Drought forcing farmers in Colorado into choices

Not long ago, the red sandstone walls of the Dolores River Canyon in southwestern Colorado towered over roaring rapids that teemed with native fish.

Now, it’s largely empty.

Drought compounded by climate change has left the once robust river a ribbon of cobblestones, a trickle of water and small, shallow pools.

“It’s really an unfortunate and tragic, incredible canyon with sort of a meek river that was once really a giant, wonderful symbol of the Wild West,” said Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Low water levels in the river leave fish like bluehead sucker and roundtail chub with nowhere to go, White says.

“Fish have been around and on the river for over a million years, up to two million years,” he says. “These fish have evolved with low and high flows, so they can handle a certain amount of that. But what they can’t handle is essentially a dry channel.”

The drought is also hitting farmers in Colorado and all across the West.

There was so little water this year that farmers who use water from the Dolores River to irrigate their fields got a fraction of what they usually get. Those farmers are forced to gamble on a future that’s becoming less and less likely to predict.

Farmers at one ranch planted crops on a fraction of their fields

The McPhee Reservoir in Dolores, Colo., moves water through canals to farms dozens of miles away. The water levels at the reservoir are down more than 50 feet in parts. It’s so low that entire islands in the reservoir that should be underwater are visible.

Across the Colorado River Basin, which includes the Dolores River and McPhee, higher temperatures due to climate change are making the landscape drier. Dry ground and higher rates of evaporation make it harder for water from snowmelt and rainfall to reach its destination — whether it’s a Dolores River fish pool or the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise, a nearly 8,000 acre farm 40 miles downstream from the reservoir. Owned by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, it’s one of the region’s biggest water users.

The farm relies on the water from the reservoir to grow fields of alfalfa and corn. This year, the farm wasn’t able to grow much given their water allotment; they had to lay off 50 percent of their staff, who are mostly members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The farm used only 8 of their 110 fields in 2021. By contrast, in 2020 it used 109 of 110.

“This is the effect of the drought,” says farm manager Simon Martinez.

He says their bill to get water from the McPhee is more than half a million dollars a year — that’s whether they get all of their allocation or just a sliver, like they did this year.

“We have been able to pay that through the years, the last 17 years, regularly. It’s an issue now because of what we’re dealing with,” he says. “Not that we’ve had to go this direction any time before. This is new ground for everybody because there was no crop, there was no income, there was no revenue.”

To cover its costs, the farm had to rely more on its corn milling business, which has been a lifeline this year, Martinez says.

“I’ve seen a lot of fluctuation in the climate itself,” he says. “But lately, this year is the worst.”

Farmers are gamblers — and the nature is setting the odds

Father and son farmers Brian and Landan Wilson are facing a similar situation. Their family has been farming in southwest Colorado since the early 1900s. Like the Ute Mountain Ute Farm, they grow alfalfa using their water allotment from the McPhee reservoir. This year they produced far less than they normally do.

“We had 1.7 inches of water available to us as farmers. Full allocation is 23,” Brian Wilson said. “It’s not looking much better for 2022 than it did for ’21.”

Landan bought his first piece of land in 2017 when he was just 22 years old. He hopes to farm as long as he can.

“It’s scary,” he says. “With the current water situation, it does have me worried and concerned. It’s definitely not ideal. And I knew that farming would never be easy to begin with. I just never knew that would be this severe.”

His dad, Brian, is hoping for the best. “I’m hopeful that we get a good winter and we see lots of snow in the mountains,” he says. “I’m a gambler. Farmers are always gamblers.”

But there’s a saying in gambling that the house always wins. In this case, the house is nature, and it sets the odds that fish and farmers will wager their lives and livelihoods on.

For farmers, help will come from the government or the sky

Ken Curtis, the general manager of the Dolores River Water Conservancy, which manages the reservoir and distributes the water to farmers and residents, wishes he knew when things will get better.

“We don’t know where the light at the end of the tunnel is,” Curtis says. “We can do one year. We can maybe struggle through a couple of years. But this isn’t how it was built to operate under these hydrologic conditions, and we don’t know how long that extends.”

Ken Curtis is the manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which sends water from the river for use downstream.

As Curtis looks out over the manmade lake that is the McPhee Reservoir — surrounded by trees and hills, with snow-capped mountains on the horizon — he admits it’s a precarious set of odds.

“We have zero in the bank right now,” Curtis says. “Everything we’re going to use next year is yet to fall from the sky. And so the risks are that much higher and another year of drought will just compound the economic hardship of our farmers.”

State officials are trying to help.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis recently signed into law a bill that created an office focusing on agricultural drought and climate resilience. It was part of a slate of climate- and energy-related bills he approved over the summer.

And advocates say the federal government needs to step up as well, with more investment in drought resilience in the West. The infrastructure bill and reconciliation package currently before Congress are a step in the right direction, says Audobon’s Colorado River Program Director Jennifer Pitt. They would invest millions of dollars in projects to mitigate the effects of drought in the region. Some of that money would go to modernizing existing water infrastructure, as well as new water storage projects aimed at keeping reservoir levels higher.

“We can’t make water, but we can take better care of the watershed,” Pitt says. “As these problems stack up, we’re going to need to see new ways of managing across the landscape to keep the Colorado River watershed a place that can support our human communities as well as the wildlife.”

Simon Martinez, ranch manager, makes his way through packaged corn ready to be shipped. While the corn mill helps pay the water bill, the reality of climate change’s effect on the farm is made clear with a significant cut in crops and water allotment.

It’s aid that Ute Mountain Ute Farm manager Simon Martinez would welcome. Martinez tries to stay positive — that help is on the way, either by way of more water next year or by the government. But as the climate continues to warm, years like this one could become more and more common.

“My optimism is that assistance will come,” Martinez says. “Because why wouldn’t it? Why shouldn’t it?”

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