Drought/runoff/snowpack news: Farmers are already facing tough decisions about their operations in a water-short year


Here’s a guest column written sheep man Doug Ramsey that’s running in The Durango Herald. He describes the operational decisions he is facing in a water-short year. Here’s and excerpt:

Our irrigation water was turned off May 22 as the La Plata River continued to shrink to a trickle, and I am forced to cut the hay now as it begins to show signs of stress because of lack of moisture. Our irrigation water comes from the tiny La Plata River that is currently running at about 30 cubic feet per minute – about one-fourth of what it would normally be flowing at this time or year…

The hard choices will be whether to try and raise the lambs by feeding hay until I can provide them to my customers, or sell them at the sale barn for a loss and save my hay and pasture for the ewes. In 2002 when we produced no hay, we ended up feeding purchased hay for most of 18 months to get our sheep through all of 2002 until the spring of 2003. As I look around Southwest Colorado, I see this drought having some major effects on agriculture. The rangeland already needs moisture, and any hope that we have a good monsoon season will not be realized for at least another month or longer.

Meanwhile, Governor Hickenlooper has issued an executive order banning fireworks in Colorado. Here’s the release:

Gov. John Hickenlooper today signed an Executive Order that bans open burning and private use of fireworks throughout Colorado because of very dry conditions and high fire danger.

The ban does not apply to campfires in constructed, permanent fire pits or fire grates within developed camp and picnic grounds or recreation sites; liquid-fueled or gas-fueled stoves; fireplaces contained within buildings; charcoal grills at private residences; or specific prescribed or controlled burns for agricultural or irrigation purposes.

Commercial, professional and municipal fireworks displays are allowed when written approval has been granted by the sheriff of the county in which the fireworks display is to occur.

“We can’t completely eliminate the threat of wildfire because there’s no way to control Mother Nature,” Hickenlooper said. “But we can take steps to reduce the risks of more wildfires starting. This ban is a necessary step to help protect people, property and the beautiful state we live in.”

Most Colorado counties have already adopted fire bans. At least 44 of the state’s 64 counties are now listed with “high,” “very high” or “extreme” wildfire danger. The wildfire danger and individual restrictions for every Colorado county can be found at http://www.colorado.gov.

The governor’s Executive Order is not intended to supersede more comprehensive or inclusive open burning restrictions that have been or may be established by Colorado counties, municipalities and/or other political subdivisions of the state. Where permitted by law, counties and other local governments may ban any or all of the open burning exemptions listed in the order when local officials determine that a more restrictive ban is appropriate and warranted given fire danger conditions in their localities.

The Executive Order will stay in effect until it is amended or rescinded. The full text of the order can be found here.

From the Cortez Journal (Paige Blankenbuehler):

County commissioners voted unanimously on Monday for a recommendation from Cortez Fire Protection District chief Jeff Vandevoorde to institute a fire ban for Montezuma County.

The commissioners put the following limitations into effect:

No open burns will be permitted within Montezuma County, including designated fire pits at legal campgrounds, Montezuma County deputy emergency manager Paul Hollar said. Covered barbecue and charcoal grills or pits are permitted.

Outdoor fireplaces with screens or covers are also permitted, Hollar said.

Fireworks are explicitly banned, but the formal Cortez July 4 firework show is still scheduled under a controlled environment at this time, Hollar said.

From the Vail Daily:

Due to the combination of unusually high temperatures, dry conditions and light winter snowpack there is an increased risk for wildfires throughout Colorado. According to the National Weather Service, the drought in the state of Colorado is going to persist and intensify as the summer moves forward. As a result, Eagle County has implemented “Stage I” fire restrictions that will take effect at 12:01 a.m., Friday. The ban prohibits all open burning for private lands in unincorporated Eagle County and within the town of Red Cliff.

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

“Our snowpack is gone,” [Water Division III Engineer Craig Cotten] told members of the Valley-wide water group, the Rio Grande Roundtable, on Tuesday afternoon. “We didn’t get anywhere close to average.” The run-off was a month earlier, he said, “and then it headed down. We were out of snow about a month earlier than usual.”

Cotten shared the latest Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) forecasts for the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers, which are up a bit from last month’s forecasts but still anticipating a below-average year on both river systems. The new NRCS annual forecast for June for the Rio Grande is 415,000 acre feet, which is 64 percent of the long-term average. Last month the NRCS forecast was 380,000 acre feet. Of that amount, 102,200 acre feet must be sent downstream to meet Rio Grande Compact obligations. Cotten said that means deliveries of 5 percent right now, but his office is only curtailing the ditches 2 percent because the other 3 percent is coming through in the way of return flows.

No ditches on the Conejos River system are currently being curtailed, Cotten said, because “we can meet our obligation under the compact for the Conejos system just with what we have already delivered and what we will deliver during the wintertime.” The new NRCS forecast for the Conejos River system, which includes the Conejos, San Antonio and Los Pinos Rivers, is 200,000 acre feet, up a bit from last month’s forecasted 180,000 acre feet. That is still only 60 percent of the long-term average for that river system, Cotten explained. Of that amount, 45,000 acre feet must be delivered downstream for compact purposes, but that should be no problem, given what has been delivered already and what will be sent downstream later this year, Cotten said.

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