Southwest faces long road back to normal; Front Range dry but better off

WHITEWATER, CO – FEBRUARY 13: Rancher Howard VanWinkle drives his tractor through a field to feed young cows on Wednesday, February 13, 2019. The VanWinkles faced drought in 2018, which caused them to sell off some 75 head of cattle. The field in Whitewater, which they lease from a gravel company, was the first of their lands to run out of irrigation water last year. Of the three ranches that the family irrigates, they ran out of water at all of them. Each of the dry ranches are in Whitewater. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The drought that has gripped much of Colorado since late 2017 didn’t abate in 2018, and despite recent snowfall — which added to the all-important snowpack in the high country — the prospect of relief is still well down the road.

Western Colorado, particularly the Four Corners region, was ground zero for an “extreme” and “exceptional” drought, according to the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s drought monitoring map. The effects have been wide-reaching: dry soils have reduced farmers’ crop yields, low reservoirs have hampered irrigation and Denver was roasted with another dry year.

Snowfall in the capital city this winter has been below average, capping the third dry year in a row. The lack of precipitation has caused many of the important reservoirs for Denver to dip below full. But, conservation from consumers and the complex network of streams and rivers the city draws from have helped mitigate potential drought impacts, said manager of raw water supplies for Denver Water, Nathan Elder.

“Right now we are feeling pretty good,” Elder said.

Other areas of the Front Range have not fared as well. Patches of parched landscape have caused once-green golf courses to close and limited golf cart use, the Greeley Tribune reported.

The entire state’s 2018 water year, which restarts on Sept. 30, was the second driest and hottest on record, according to the Western Water Assessment, a program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and run by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Hardest hit has been Colorado’s agriculture industry, with damages rippling across other industries, impacting forest health and worrying firefighters.

Farms and ranches feeling the heat

Agriculture generates more than $5 billion dollars for the Colorado economy. Water is the resource that makes the industry go. Less water has meant less profit.

The impact has been felt beyond the fields and pastures. Secondary industries across the state that rely on farmers buying their equipment have seen a downturn, said Taylor Szilagyi, a Colorado Farm Bureau spokeswoman.

On the Western Slope, rancher Janie VanWinkle nursed her cattle through a “miserable” summer. A fourth-generation rancher in Mesa County, she watched as the dry heat sucked the life from her herd. By fall, a lack of water meant she had to sell off more than 50 head of cattle.

Less water meant less yield on the crops she and her husband grow for winter feed, forcing the VanWinkles to offload at a time when cattle prices were nearly half of what they have been.

The immediate loss is $50,000, VanWinkle estimates. But that is just the start of a financial hole that could take years to climb out of, she said. Gone with the cattle are their genetics and breeding ability, a loss she said is immeasurable.

Janie VanWinkle gets her equipment set to deliver protein supplements to her stock on her ranch Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. The protein supplement is used in winter months when feed becomes dry.

For farms south of her in the San Luis Valley, the lack of water has been more than just a hit to the wallet, it has been a hit to personal hydration.

Recently, after a hard day working on the small, organic Sol Mountain Farm in Rio Grande County, farm manager Isaac Manobla returned to the farmhouse in need of a drink. Parched, nothing poured from the tap. The well at Sol Mountain Farm had dried up, as it has daily for the past few weeks.

In need of a drink, Manobla turned to his refrigerator, which was only stocked with beer, not the beverage he wanted at the time.

“It is super stressful not to have water,” he said.

Manobla and the others at Sol hope that snowmelt in the spring, along with water-conserving irrigation techniques, will bring much-needed relief to their well.

Experiences like Manobla’s and VanWinkle’s are not unique. Szilagyi has heard from farmers for months about their struggles.

“It is just a really hard time right now to be in a drought,” Szilagyi said. “Water is already a scarce resource.”

Drier forests, more fires

Beyond the arid farmland, forests across the state are also hurting from the drought. With less water, trees have less fuel to build defenses against tree-killing beetles. The impact is two-fold: dry and hot conditions help the beetle populations surge, and then the insects flood into once-healthy forests, said Dan West, a Colorado State Forest Service entomologist .

“Every day I am thinking about what area of this state is being impacted by a drier and warmer climate,” West said.

One fifth of Colorado’s forests have been killed off by beetles, causing ripple effects across the ecosystem and leaving spark-ready tinder on the forest floor, West said.

“In Colorado, it correlates pretty well with our increased fire frequency (and) severity and drought,” said Rocco Snart , planning branch chief for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Last year was one of the worst wildfire seasons in Colorado, a trend that correlates with other wildfire seasons that have blazed through drought-stricken forests, Snart said.

Snow might not be enough

In mountain states like Colorado, snowpack acts as an important reserve for water, but an average spring runoff does not guarantee a return to normal, said Taryn Finnessey, senior climate change specialist for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. For reservoirs and the larger farms and municipalities that rely on them, average won’t be enough.

Droughts can take months, even years, to recover from and each one impacts Colorado differently, she said.

“Just because we have snowpack doesn’t mean it will manifest into usable water,” Finnessey said. Some of the snow could evaporate before it makes it to the spring runoff.

It took McPhee nearly three years to bounce back to full levels after the 2002 drought. A heavy snow year in 2005 helped to top off the reservoir, Curtis said. For a water system that needs regular input, irregularity has become the new normal.

“We just have not had a lot of consecutive good years since to 2000,” he said.

Low reservoirs across the West have exacerbated the use of the Colorado River. Drought has pressed lawmakers to negotiate over use of the river, as the federal agency in charge of regulating it could dramatically cut its overuse.

The Ute Mountain Reservation has felt the downstream impacts of the low McPhee Reservoir.  A 7,700-acre tribe-owned farm and ranch has been operating at lower capacity since the drought began in 2017. Even once the reservoir is replenished, the farm will need more than its usual take of water to rehydrate the dry soil, said Peter Ortega, general counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.

“I don’t anticipate it being near normal anytime soon,” Ortega said.

As originally published in The Denver Post by Jackson Barnett on February 17, 2019

Original URL: https://www.denverpost.com/2019/02/17/colorado-extreme-drought-southwest-snowpack-reservoirs/

2019-02-20T09:44:39+00:00Feb 20, 2019|