High and Dry

Even in the best of times, farmers and developers fight for Colorado's water. And this summer's drought is far from the best of times.

While multiple-year droughts might mean watering restrictions for suburban lawns, the consequences are far more dire for farmers, who face diminished agricultural production and could be forced out of business. The drought could also hurt local industry, which in a worst-case scenario is the first to be cut off from water supplies, followed by agriculture and last by domestic use. And, of course, a diminishing supply of water would mean even higher water prices for farmers who can't afford it now.

All indications point to a prolonged drought. In Longmont, there were 36 days of 90-degree-plus heat through mid-August; in all of 1999, there were fifteen. In Loveland, it was 43 compared to seventeen. The state has come within just a few days of the record established during Colorado's last multiple-year drought, back in 1953 to 1956.

The drought is being felt in many ways. As of last week, 111,567 acres of Colorado have burned in a total of 1,573 wildfires. Firefighters and firefighting resources are depleted.

The Anderson corn maze is the largest in the world.The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago; today it stands in the midst of development.Dan Graffis checks an evaporation gauge -- and the news isn't good for farmers along the St. Vrain River.Laborers picking potatoes at a Longmont farm in 1966; Ewell Culbertson and his broccoli today.Jeff Rasmussen is a tenant farmer on Boulder County open-space land.Betty Ann Newby rides herd on horses and an alfalfa crop.
The Anderson corn maze is the largest in the world.The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago; today it stands in the midst of development.Dan Graffis checks an evaporation gauge -- and the news isn't good for farmers along the St. Vrain River.Laborers picking potatoes at a Longmont farm in 1966; Ewell Culbertson and his broccoli today.Jeff Rasmussen is a tenant farmer on Boulder County open-space land.Betty Ann Newby rides herd on horses and an alfalfa crop.
The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago.
The Great Western Sugar mill stood in the middle of farmland 35 years ago.
Part 1: Going With the Flow

Small farmers are holding on as best they can. Jeff Rasmussen was able to stretch the small amount of additional water he bought last spring and figures it's enough to finish off his crops. He got a "boost in the arm" when Coors accepted all of his barley, he reports, but prices for other crops are "still lagging and the barley won't cover the losses from them."

But it's enough to let Rasmussen hang on to fight another year.

As usual, the drought is hurting eastern farmers the worst. Upstream from Julesburg, the South Platte has gone pretty much bone-dry, according to state water engineer Dick Stenzel. And there's not much help on the way.

"There's been virtually no precipitation on the eastern plains this summer or last winter," he says. The reservoirs are low and expected to be empty in a few weeks. Wells are running dry, too.

The downstream users on the South Platte all have junior water rights to those upstream of the confluence of the St. Vrain with the South Platte, near the town of Platteville; they also are junior to most of the water rights located on the tributaries of the St. Vrain, Big Thompson or Cache la Poudre rivers. Because their water rights date from the late 1870s to the mid-1890s, these downstream users have seniority only over farmers with ditch systems along the South Platte from Platteville to about Brush.

Without reservoir water, downstream users past Fort Morgan traditionally count on rainfall, several of their own reservoirs, groundwater wells and return flows coming from the fields of farms farther upstream along the South Platte. But over the past year, there's been little or no rain, which usually causes water runoff and replenishes groundwater; as a result, plants -- particularly the cottonwoods that line the South Platte -- have been forced to consume more water from the river. While that might not seem like much, an old cottonwood tree can suck up hundreds of gallons of water a year. The cumulative effect of all these variables is that the South Platte is at record low flows as it heads into the eastern reaches of Colorado.

Downstream farmers look at the dry river and think about those farmers upstream. Farmers, particularly during this drought, are becoming much more efficient in the use of their limited water supplies, particularly as more switch from flood irrigation to center-point pivots, the enormous sprinkler systems on wheels. The sprinklers deliver less water to the fields, most of which is then consumed by the plants; therefore, less water is going back into the river as return flow.

Stenzel, who has been busy meeting with water users up and down the South Platte over the past couple of weeks, says, "They're all concerned and want more water." Some farmers are voicing the desire to have someone else buy them out and "put them out of their misery," he adds. Many of them are just scraping by, not knowing if they will have a good crop...not knowing if they will be able to remain on the land.

"There's some anger and frustration, and they question why they aren't getting what they're used to," he adds. "Except for a few old-timers, it's been a long time since we've had a drought like this."

Farmers, ranchers and ag-related businesses in nine Colorado counties, most in the southern part of the state, can expect some assistance from the USDA in the form of low-interest loans. The nine -- Archuleta, Delores, Conejos, Eagle, Garfield, La Plata, Montezuma, Pueblo and San Miguel -- all have been declared agricultural disasters areas. Six more disaster relief requests are pending for a half-dozen other counties in the northeast part of the state, along the South Platte, and more are expected to apply once the extent of the drought's impact is known.

At the August 17 meeting of the state drought task force, members considered the latest report. Although above-average temperatures have increased evaporation, they've inhibited the development of rain clouds. A high-pressure system has also kept most of the monsoon moisture out of the state.

"It is too early to say what's in store for the winter, but the Colorado Climate Center is advising preparedness in case the drying trend becomes a long-term drought," the report warns. "Fall is normally a dry period for much of Colorado, so relief is not expected to come soon."

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