DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's go now to the Great Plains, where farmers are preparing for what could be a tough growing season. They are scrambling to find irrigation water, which is scarce in the midst of the region's persistent drought. In eastern Colorado, thirsty cities have gobbled up water rights for decades, selling what they don't need back to farmers.
As Luke Runyon from member station KUNC reports, the agreement only works when water is plentiful.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Kent Peppler climbs into his ruby red pickup truck. Before he even turns the key, he has a pinch of chewing tobacco between his fingers.
KEN PEPPLER: I'll take you around and show you.
RUNYON: His plots of land surround the small town of Mead, about an hour north of Denver. Here, Peppler grows corn and barley. Since he started farming as a teenager, the neighborhood has changed - a lot.
PEPPLER: My first crop was in 1974. I had 15 acres of cucumbers right here. Now, it's all houses; no more cukes.
RUNYON: He points out his truck window to a string of McMansions. The driveways cross over a concrete irrigation ditch. This year, the ditch will be carrying less water than it usually does, which puts his barley crop in jeopardy.
PEPPLER: We're going to gamble with it and hope that we get a little irrigation water, and maybe a timely rain or two. But the prognosis is not very good this year.
RUNYON: That bad prognosis is brought on by another year of limited snowfall. Peppler only owns about half the water he uses every year. The rest comes from nearby cities, which sell their extra supplies. But this upcoming summer, it doesn't look like there's going to be any extra water.
JON MONSON: There's less water in the reservoirs and there's less water in the stream.
RUNYON: Jon Monson manages water in Greeley, a midsize city completely surrounded by farmland. Over the years, Greeley's been buying up agricultural water rights. After the city meets its customers' demands the leftover water is auctioned to farmers.
MONSON: In normal years, we don't need all this water. And it should go to beneficial use in terms of agriculture production. It's only in those drought years, like this one might be, that we need to pull it back and use it for municipal supplies.
BRIAN WERNER: The saying goes, in Colorado, that water runs uphill towards money.
RUNYON: Brian Werner is a spokesman for the state's largest water distribution system, supplying water to close to a million people.
WERNER: And that water that's running uphill goes toward cities that have the money. It's not the farmers that can afford to pay the going rate for water in this state any more.
RUNYON: He says the problem with this agreement between cities and farmers comes in drought years. Cities pull the floodgates tight, and the land stays bare and dry. Werner says that means many farmers will be forced to leave portions of their land fallow this growing season.
WERNER: If that land doesn't get planted, there's going to be a significant impact on the economy.
RUNYON: Farmer Kent Peppler fully understands that economic impact. He's already planning for a dry spring and summer. He'll plant fewer fields and hope corn and barley prices stay high.
PEPPLER: We're still business people first, and farmers second. That's the attitude you have to have or you don't survive in this business.
RUNYON: Many of his neighbors in this farming community have moved away over the years, selling their land and water to developers. He says he's not looking to leave any time soon, but...
PEPPLER: Everything's for sale for a price.
RUNYON: A price that in a drought year, is always on the rise. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colo.
GREENE: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.