches, and began filling the roads. On one stretch of highway, the piles of dead weeds were at least eight feet tall. Reporters came to document the scene, to record the county’s humiliation. A couple of weeks later, a snowplow tried to clear the mess, but the vehicle crashed into a ditch. There’s a video of it on YouTube.

Inside the 77-year-old county building in Ordway, commissioners Frank Grant and Tobe Allumbaugh sit at their desks early one morning. Allumbaugh’s got the plow video rolling on his computer.

“Wait…wait,” Allumbaugh says as tumbleweeds blow across the screen. A few moments later, the plow tips. He covers his eyes and lets out a bemused chuckle.

Allumbaugh is 68, with gray, thinning hair and the demeanor of a vaudeville straight man. A former international banker, he grew up in Crowley County but spent the middle part of his life living in Asia. Allumbaugh returned here with his wife in 1992 to care for his widowed mother, then won a commissioner’s seat four years later. He helped pull the county out of debt and led several public projects, but the work never seemed to be enough. “People are always saying, ‘Why don’t you guys save the county?’ ” Allumbaugh says. “ ‘Why don’t you improve the housing? Why don’t we pave more roads?’ ” The truth is, those kinds of fixes are improbable, at best. “When you’re poor, you got to live with what you got.”

Along one of the office’s walls is a corkboard with pinned stories that read like a litany of Biblical plagues. Drought. Hail. Floods. “One thing after another,” Grant says. “We’re waiting for the locusts—then I think we’ll have hit ’em all.”

“We’re waiting for the locusts—then I think we’ll have hit ’em all.”

“Laughing helps,” Allumbaugh says. He points to Grant. “We both have a good sense of humor.”

“The best,” Grant says.

Before the sell-off, the two say, there were between 55,000 and 60,000 acres of farmable land here. Today, there are 1,500 to 3,500 acres. There isn’t a single doctor. There’s one lawyer. Last year, Crowley County pulled in an estimated $330,000 in sales taxes—what Denver, 170 miles to the northwest, averages in just seven hours. There are 450 students left in the consolidated school system, down from about a thousand 50 years ago. Nearly a third of the 3,000 or so residents live in poverty. If you add in the roughly 2,400 men “behind the wire” at its two prisons, Crowley County is the poorest county per capita in the United States.

Today, it’s easy to see why Crowley County has ended up this way. When the water goes away, you don’t have crops, which means you don’t need farm implements, which means you don’t need parts or workers to fix them. And when the people leave, you don’t need stores or schools or banks or homes. Much of the county seems to be in some kind of disrepair, as if the people were so anxious to leave they didn’t even bother to lock the front door on their way out. Gutters are torn from houses; front doors are weathered; porches have fallen; windows are broken. The county can’t knock down the dozens of dilapidated homes that ring the towns because the cost of asbestos abatement would exceed the land’s value. They can’t clean up the junk that’s accumulated on properties because the effort wouldn’t be worth the time and money. They can’t reseed the land because the soil is too far gone—and there’s no water, anyway. As the two commissioners list their troubles, it seems overwhelming. You wonder: Do they go home and cry about this mess?

“My wife does,” Allumbaugh says. “But I’m old, so I can do this.”

Grant pulls a piece of paper off the corkboard. It’s the annual rainfall totals for the past five years. Precipitation is down 47 percent over that stretch and is only 70 percent of average the past three years, in a region already besieged by drought. “That’s bleak,” Grant says and taps the paper. “We already don’t have water to farm, and now we’re dealing with this.”

Matt Heimerich standing in a corn field.
Land Steward. Matt Heimerich stands among the corn he farms with his wife’s family. Photo by Matt Slaby

ONE OF THE IRONIES in Crowley County is that regardless of how bad things get, the county survives on so little money it’s unlikely to just vanish. The more you travel here, the more towns you see, you get the idea the place is on permanent life support.

The one very large exception is the Crowley County Correctional Facility on Highway 96. It’s one of two prisons in the county and one of four privately owned facilities in Colorado (and among 60 or so owned nationwide by the Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville, Tennessee). Razor wire and large, rectangular buildings emerge from the field.

The prison was built in the late 1990s—after the final major push of agricultural water sales—and has been a beacon of opportunity ever since. It’s also been a source of worry. The facility pays Crowley County $1.5 million per year in property taxes, or a little more than half of the county’s total tax receipts.

Over the years, there have been rumors about the prison shutting down. A decade ago, a small riot caused millions of dollars in damages at the facility and led to news reports of a poorly trained and badly understaffed workforce, turning CCA into the poster child for what can go wrong at a for-profit prison. If the county ever lost the prison, it would lose that chunk of tax revenue—plus hundreds of jobs, plus perhaps even the towns that house some of those prison workers. “Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket,” Grant says. “But it’s the largest basket we’ve got.”

A few years ago, the county hired an economic developer who visited Fort Carson and Peterson Air Force Base to suggest a life in Crowley County to retiring service members. “You know, real estate,” Grant says today. The county paid for brochures and put together a presentation. There seemed to be real hope. “Our guy talked to quite a few people up there,” Grant remembers. “I don’t know if we had much success or not.”

To underscore the point, Grant gets in his Dodge Ram and drives northeast toward Lake Henry, near Sugar City. Miles of brown fill the commute. Along a dirt road, a property comes into view on Grant’s left. There’s a dilapidated house on it and a truck parked out front. “I’ll bet this guy would probably take $200, $350 an acre, but what are you going to get?” he says. “You’re probably thinking, ‘Oh boy, what a steal!’ But those taxes come every year, and you’re not making two cents on that thing.”

Down the road, a sagging trailer and a barren field pop up on the right. “No water,” Grant says. There’s another devastated homestead. “It’s just sad.”

Grant finally pulls up to the lake. It’s owned by the Colorado Canal Company, which means it really belongs to Aurora, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. The land around it looks like everywhere else in the county. But there’s a small beach, a boat launch, and a little space for tents.

As he drives, Grant says there were big plans for this lake—along with the larger Lake Meredith, just a few miles south. The county got a phone call two years ago from an Army officer at Fort Carson that led to an idea to use the two lakes as a draw for soldiers coming out of war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq—a sort of refuge for military members who needed to clear their minds. “We were like, ‘Great, come down,’ ” Grant says, recalling the excitement he felt at the time. “There were four or five of them who came. We took them out to the lake. We’re telling them: Nobody’s out here hassling you for camping fees or anything; you can shoot off some fireworks, if it’s green enough; get a boat, bring your family if you’re married, Jet Ski for a week; if your car breaks down, we got some really good mechanics around here. We thought there would be a steady stream of people coming down here. Man, that would be great. I was pretty hopeful about that, I really was.”

Grant waited weeks for a response and made a few follow-up calls. “Still haven’t heard anything,” he says.

Dilapitated school scoreboard
Better Days. A dilapidated school scoreboard; the Crowley County School District has just 450 students. Photo by Matt Slaby

A SINGLE SHARE of Twin Lakes Canal stock sells for about $35,000 today—an 11,000 percent increase from the original sales in the ’60s. Ask people around the county about those numbers and you get lots of pursed lips and solemn nods.

At the First National Bank in Ordway, president Leif Berg leans back in his office chair and thinks about the first farmers who sold. He doesn’t blame them for their decisions, doesn’t think they pulled the plug too early, doesn’t hold them responsible for what’s happened to Crowley County since. “The sellers did not have all the information they should have had to make decisions,” he says. “A bunch of lawyers told everybody they were buying water shares to improve the county. As we see now, that simply was not true.”

Berg is 39 and has worked at the bank for 18 years. He’s seen foreclosures—farms that simply couldn’t go on—and the difficult decisions families have to make when they realize there’s no future in the land. “You used to farm until you died, but that’s a hard life, and it was becoming more difficult to sustain that kind of livelihood,” says Berg, whose family sold some of its water rights in the 1980s. “And if you were holding your land, you got people whispering in your ear, ‘If you’re the last one to sell, you’ll be the last guy on the ditch and you won’t get anything.’ There were pressures. What choice did they have?”

Not much, if you believe a 1996 study partially funded by the Texas Water Development Board. The report looked at the economic and social impacts on communities in the western United States that had sold their water and found that a vast majority of the proceeds from Crowley County’s sales over the decades went toward debt payment and taxes. “Relatively little was reinvested in the local economy,” the study states. “There was little evidence of new business formation in the county in response to the cash transfers to farmers.” In other words, most of the farmers were simply using the money to keep their heads above water.

At Twin Lakes Canal’s office across town, Scott Campbell has thought about the hows and whys since he became the company’s general manager four years ago. “There’s a shared burden here,” he says. “You can’t point the finger at any one thing.” In his mind, there were failures on both sides: from the land buyers but also, later, with the farmers who sold their water but kept their properties and simply let the soil die.

Campbell lives on a 160-acre plot just two miles from the Arkansas River. Like so many here, it’s a piece of land without agricultural water. “It’s frustrating, to say the least,” he says. When he was a kid in the early 1960s, Campbell would come to Crowley County and hunt ducks, grouse, and rabbit with his father. On the way out, he’d marvel at the endless acres of green. “Guys were farming very aggressively,” he says. When he returned in 2010, he drove the same roads. “It was like a whole different world. I was shocked.”

In some ways, perhaps, what happened was inevitable.

Despite what many people might think, though, Campbell says there was never enough water in the system to sustain the county. As T.C. Henry discovered more than a century earlier, the thirst for agricultural water only got greater with time. Something had to give. “There was—and still is—this good, old-fashioned American spirit saying, I’m going to figure out how to make it, but time went by and getting more water became almost impossible,” Campbell says. “Even with the tunnel, there still wasn’t enough water to meet demand. There was more politics, more red tape. And there wasn’t any more water to get.” In some ways, perhaps, what happened was inevitable.

It’s a difficult reality, and it’s one that hasn’t been entirely accepted in the county. Every once in a while, an angry resident will come into the canal office and complain to Campbell. “They talk about how the cow ate the cabbage and how the water was taken away,” he says. “But it wasn’t taken. It was sold. Those farmers just happened to grab while the grabbing was good.”

Darla Wyeno standing behind a display case in the Crowley County Heritage Center museum
Cataloging the Past. Darla Wyeno, a longtime resident, is the town of Crowley’s administrator as well as the curator of the Crowley County Heritage Center museum. Photo by Matt Slaby

THE CROWLEY COUNTY Heritage Center’s museum is in the basement of a formerly abandoned schoolhouse, a low-slung, redbrick building a couple of blocks off Broadway in Crowley. The small town is home to just 176 residents. Over the past few years, the tight-knit community has undergone a revival of sorts on its east side. In addition to the refurbished Crowley school, there’s an old high school that has been converted into townhouses.

Darla Wyeno is the town’s administrator. She’s also the museum curator, often burying herself in work inside an office just below the old school’s staircase. She’s a tiny woman with a paper-thin smile, which gives her a look of serious contemplation. She says the museum is a labor of love that was created through lots of community support in the form of donations. “This county, the people are one of the best things,” she says. “They don’t want us to fade away.”

She’s at a wooden table in the middle of a room lined with old chalkboards, photographs, and newspaper clippings. In another room, there are high school letter jackets and war memorabilia. Seventy years ago, this was Wyeno’s classroom. She talks at length about growing up here, about her love for Crowley County, about the water sales, about the bad feelings farmers had when they realized the land they sold was meant to die. She and her husband sold and dried much of their land in the 1970s, when they realized there was little hope of anything coming back. She says some of the money paid for her kids’ college educations. “My husband and I have no regrets about that,” she says.

As the town administrator, it’s Wyeno’s job to keep track of the present, to stay hopeful. But collecting county artifacts and studying her community’s past has gotten her to recognize things in ways perhaps she didn’t consider in those earlier years. In the basement, she pulls out scrapbook after scrapbook of 84-year-old newspaper stories with headlines like “Coloradoans Celebrate at Twin Lakes Tunnel” and “Diversion of Water Thru Continental Divide to Save Ordway Farming Land.”

“I really think Crowley County sold its birthright,” she says. “I often think, when I’m doing work here, that if the men who’d done the Transmountain Diversion project could look over their shoulders and see that we sold the water—I think they might just die again. To think about all the work they did, and we all just sold it.”

Outside the musty museum, it’s another blue-sky afternoon. The air is fresh and smells of dried earth. It’s so quiet you can hear the wing beats of a nearby cluster of dragonflies.

Standing in the summer light, you wonder about the fate of this county—about the future generations and the generations of people long gone. You wonder about the water that starts up the river. You wonder if anyone really knows where their water comes from, the decisions and sacrifices that are made to bring it from a lake to a river, then all the way to a kitchen water tap. You wonder if anyone cares. And you wonder what will remain the next time you visit Crowley County.