Urban-rural divide fuels Colorado secession plan

Jul 3, 2013

Ten northeast Colorado counties discussing forming a new state.
Credit KUNC / Google Maps

What do you get when you mix rural counties, urban legislators and a whole lot of animosity?

In Colorado, you get an increasingly ambitious secession plan.

Weld County, Colo., commissioners have been meeting for weeks on the idea to break away from the rest of the state, citing a string of newly signed policies, including stricter gun control regulations and high standards for renewable energy for rural electric cooperatives.  

The current number of counties keen to the idea of pushing for the creation of “North Colorado,” sits at nine. Weld County commissioners are shopping the idea around to other states too. The Greeley Tribune reports they’re set to meet on July 8 with local officials in western Nebraska and Kansas to see how much support they can find.

The frustrations that bred the secession plan are familiar to farmers across the country. While the commissioners cite specific legislation as the inspiration behind “North Colorado,” the tone of the debate has been decidedly more broad. Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway says rural residents are seeing a growing disconnect between life in Colorado’s cities and its vast rural areas.

And apparently the feeling is mutual.

Comments on articles about the “North Colorado” proposal have shown city dwellers have little sympathy for the complaints of rural officials, which led to this exchange in the comments section in KUNC’s latest post on the secession effort:

Puppytime: bye. these scum sucking parasites leach off of the rest of the state and the federal gov't. There is nothing of value there except oil that needs tons of water to pump out. You can't farm there without importing tons of water either. It's a semi-arid high plain. Worthless. Let 'em go. Let 'em starve. Let 'em die.

Farmgirl: Actually the majority of farming in far NE colorado is dry land farming, not irrigated. I'd also suggest you do some research on just how many days of food an average city in the U.S. has on-hand and then reconsider whether America's farmers should just "starve and die."

Puppytime: if you so dry land, I'm sure you'll gladly give up the water you steal from Denver. Also, who do you think pays for all those precious roads and snow plows for you? Food grows in Ohio

That’s just a taste. In fact, quite a few comments brought up the agricultural influence in rural communities and economies and the importance of water in Northeastern Colorado. Agriculture uses about 85 percent of the state’s water supply. But “Farmgirl” is right, a majority of farming, not just in Northeastern Colorado, is dryland, which means farmers aren’t using irrigation systems. 

That’s not to diminish the importance of water for Colorado’s agricultural industries, which has seen major shifts of usage and ownership over the past few decades.

This political struggle to create a brand new, decidedly more conservative and rural, state speaks to a broader cultural shift happening throughout the country, not just in Colorado. Rural population hasn’t been growing nearly as fast as urban centers. The fact is, the U.S. is becoming more urban. However, farmers and ranchers say if Americans want to continue to pay cheap prices for domestically-produced food, their voices should be heard.

Colorado is not unique in this situation. Similar plans have sprung up in other states for roughly the same reasons. Take Illinois for example -- A plan from downstate, rural lawmakers to separate from Chicago pops up almost every year. A rural-urban divide was the same reason for a secession movement in Washington State back in 2005 and in in California in 2011.

The road ahead for “North Colorado” could be a bumpy one – the state’s creation would rely on approval from both state and federal legislators. But if the plan for “North Colorado” isn’t going anywhere soon, neither is urban-rural tension.

Additional coverage of this story and the political divides in Colorado can be found in this story from KUNC, the public radio station in Greeley, CO.