Drought news: Winter wheat — with its lower water requirements — is supplanting other crops in the South Platte Basin #COdrought

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From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

A somewhat lighter workload during this year’s spring planting could be a sign of changing times for Weld County agriculture, local farmers say. Many acres typically devoted to crops planted in April and May — corn, sugar beets, onions — were already occupied this year by a less water-dependant crop planted back in the fall: winter wheat. Local crop growers say the presence of the drought-tolerant crop has increased during the present time of weather and water uncertainty — and say this could be the “new normal” going forward.

According to figures from Colorado State University Extension, winter wheat through the entirety of its growing season requires about 30 percent less water than corn for grain, about 20 percent less water than corn for silage and about 45 percent less water than sugar beets. That being the case, Lynn Fagerberg near Eaton said he doubled up on his wheat acres — going from about 350 acres in previous years to about 700 acres now — and planted less corn.

The plethora of moisture in recent weeks now has Greeley sitting about 25 percent ahead of normal for precipitation and snowpack. In the South Platte River basin, where Weld County resides, is 31 percent above average. However, reservoirs are still low after water users in the region depleted them during last year’s drought.

Farmers say the moisture in April will get their recently planted crops off to a good start, and the runoff water they’ll receive from an above-average snowpack in the mountains will help keep their crops watered through July or maybe even August. But many are uncertain as to whether there will be enough water available to finish off their crops in late August and September. If timely rains don’t arrive in the late summer weeks and there’s still limited water in reservoirs to fall back on, farmers won’t have what they need to raise the crops they normally grow.

So, in many cases they’re planting wheat — a lot more than they normally do, they say.

Frank Eckhardt, whose family is one of the larger corn, onion and sugar beet growers in the LaSalle area, said he also doubled his wheat acres last fall compared to previous years.

Marc Arnusch, a Keenesburg-area farmer who typically grows only about 100 acres of wheat or less, planted about 300 acres of wheat in the fall. Additionally, Arnusch this year said he’s still looking to plant about 200 acres of dry beans — something he hasn’t grown in about a decade, he said — because that crop, too, requires less water than corn, sugar beets and onions. He added that he plans to later rotate in wheat on those acres. “We might be seeing a new way of agriculture around here,” Arnusch said. “We have water concerns that aren’t going to go away, and this year could be the turning point.”

“This could be the new normal.”

Statistics showing how many winter wheat acres were planted last fall aren’t yet available. But farmers say there’s no doubt they’re seeing more wheat acres all around them.

Weld County agriculture was founded on growing crops that require hefty loads of water — potatoes, sugar beets and onions. Local farmers of the past and present have diverted snowmelt from the mountains into irrigation ditches and onto their fields to grow high-dollar crops that couldn’t survive in the northern Front Range’s semi-arid climate. But, in recent years, rapidly growing cities along the Front Range have competed with farmers for that water — and often can pay a high price that the farmers can’t.

For example, in 1957, when the Colorado-Big Thompson Project first went into operation, 85 percent of the water in the project was owned by agricultural users, according to numbers from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud, that oversees operations of the C-BT Project. But today, only 34 percent of the water in the C-BT — the largest water-supply project in northern Colorado — is owned by agricultural users.

Many farmers now depend on leasing that water back from cities, but in dry times like the present, there’s no guarantee it will be available. So less water-dependent crops might become a necessity. “Things are certainly changing,” Fagerberg said. “And these changes might be here to stay.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):

April showers will bring August thrills to the Arkansas River. Last month’s rain and snow helped Arkansas River managers account for enough water to guarantee flows in support of the late-summer rafting season, industry leaders say. That means a boost for the commercial rafting industry, which draws as much as 64 percent of its customers from July 1 to Aug. 15, a period when river flows typically start to slow. Thanks to the Volunteer Flow Management Program, at least 10,000 acre-feet of water will be available to boost flows to the minimum rafting flow of 700 cubic feet per second.

This spring, flows are running at their highest levels in nine months — about average for the time period — due to late-season snow in the mountains.

Rafting outfitters are reveling in the good news. Last summer, there was not enough water available to augment late summer flows. The resulting low water levels, along with summertime wildfires, contributed to a 19 percent decline in customers. This summer, the flows will more closely resemble bigger water years like 2010 and 2011. “We are pleasantly surprised we will have supplemental water flow that guarantees a great rafting season through mid-August,” said Bob Hamel, an Arkansas River Outfitter Association member. “This unprecedented turnaround (of heavy moisture) in April puts us in good shape for the season.”

Mike Kissack, president of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, also cheered the extra water. “The flow program is one of the things that makes the Arkansas River so unique and so special. It allows outfitters the opportunity to show their guests a world-class whitewater experience during the busiest time of the summer,” Kissack said. “It helps to draw visitors from all over who wish to experience the thrill of whitewater rafting. Oftentimes these visitors are drawn here for the rafting, but end up staying for longer periods of time contributing significantly to the overall economy of our communities,” Kissack said.

Last year, Arkansas River rafting drew 169,486 visitors, down 19 percent from the prior year’s 208,329 customers, and spending also fell by double-digits. In busy years for rafting, direct spending can exceed $24 million and the industry’s overall economic impact on the region can top $60 million.

The flow program is unique to the state and has been a cornerstone of the boating industry for more than 20 years. It is a cooperative effort among water users designed to improve whitewater boating conditions in the summer and safe trout fishery levels in the winter.

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