— NWS Boulder (@NWSBoulder) March 2, 2015
From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):
Years of drought and overgrazing have dried out the fields in southwestern La Plata County. Dust easily blows away in the wind.
Last year, from March until May, dust storms caused problems for students, drivers and farmers, and without enough precipitation, the dirty storms could return…
The area from Breen into New Mexico and west of Black Ridge to the La Plata County line was hit hard last year by dust, said Sterling Moss, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Durango.
The recent snowfall earlier this week dumped about a foot of snow near Breen and Kline, and more snow is expected to accumulate this weekend.
“This is a huge blessing, but we are still way far from being out of the woods,” said Trent Taylor, owner of Blue Horizons Farm Inc.
The entire river basin, which includes the Dolores, Animas, San Juan and San Miguel rivers, would need to receive 218 percent of historical snowfall to get back on track, said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.
“I don’t think we’ll make it to normal snowpack this year,” he said.
A long dry spell in January and February left local conservationists and farmers nervous. In mid-February, Moss dug down to test soil moisture as wind dried the field of winter wheat all around him.
In southwestern La Plata County, snow should have blanketed the field near County Road 119 for weeks. But instead, Moss didn’t even find enough moisture in the soil to support the wheat through harvest.
“I’ve never seen a February like that,” Taylor said.
The newly fallen snow could ease the situation. If it melts slowly, it can soak deeper into the soil than rain does.
But re-establishing healthy fields is key to preventing dust storms through the spring winds.
Moss and his office have been working with landowners to plant grass in areas dedicated to conservation reserves to keep the top soil from blowing away. These areas are dedicated to wildlife habitat, and landowners receive a government subsidy for not working the land. This helps farmers survive in the worst drought years, Taylor said.
But it has been challenging.
“A lot of grass has been planted that hasn’t been established yet,” Moss said.
The stands of grass are key to keeping valuable topsoil in place. An inch of topsoil can take 100 years to accumulate, he said.
But without precipitation at the right time, the grasses won’t grow. This year, Moss might recommend planting grass or another cover crop in mid-summer in hopes the monsoons will come.
In the past few years, fall rains have brought most of the moisture for the year.
Leaving the stems from last year’s crop in place also can prevent wind and rain erosion and keep the soil cooler, said Abdel Berrada, a soil scientist with Colorado State University.
This stubble helps conserve soil, but it also provides habitat for pests, like cut worms that may require herbicide, Taylor said.
Planting trees as wind breaks or setting up snow fences can help keep the dust down. But trees can’t thrive when there’s very little water…
“Growing plants on bare bones soil with little to no water can be an uphill challenge,” said Darrin Parmenter, county extension agent for Colorado State University.
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):
A bill that would allow farmers to lease water to other farmers under rotational fallowing programs, such as the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, is being planted in the state Legislature.
The bill does not yet have a number, but will be co-sponsored by Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, and Rep. Ed. Vigil, D-Fort Garland.
“We think it’s going to help farmers in the Arkansas River basin solve their own problems,” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.
The bill would modify HB1248, signed into law in 2013, to add agricultural, environmental, industrial and recreational uses to a state pilot program that allows 10 projects throughout Colorado. Three of those can be located in any one basin.
Pilot projects are overseen by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and limited to fallowing only 30 percent of any given farm at a time for three years out of 10.
The bill allows only agricultural to municipal transfers, however. It passed in response to statewide concerns about a gap in future municipal water supplies.
The Lower Ark district funded a 2011 study that shows the agricultural demand for temporary water supplies — primarily water for augmentation of well- or surface-fed sprinklers — could be as much as 58,000 acre-feet (16 billion gallons) more each year by 2050.
There already is competition for supplemental water from traditional sources such as the Fryingpan- Arkansas Project, Pueblo Board of Water Works, Aurora and Colorado Springs Utilities.
The Arkansas Valley Super Ditch formed in 2008 as a way to pool the resources of Arkansas Valley canals to keep them from getting picked off by cities.
The Super Ditch is the only applicant under HB1248. It plans to lease up to 500 acre-feet of water to Fountain, Security and Fowler by drying up parts of 1,128 acres on seven farms on the Catlin Canal.
More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.