From Western Slope to Eastern Plains, #Colorado agriculture under pressure to adapt to warming world — The #Denver Post #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Rancher and fly-fishing guide Paul Bruchez raises cattle on 6,000 acres near Kremmling. Bruchez has taken an active role in Colorado River issues ever since his family suffered from a critical water shortage during the 2002 drought. Photo credit: Russ Schnitzer via Aspen Journalism

From The Denver Post (Judith Kohler):

Not long after Paul Bruchez’s family bought a ranch along the Colorado River near Kremmling, his father became ill amid a crippling drought in 2002 that left them without irrigation water.

“The family conversation was we either need to be involved and create some positive change or we need to go,” Bruchez recalled. “Dad said we’re going to fight for what we have. I’ve been doing it ever since then.”

The 40-year-old Bruchez is a fifth-generation Colorado farmer and rancher and is vice chairman of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. He works with area ranchers, environmentalists, scientists and local and state officials on conserving water and restoring stretches of the Colorado River for irrigators and wildlife.

“From my perspective, if we don’t fight for it, no one will,” said Bruchez.

Bruchez acknowledges the fight farmers and ranchers are in could determine not just the future of his family’s ranch, but the future of agriculture in Colorado and beyond. Whether it’s called climate change or long-term drought, the hotter, drier weather is threatening water supplies and crop yields, and is driving ranchers to cut herd sizes or find greener pastures elsewhere for the animals.

Agriculture is one of Colorado’s major industries, contributing $47 billion annually and supporting nearly 200,000 jobs, according to state data. A state task force projects that drought could cost the state an additional $830 million in annual damages by 2050, with $511 million of that occurring agriculture alone.

An analysis by The Washington Post highlights the climate change challenge facing the region. Based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data between 1895 and 2019, the analysis found that a group of counties in northwest Colorado and eastern Utah warmed more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s double the global average.

According to the Colorado Climate Center, this summer has been the second-warmest on record for western Colorado…

Colorado Drought Monitor December 1, 2020.

But the rest of Colorado has not been spared. Statewide, this August was the 14th-warmest August in 127 years. In 2020, all of Colorado was declared in drought or abnormally dry for the first time in eight years…

Governor Hickenlooper, John Salazar and John Stulp at the 2012 Drought Conference

Lamar farmer and rancher John Stulp said a former state climatologist told him that Colorado is so large, there’s rarely a part of the state that isn’t in drought…

Southeast Colorado, where his family has farmed dryland wheat for about 50 years, is always on the edge of a drought, Stulp said. This year, the fields started turning brown when the moisture didn’t come in March and April…

And while he ended up with a good crop, Stulp called the warming trend “a slow moving train coming down the track,” straining water supplies and producing less snowpack in the mountains to feed the rivers. Agriculture will face pressure to use less…

Growing food for the world

As in other Western states, the lion’s share of the water in Colorado goes to agriculture. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources figures put the percentage at 85.2%, while 6.6% goes to commercial and municipal uses.

Bruchez was on a panel discussion three years ago when a reporter asked if there are problems with water quality and supply and if agriculture uses most of the water, why not just cut the flows to farmers and ranchers? He said he asked the reporter if he enjoyed his lunch that day. The reporter did.

“And I’m like, ‘When you say ag water, that’s what we do, grow food to feed the world,’” Bruchez recounted.

Funds provided by grants and landowners near Kremmling, Colorado, have facilitated improvements such as this back stabilization project. (Source: Paul Bruchez)

The Colorado River, which runs through the family’s ranch, is key to being able to keep producing food, Bruchez said. The lifelong fly fisherman who oversees the family’s fishing guide business worked with the conservation group Trout Unlimited and area ranchers to raise money and obtain grants to build riffles in the river. The structures mimic natural features where rocks break the water surface, improving fish habitat by increasing oxygen and the presence of insects that feed fish.

Riffles also help to raise the water table, which greatly aided Bruchez’s neighbors, Bill and Wendy Thompson. The structures raised the water levels at their irrigation intakes on the river…

Bruchez has rallied area ranchers to participate in a study to figure out how much water hay grown at high altitudes consumes and how long it takes a field to recover after a period of no irrigation. Results will provide information the Colorado Water Conservation Board needs as it determines the feasibility of voluntary reductions in irrigation…

[Harrison] Topp said everyone has a stake in figuring out if agriculture is sustainable in certain parts of the state. He said farmers and ranchers can stay in business with access to adequate water and support from state and federal governments to recover from extreme weather and natural disasters…

Colorado Drought Monitor map September 21, 2021.

Monsoon rains, absent three of the last four summers, showed up this year, providing relief for the southwest part of the state and pulling the Eastern Plains out of drought. However, Bolinger, assistant state climatologist, said short-term dryness is returning after several hot days and spotty rainfall.

And much of northwest and southwest Colorado remain in exceptional, extreme or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor…

Another goal is to show that ranching can be part of the solution to a warming climate by keeping range land intact to help store carbon dioxide. John Sanderson at Colorado State University is one of the authors of a paper that says range land stores up to 20% of the world’s organic carbon and that not enough attention is paid to the drawbacks of converting it to other uses.

Activities like oil and gas production and transportation generate atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide. But methane is even more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the short term and cow belches and manure are big sources.

The agriculture industry is looking at whether food additives, such as seaweed, could significantly reduce methane emissions from cows.

The weather is expected to be more variable, including more intense drought and more intense rainfall as well low as lower snowpack, said Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, an animal science professor and director of CSU’s AgNext. There are a number of stratgies farmers and ranchers can use to adapt, she said…

“There are definitely ways to adapt. I don’t have any illusion that it’s going to be easy,” [Kate] Greenberg said. “But I think what’s exciting about this is that (agriculture) can be such an important part of the solution when it comes to making sure we have the resilience and the natural reserves, not to mention the food production capacity, we’re going to need moving into this more volatile, more uncertain future.”

Leave a Reply