— Denver Biz Journal (@denbizjournal) August 5, 2014
From KUNC (Luke Runyon):
The dust storms looked eerily similar to the ones you’d see on the pages of a history textbook. But it’s 2014, not the 1930s, and many of the same stretches of prairie once devastated by the Dust Bowl are once again dealing with terrible drought and massive dust storms. Some areas are technically drier now than they were when thousands of families abandoned their farms. Still, many farmers have managed to avoid tragedy.
While big swathes of the Great Plains have partially recovered from the extreme 2012 drought, some sections are still desperately dry. The drought has settled in what historians consider to be ground zero for the Dust Bowl of the 1930s: southeast Colorado, western Kansas, northeast New Mexico, and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas…
Portions of southeast Colorado haven’t seen a lack of moisture like this since we started keeping weather records. Farmers have seen some relief with the summer’s monsoonal rains, but moisture deep in the soil will take longer to recover. The cracked, dusty ground has been sapped by heat.
“When you put water on it, after it’s been that dry, it won’t absorb any,” Schweiser said. “It’s been bad as I ever remember seeing.”
How, then, is a farmer like Schweiser making a living? None of his neighbors have skipped town like Dust Bowl refugees. 2013 was a rough year, but he made it through. Farmers aren’t marching on Washington demanding relief.
“Most of them have been around to know that you have to take the good with the bad, and most people just accept that,” Schweiser said. “If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be farming in the first place.”
The reason more farmers haven’t gone bankrupt, even in Dust Bowl conditions, is far more than sheer persistence. It’s the culmination of decades of agricultural research, technological advances and changing practices.
“The 2012 drought was — is — severe. And very comparable to what we saw in the Dust Bowl,” said Eugene Kelly, a soil science professor at Colorado State University.
Farmers like Schweiser are able to keep their farms up and running even in Dust Bowl conditions, Kelly said, largely due to adaptations and adoptions of new technology. Farms in the 1930s relied on primitive horse-drawn plows. Now, large-scale crop farmers are testing conservation practices like planting cover crops, limiting tillage and updating irrigation, with financial benefits…
“I think they’re able to sustain the production in some of these areas,” Kelly said. “But that came from a lot of research and a lot of work in developing cropping systems and farming systems and learning a lot about the damage a plow can do.”[…]
In the decades since, former U.S. Department of Agriculture conservationist John Knapp says a suite of conservation programs has gone into effect. Those programs pull sensitive grasslands out of agricultural production and keep the soil intact.
“That really changed what was the Dust Bowl,” Knapp said. “Because those lands are in grass now. And that’s some of the most highly erodible anywhere in Colorado.”
Though some farmers have been able to adapt to a harsh environment, the economics of such a transition can wreak havoc on the small communities involved, Knapp said. Even though farmers like John Schweiser are able to keep their heads above water, times are tough. Selling off cattle or relying on insurance is taxing on farmers and on the surrounding towns.
“Even prior to this particular drought, we have been on kind of a slide in terms of the economics. Just because we weren’t able to sustain some of the higher value crops,” Knapp said.
When irrigation water was easier to come by, farmers grew high value crops like onions and melons along the Arkansas River in Colorado. But as drought persisted and worsened, packing sheds have closed, Knapp said. Farms then need fewer workers.
Some farmers are selling out completely. Mirroring a national trend, Otero County, Colorado, where John Schweiser grows corn and wheat, saw a 5 percent drop in the number of farms from 2007 to 2012 and a 19 percent increase in the average farm size. Those are larger economic issues not necessarily caused by drought, but certainly exacerbated by it, Knapp said. And playing out in many of the hardest hit areas.
Click here for the inside skinny on the meeting.
From the High Country News (Nelson Harvey):
Under the agreement, finalized late last week between the Department of Interior and the utilities Denver Water, the Central Arizona Project, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, farmers, cities and industries will get paid to implement two-year, voluntary conservation projects that put water back into the Colorado River. The goal is to demonstrate that so-called “demand management” can prevent water levels in lakes Powell and Mead from dropping too low for their dams to generate electricity.
“We want to demonstrate how we can live within our means on the river,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, whose city relies on Colorado River water piped east over the Continental Divide for about half of its water supply.
In the agricultural sphere, one candidate for funding under the partnership would be rotational fallowing agreements, where farmers band together, dry up some of their land and leave the associated water in the river in dry years. Yet after years of Western cities “buying and drying” nearby farms to lubricate their growth, agricultural groups are eager to see other non-fallowing options explored as well…
“Fallowing is really a blunt force tool that would harm agriculture,” said Terry Frankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “We want to try to explore other ways of reducing demand,” like switching to less water intensive crops, watering less and accepting reduced yields, or water banking—foregoing diversions when you don’t need them in exchange for the right to use more later.
In cities, projects eligible for funding could include things like water-smart landscaping, increased use of reclaimed water, or efficiency standards for appliances and new construction.
Whatever the demand-reducing mechanism, Lochhead said, “The goal is to develop a plan that we can put into place as we need to in emergency situations.” And for water managers who depend on the Colorado River, losing power-generating capacity in lakes Mead and Powell would certainly qualify as an emergency. If water levels drop that low, there likely won’t be enough head pressure in Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam to push through 7.5 million acre feet of water over 10 years. That’s how much the upper basin states—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—are required to deliver to the lower basin under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. If they fall short, the lower basin states—Arizona, Nevada and California—have license to place a call on the river and force their friends in the upper basin to cut consumption…
“If that happens, it would mean chaos in the basin among water users because everyone would be scrambling to try to shore up our water supplies,” Lochhead said.
And losing power generating capacity could have other consequences: proceeds from the electricity generated at Glen Canyon Dam now fund recovery programs for four endangered species—the Kanab ambersnail, the razorback sucker, the humpback chub and the southwestern willow flycatcher—that are native to the Colorado River Basin. If enough water in Lake Powell evaporates, funding for those programs could too, allowing the federal government to intervene and curtail water use in the upper basin in the name of the Endangered Species Act.
Finally, if the turbines inside Glen Canyon Dam ground to a halt, Lochhead points out that it could prompt power prices in the upper basin to spike, since roughly 5.8 million people now depend on electricity from the dam for a portion of their power supply. Exactly how much rates would rise remains unclear.
State Reps. Don Coram and Jerry Sonnenberg are cool to the proposal. Here’s a guest column that’s running in the Sterling Journal-Advocate:
Denver Water on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation and the respective water districts from Arizona, California and Nevada recently developed a drought management pilot program for the Upper Colorado River System to send more water downstream. Other than Denver Water, the water districts involved in this program represent the states known as the Lower Basin states. The proposal addresses several concerns, which can be summed up as the Lower Basin states cannot satisfy their current water demand. Unfortunately, when the drafters of this pilot program looked up stream for more water, it seems Colorado’s agriculture industry became their target for relief.
In order to send more water to these Lower Basin states, the pilot program suggests farmers could fallow more land, employ deficit irrigation techniques and plant crops that use less water; but let us explain why these ideas will greatly damage our agriculture industry. First, fallowing, a term for intentionally leaving a portion of a field vacant, is strategically used by farmers to let soils recover from a harvest. Fallowing can improve yields in future years, but because a farmer is choosing not to plant in a portion of the field, no crops are produced. Secondly, changing to deficit irrigation methods can be very difficult and result in lower crop yields. And lastly, crops are soil, location, elevation and climate specific, and each require an enormous investment in equipment specific to that crop. Additionally, crop selection is based on market prices, demand and cost of harvest. Requiring farmers to plant different crops can be costly, and in some cases, not viable.
On top of the burdens proposed in this program is the current Colorado drought, which reduced agricultural production by 25 percent last year alone. Yet despite this drastic drop in production, Colorado’s agriculture industry still contributed over $2 billion to our state’s economy. Asking Colorado farmers to plant less, reduce their yield and even switch crops will have devastating impacts on our agriculture industry and ultimately our state’s economy.
Much like Colorado, the Lower Basin states are struggling to meet their water demand, but with growing populations in this region and declining rain and snow fall, this problem is likely here to stay. However, as Colorado and its neighboring states continue to look for solutions for water management, they need to consider who has been and will continue to be a leader of water conservation — our agriculture industry. This industry is first to experience the effects of drought and consequently is the first to take steps to better manage its water supply. Simply put, farmers and ranchers are already consummate water conservationists because their livelihoods depend on it.
The Lower Basin states can receive water above their agreed upon allotment. If these states are looking for more water, cities like Las Vegas need to discuss ways to better manage their current water budget, and leave Colorado farmers’ and ranchers’ water out of the discussion.
More Colorado River Basin coverage here.
From the Vail Daily (Peter Wadden):
Thanks to ongoing support from the National Forest Foundation and Vail Resorts’ Ski Conservation Fund, 12 local high school students are participating in the third summer of the Walking Mountains Natural Resource Internship. The interns are working under the supervision of Matt Grove, fisheries biologist on the Eagle/Holy Cross Ranger District of the White River National Forest, to monitor stream and wetland health throughout the valley. The interns have searched for endangered boreal toads to identify sites where they are still breeding in the area, but most of the students’ work focuses on monitoring stream health.
The interns have learned two tried and true techniques for collecting information that helps the Forest Service gauge the health of waterways. The first is by collecting and measuring stream substrates. This involves plunging their hands into icy water to pull out rocks, pebbles and gravel to be measured. The size of the stones in a stream dictates what aquatic insects can live there because those stones provide a place for the insects to hide and a surface to cling to in the rushing stream.
The second way the interns are gathering valuable stream data is by collecting the macroinvertebrates themselves. What species of insects are living in a stream is a great indicator of how healthy that stream is. Some insects are tolerant of pollution while others are not. If only pollution-tolerant species are found, then we can tell a stream may not be very clean. On the other hand, if insects that require clean, clear water to survive are found in abundance, then we will have strong evidence that the stream is doing well. Samples of insects are netted and collected by the interns in each stream they visit and then are preserved in ethanol so they can be sent to a lab for DNA identification.
The 12 Walking Mountains interns have mastered these data-collection techniques with training and supervision from U.S. Forest Service fisheries biologists and seasonal fisheries technicians. In addition to providing valuable information to the U.S. Forest Service, the interns are gaining experience in field ecology and exposure to careers in science and natural resource management. The high school students also earn four environmental science credits from Colorado Mountain College, giving them a chance to connect their observations in nature to broader concepts in ecology and biology…
Isaac Yoder, a rising junior at Eagle Valley High School, recognizes the value of this type of learning saying, “Through this internship, I gain experience relevant to real life jobs and collect information that affects the community instead of just seeing it in a classroom.”
More education coverage here.