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Fracking And Agriculture Clash In Colorado's North Fork Valley

North Fork Valley
Laura Palmisano

The United States is the world’s largest oil and natural gas producer. North Dakota and Texas are experiencing an oil boom. And many other states are seeing natural gas production increase through hydraulic fracturing.

Colorado has nearly 53,000 active wells. But, the state’s energy boom is a source of tension. 

There's a new alliance of farmers and food producers trying to keep fracking from taking place in the North Fork Valley, an agricultural area in Western Colorado known for its organic farms, orchards, and vineyards.

Brent Helleckson’s vineyard, Stone Cottage Cellars, overlooks the town of Paonia. From his mesa-top property you can see mountain views, lumbering coal trains, and the farms that blanket Colorado’s North Fork Valley.

Helleckson and his wife have been growing grapes in this area for 20 years. 

He says the microclimate of the area is unique. It’s compared to other agricultural hubs throughout the world, like the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan or Provence in France.

"The North Fork is also home to the West Elk American Viticultural Area, which is a geographic area designated by the federal government that has a unique climate, geology, geography that results in wines that have a unique character that can be identified," Helleckson says. 

Brent Helleckson, wine
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF
Brent Helleckson operates Stone Cottage Cellars, a vineyard and winery in the North Fork Valley.

He says Colorado has two of these wine producing areas. 

"One is here and the other is in Palisade. There are only 200 in the United States," Helleckson says.  

Helleckson says this designation is confirmation that the North Fork Valley is worthy of protection, protection from the proposed oil and gas development nearby.

"Oil and gas exploration and development is an industrial process," he says.  "And that industrial scale business will by necessity occur within the watershed, along the creeks, and along the irrigation systems that we depend on for irrigating our crops here. And so if there is an accident of spill or simply just the standard operating producers of bulldozing roads and other things they can negatively affect all of those gathering structures and water delivery structures."

He’s worried that oil and gas development would also change the look of the Valley.

"Also many of us depend on agritourism or people visiting our tasting rooms or farmer’s market stands in order to sell our crops," Helleckson says. "And those folks who are coming out to visit for that are not looking to visit an industrial oil and gas field. They are looking to visit a bucolic, pastoral setting in which their food is grown."

Those are some of the reasons Helleckson joined the Colorado Farm and Food Alliance.

It’s a recently formed group of ranchers, farmers, restaurant owners, and other food producers. And, its members are concerned about proposed oil and gas projects in the area.

The North Fork Valley is in Delta County, a place that’s seen the boom and bust cycle of the coal industry. Recent mine layoffs has the area searching for new business, employment, and tax revenue opportunities. Oil and gas might fill some of that void.

Delta County has about 19 active wells, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. If three proposals are approved the area could see more than 300 additional wells. Still, that’s a modest number compared to other places. Weld County on the Front Range has nearly 22,000 active wells.

Bob Isom owns Industrial Systems Inc. in Delta. 

bob isom, ISI Delta
Laura Palmisano
Bob Isom owns Industrial Systems Inc. in Delta, Colo.

  "We are a steel manufacturer with 51,000 square-foot shop on 12 acres," Isom says. "And we also have field crews that we work in the coal mines, gold mines, process plants, and now we are into the energy side of things being oil and gas." 

Isom sees the nation’s oil and gas boom as an opportunity to get new business.

In recent years he’s seen orders from coal and precious metal mines drying up. With the drilling boom possibly reaching Delta County, he hopes to win more oil and gas contracts. He thinks the county would benefit too. "

"I think we need to take advantage of it," he says. "I’ve lived here my whole life [and] I would see it as an upgrade for the community. It would see it would help our children, schools, colleges, [and] our road and bridges. I mean it just goes on and on…I think we could do it safely." 

Isom’s company employs about 20 people. He says if oil and gas contracts go through he’s prepared to hire five more people for permanent positions and might need more than 100 workers for temporary jobs.

Back in the North Fork Valley, Monica Wiitanen owns Small Potatoes, a 10-acre fruit and vegetable farm, and runs a small bakery out of her house. 

Wiitanen is also a member of the Colorado Farm and Food Alliance.

"I guess I would say that our customers recognize that getting food that's as clean as possible is better for them getting food that could be contaminated by any number of things," she says. 

Wiitanen says she’s concerned that oil and gas production could compromise her water supply if there’s a spill. She’s also worried industry traffic and construction could pollute her air.

David Ludlam is the executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association.

Ludlam says oil and gas production already exists in agricultural areas in state.

"Most of our royalty owners are farmers and ranchers who have active cattle ranches….and farms," he says. "We think that we can work closely with groups like the farm bureau and Colorado Cattlemen like we’ve done for the last decade and make this work for everyone."

Ludlam says Colorado has some of the strictest oil and gas regulations in the country.

He thinks gas extraction in Delta County can be done safely.

Back at his vineyard, Brent Hellecksen says he not necessarily against oil and gas development.

"If everything went well and the industry developed it in a way that did not impact all of these other uses of the land I would not have many objections to it I suspect," he says.

However, he hasn’t seen a proposal he’d be comfortable with yet.

Hellecksen says one accident could contaminate the water supply and compromise his entire crop and therefore his livelihood.

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