#Drought news: Farmers in S. #Colorado and S. #Utah are hurting

Cucharas River

From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

Sanpete County Commissioner Scott Bartholomew, also a farmer, noted the harsh truth: “All these storms brought was wind. And you can’t water with wind.”

Jensen says irrigation company records show it hasn’t been this dry in Sanpete County in 41 years.

“We are definitely in panic mode.”

He’s harvesting his first cut of hay, but will idle 75 percent of the rest of his field for the second round…

“It’s pretty serious. Unless you have some sort of irrigation, there is nothing growing at all.”

Sanpete County, Utah, however, is not alone.

Multiple counties across the state made an emergency disaster declaration because of the low water year and dry conditions. May was the hottest on record in the lower 48 states in 84 years, eclipsing a Dust Bowl-era record set in 1934, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The future is very dismal,” said Norman Johnson, from the San Juan County Water Conservancy District. “There will be no carryover for next year unless we get snowpack. We had zero runoff from the Abajo Mountains.”

Hay farmers will get one cutting.

“Then they will run out of water,” he said.

Johnson said farmers usually get two cuttings, sometimes a third. But even this first crop will be somewhat stunted.

Across these most severely affected counties in Utah, the $332 million hay and alfalfa industry is taking a hit.

“Alfalfa is the No. 1 crop of Utah,” said Earl Creech, an agronomist with Utah State University’s Extension Service.

“We’re in love with it and we are really good at growing it,” Creech said. “We export hay all over the United States and the world.”

Creech said the drought’s impacts on the crop will be felt across the state.

“It will be a huge hit, not only to the farmers, but the rural communities they live in and the state as a whole. It is a big economic driver for Utah.”

The drought has farmers making tough choices.

Some farmers like Jensen aren’t planting corn for cattle and poultry feed — corn takes more water than a crop like oats — so the effects are hurting ranchers and other agricultural producers who depend on it.

Pastures are drying up as well.

“There’s no feed for the cattle out in their normal grazing areas,” Johnson said. “We are not getting any natural grasses growing.”

Allen Henrie, president of the West Panguitch Irrigation System, said almost everyone will start selling off cattle early before the prices get more depressed.

His system is blocking off the Sevier River — running it nearly dry in some locations — so water can get to the farmers. Along its route, it will recharge from groundwater.

“Sevier River is dismal, dismal. I have never seen it this dry on the Sevier River side,” Henrie said.

Sometimes, a low snowpack year finds some respite with a rainy spring that delays the need to irrigate.

This hasn’t been that year for southern and central Utah.

“There’s no good news anywhere, and we are the worst of the worst,” Johnson said.

It’s a different story for other parts of the state.

Most northern Utah reservoirs are close to full. Deer Creek is at 94 percent capacity, East Canyon sits at 98 percent and Jordanelle is at 97 percent. Those reservoirs may save the irrigation season, but water managers are anxiously hoping to hang onto enough storage going into the fall — in case next year is just as bad.

There will be little to no carryover in other areas, when you consider that Gunnison Reservoir on the San Pitch River is dry, Yuba is 21 percent and Piute is at 23 percent.

Some farms may be eligible for disaster assistance from the federal government via low-interest loans.

Johnson, however, said it is bitter comfort.

“No amount of declarations or government assistance is going to fix it,” he said. “It is dry.”

Water curtailments are also in effect and more are looming in Washington County, where the Virgin River Basin sits at 20 percent of average.

Some with junior water rights will have to forgo any water this season.

“Honestly, in terms of snowpack and runoff, I think it is probably the worst I’ve seen in my career,” said Ron Thompson, who has been with the Washington County Water Conservancy District for 35 years and is now its general manager.

Creech said funding from the Utah Legislature is kick-starting new research from USU looking at alternative crops and ways to get water to crops more efficiently.

“But in a year when there is no water in the system, it doesn’t matter how efficient it is, there is nothing there,” he said.

Creech grows hay in Cache Valley and as a farmer understands the constant challenges.

“It’s heartbreaking. There is really nothing you can do about it. It’s the weather,” he said. “You just sit there and watch your crops burn up.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Julie Fairman):

In June 2017, the Cucharas River in Huerfano County was overflowing its banks, resulting in localized flooding and the issuance of evacuation orders for some residents.

This year, large portions of the riverbed are exposed and there’s only a trickle of water inching its way along.

An extremely dry winter left no snowpack on the peaks of Southern Colorado, and there’s been very little rain so far this spring.

“It’s devastating,” said Doug Brgoch, District 16 water commissioner with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the agency that administers water rights and interstate compact agreements.

“We had no — absolutely no — spring runoff. If you look at our hydrological graphs, it’s just flat. There wasn’t even a bump in it for a day.

“We’re in extremely dire conditions. We’re actually approaching the drought conditions of 2002, which was statewide, and 2007, which was confined to this area. For example, on (June 1) of 2002, we had about 3 feet of water in the (Cucharas) river, and this year we have 4. So that’s really how close we are to 2002.

“Actually we’ve had less precipitation this winter than we did in the winter of 2002. But because of that huge amount of water we had over last year from the flooding and the extensive moisture, we had a much higher ground-moisture content going into this spring.

“But that only lasts so long, and I tell everybody it’s kind of like picking up a sponge by a corner. You know, all the water will drain out the bottom corner and then it’ll all be gone, and pretty soon the sponge starts to crinkle and dry up.”


The communities of La Veta and Walsenburg rely on the Cucharas River for their water.

Brgoch, who also serves as the mayor of La Veta, estimates there is enough water in storage to supply the town for 280 to 300 days, if it’s used wisely. The town’s board of trustees passed a resolution last week limiting the hours and days its residents can water their lawns and gardens.

“And I would suspect Walsenburg would be in a similar situation,” he said. “They use quite a bit more water than La Veta, but they have substantially more storage. So I would say they probably have a year’s supply, also, and maybe even a little more.”

Drought and ranching

Drought conditions exist across Southern Colorado, border to border. This year’s snowpack was the third lowest on record, with only 2002 and 1981 being drier, reports the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

As of May 30, statewide snowpack was 29 percent of average: 78 percent of the state is in some level of drought classification, with 33 percent in extreme drought and almost 8 percent — in the southwestern corner of the state and the Sangre de Cristo range, which traverses Chaffee, Fremont, Custer, Saguache and Huerfano counties — in the worst classification of exceptional drought.

Much of the land affected by the drought is agricultural.

In Colorado, rights to water do not go with the land: they’re a separate commodity. Water distribution is based on the appropriation doctrine, which essentially means that the oldest — or most senior — water rights have priority over less-senior right holders. In good years, when rivers and streams are full, the doctrine basically dictates who gets their water when. In dry years, it could mean that lower-priority right holders may not get any water at all.

Don Andreatta, whose family has been farming and ranching in Southern Colorado for generations, usually produces 250 to 300 tons of hay a year on his operation near La Veta, which he uses to feed his cattle.

Despite possessing very senior water rights, Andreatta won’t be growing any hay this year. There’s so little water moving in the irrigation ditches that it won’t even reach his ranch.

“So even those most senior rights, the cream of the crop, there’s not even enough water in the stream now to be used effectively by them,” said Brgoch.

Andreatta is luckier than some, maybe most, other ranchers. He has natural springs on his property, so he won’t have to sell cattle, although the size of the herd isn’t quite what it was before the 2002 drought. But he will have to buy all of his hay this year.

“In this country, to winter a cow in this country, it’s going to take two ton per cow,” he said.

The Edmundson family has been ranching in Southern Colorado for close to 150 years.

Lewis “Beaver” Edmundson, his wife, two sons and their families run cattle on three ranches — two in Huerfano County and the other in Crowley County — that encompass about 96,000 acres. They don’t farm any of their land; instead, they rely on the natural grass and supplements to feed the herd.

“We’ve had less than 20 percent normal precipitation since September, and our grass never greened up this spring,” said Edmundson.

The lack of water and natural forage has forced the Edmundsons to sell some of their cattle.

“We had about 1,400 cows three weeks ago,” Edmundson said. “We sold 200.”

And it’s possible they’ll have to sell more.

“We can go a little longer but not much longer,” Edmundson said.

They’ve also sent another 200 head to Wyoming, where they’ve leased grazing land, and another 450 are headed to the Castle Rock area, where conditions are better.

John Campbell is the general manager of Winter Livestock in La Junta. He saw firsthand the devastation the drought of 2002 brought to the industry.

Asked whether he anticipates seeing the same number of cattle move through the auction house this year as he did in 2002, Campbell said, “Everybody was in a lot better posture grass-wise prior to this drought versus in ’02. … However, the places that are dry, they’re every bit as dry as they were in ’02.

“(The price) of feed has gotten extremely high,” continued Campbell. “It’s in very short supply. Hay has probably come close to doubling in price versus where it was a year ago.

“That (2002) drought actually lasted about 12 years,” continued Campbell. “We were, just in the last three years, starting to get ranchers in a position where they were trying to build back numbers. That’s how devastating the 2002 drought was. I question whether we have the number of cattle available now that we did in 2002.”

A healthy amount of precipitation in 2017 resulted in good snowpack and runoff levels heading into this spring. All but the basins in Southwestern Colorado experienced above-average reservoir storage, meaning irrigators on the Front Range and Eastern plains of the state who have storage rights received their full allotment of water.

The irrigation account at Trinidad Lake — which receives its water from the Purgatoire River — will be declared “empty” around June 15, said Brgoch, the water commissioner, and within a few days, farmers and ranchers with shares in that account won’t receive anymore water.

“Same with Pueblo reservoir,” Brgoch said. “It was full, and (the irrigation account holders) are going to be out of water here somewhere around the first of July or something like that.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated 18 counties in Colorado — including Huerfano, Chaffee and Alamosa counties — as natural disasters, opening the door for agricultural producers in those areas to receive financial assistance.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

With most of that snow now gone from the state’s high elevations, reservoirs are being increasingly tapped by irrigators due to low streamflow levels, especially in southwestern Colorado. That has triggered sizable drops in storage levels in some areas.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service says that statewide, Colorado hasn’t experienced as poor a snowpack year since 2012. But in southwest Colorado, the year was only slightly better than 2002, the worst winter on record based on Colorado automated SNOTEL measurement site data.

While generous May snowfall has helped rescue some past Colorado snowpack seasons, precipitation this May was just 55 percent of normal statewide, 54 percent of normal in the upper Colorado River Basin in Colorado, and only 34 percent of normal in the Gunnison River Basin.

The service said in a news release Friday that in a normal year, on June 1, 21 of the 115 SNOTEL sites in the state have at least an inch of snow water equivalent.

This year just 10 sites had any measurable snow.

“While these conditions are more favorable for hiking Colorado’s mountains, snowpack and precipitation shortages in May further depleted Colorado’s summer water supply outlook,” Brian Domonkos, Colorado snow survey supervisor for the NRCS, said in the release.

Statewide snowpack was at just 24 percent of average at the start of June, and as warm and dry conditions have continued it had fallen to just 12 percent by Friday.

“Even sites that reached close to normal snowpack peaks this year have melted out earlier than normal, some more than two weeks early,” the NRCS said in a separate monthly water supply outlook for Colorado.

Domonkos said that in dry years in particular, “When streamflows peak early, less water is available later in the summer when it is needed most.”

Measurement sites in far-southwestern Colorado are virtually free of snow, and the Arkansas River Basin on Friday had the largest remaining snowpack level, at 29 percent of average.

A key measure of snowpack each year is the peak accumulation level, which typically is reached in April.

Northern Colorado did fairly well this year, with the North Platte River Basin having a peak that was slightly above normal, and the South Platte, Colorado, and Yampa-White River basins peaking at 91, 88 and 87 percent of normal respectively. But remaining river basins all peaked with less than 60 percent of normal accumulations.

May was the second-driest month of the current water year, which started in October. December’s precipitation was just half of normal.

“While reservoir storage was above average in all major Colorado basins through most of the water year, we are starting to see the effects of the minimal snowpack in southern Colorado with low natural streamflows and resulting declines in reservoir storage,” the servicesaid in its water supply outlook.

It said water restrictions are already in place in many parts of the state.

Statewide reservoir storage remained at 106 percent of average as of June 1. But it had fallen to just three-quarters of average in far-southwestern Colorado, 90 percent of average in the Upper Rio Grande River Basin, and 92 percent of average in the Gunnison basin. Those areas all had been above average a few months earlier.

The service said that in the Gunnison basin, current streamflow forecasts range from 48 percent of average for the Slate River near Crested Butte to just 10 percent for the inflow to Paonia Reservoir.

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