Arkansas Valley: Farmers closing in on decision time — Should they bet on the runoff or pass on planting this year? Will dryland winter wheat farmers get a crop?

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Precipitation has been sparse for the past nine months and the eastern half of Colorado is in a severe drought. Snowpack at lower elevations is nonexistent, while concerns are high about how the ample snow in the high country will melt off. Low soil moisture everywhere in the valley, below-average streamflow and just-average storage are raising concerns…

The winter wheat crop could be the first casualty of drought. Although prices are high, dryland wheat that sprouted last fall has had little moisture over the winter months. Pockets of fields that got some water have germinated, but will need more water to mature…

One of the decisions farmers on the Fort Lyon face is whether to plant corn or choose preventive planting — the inability to plant a crop under federal crop insurance regulations. “If we don’t get a 3-inch rain sometime in April or May, I won’t plant corn on my flood ground. There’s not enough moisture in the soil,” [Farmer Dale Mauch] said. He will plant corn under sprinklers, which many farmers on the Fort Lyon have installed in recent years. The sprinklers, fed from ponds rather than wells, are regulated under new state rules, but give the advantage of more certainty because they deliver water more efficiently…

A decision many of the canal companies face is how much winter storage water to use at the beginning of the season or the end of the year as crops are ready to harvest…

Like others, High Line farmers are closely watching the snowpack, which is still 20 percent to 30 percent above average in the higher elevations, while sputtering along below 10,000 feet. “We’re hoping it doesn’t melt off too quickly and flow on by,” [Dan Henrichs, superintendent of the High Line Canal] said…

On the Bessemer Ditch, farmers have encountered dry conditions, but look to have ample water throughout the year with relatively senior ditch rights. “We had to work the ground more than usual, but everything’s coming along,” said Joe Mauro. “We’re going to plant a lot of chile and sweet corn, and the veggies. We’ll also have pinto beans, corn and alfalfa.”

“We need a three-day drizzle,” Henrichs said. “Or a foot of wet, heavy snow. That’d do us some good.”

“You know, I’d still rather farm than do anything else,” Mauch said. “It’ll rain again. It always does.”

More Arkansas River basin coverage here.

If you click on the thumbnail graphic above and to the right you’ll see the huge drought area across the southern tier of U.S. states. Here’s a report from Doyle Rice writing for USA Today. From the article:

“The biggest drought concern now is the southern tier of the U.S.,” says climatologist Brian Fuchs of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. And no real relief is in sight for the spring and summer: Drought conditions are expected to persist and worsen for the next three months across the USA’s southern tier and along the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, according to the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md.

Texas is the hardest-hit state, where almost half the state is under an “extreme” drought, according to the Drought Monitor, a federal website that tracks drought. “This is the driest winter we’ve had since the late 1960s,” says John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist. “It’s in the top five historically, back to 1895.”[…]

In Florida, the South Florida Water Management reported last week that the area is in the midst of its driest dry season (winter) in about 80 years. The water level of Lake Okeechobee — which supplies water to millions of people in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties in Florida — was recently reported at 11.59 feet, says Susan Sylvester, the director of operations control for the water management district. The average level at this time of year is 14.25 feet…

The southern dryness this winter can be blamed on the La Niña climate pattern, a periodic cooling of Pacific Ocean water that affects weather patterns worldwide. Southern states almost always have a winter with less precipitation during a La Niña winter. “This was a fairly strong La Niña event,” Fuchs says. “One of the strongest on record” — and it’s expected to continue through the spring and into the early summer.

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