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Environment

Colorado’s hot summer of dry ditches and empty reservoirs has left distressed farmers sweating: Will it get worse?

The state is in the midst of the fourth-driest water year and the third-hottest summer in more than a century of record keeping

Farmer John Harold discards an ear of corn after finding bird damage while a harvest crew with the Tuxedo Corn Co. works to remove thousands of ears of Olathe Sweet corn crop from a field on July 10, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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OLATHE — John Harold charges his Chevy through chest-high stalks of sweet corn.

He’s talking on his phone, scribbling notes. He’s got corn-harvesting crews spread across the Uncompahgre Valley, picking more than 100,000 ears a day of his trademarked Olathe Sweet.

The fields of onions need weeding. His beans, too. More than 100 fields of corn need picking. An 80-man crew is stuck on the Mexican border of Texas, waiting for temporary H2A work visas from an inexplicably closed embassy, costing him $2,500 a day as they linger. He’s got a contract with Kroger to deliver more than 30 million ears of his succulent corn to grocery stores across the country.

Harold has a lot going on.

Up on the Uncompahgre Plateau, the snow is long gone and a hot wind rattles brittle stalks. It’s too early for the snow to be gone, he said on July 11, the second day of his month-long corn harvest.

He’s running low on water. But after 32 years as Colorado’s king of corn, he knows not to worry too hard about things beyond his control.

Farmer John Harold checks an ear of sweet corn for bugs and bird damage. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun) 

“This here is a tough racket, and this year is a tough one, for sure,” says the spry, multi-tasking 77-year-old. “We knew going into this season that we had enough water storage for the crop this year. What we don’t know is if we’ll have that next year. If we don’t have water, it would devastate this valley. I’ll just turn in my keys to the man at the bank and let him give it a go.”

That’s the mantra reverberating across agricultural communities right now as they negotiate the fourth-driest water year and the third-hottest summer in more than a century of record keeping in Colorado. If the upcoming winter isn’t huge, this drought will ravage the state’s $40 billion agricultural industry, sending shockwaves that will be felt for years to come.

A worker with the Tuxedo Corn Company works to harvest thousands of ears of its Olathe Sweet sweet corn crop from a field west of Olathe on July 10, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ranchers and farmers are suffering this summer. Ditches are dry. Reservoirs are emptying earlier than ever. Springs and seeps that once sustained pastures are drying up. Cattle are heading to market months early as hay prices skyrocket and pastures wither in the rainless heat. Fruit growers are scrambling to water precious orchards that can’t simply lie fallow in the way some of Harold’s corn fields can.

Municipalities are amplifying long-standing efforts to increase storage after a dry season that has served as yet another exclamation point on a drought that has lingered for nearly two decades.

The City of Aspen has backed off long-held hopes to build dams and reservoirs up both Maroon Creek and Castle Creek drainages while spending almost $3 million on 61 acres near Woody Creek for a potential reservoir.

After 15-years of work, the $1.1 billion Northern Integrated Supply Project is in the final stages of federal permitting, with plans to develop the 170,000 acre-foot Glade Reservoir to capture Poudre River water and the 46,600 acre-foot Galeton Reservoir collecting off the South Platte River. Those new reservoirs and a network of pipelines would serve 11 northern Colorado communities that are expected to see their total population more than double to 500,000 by 2050.

Increasingly thirsty communities worry Colorado’s farmers and ranchers, who account for about 89 percent of the water used in Colorado.

But most of the water — 60 percent actually, around 8.4 million acre-feet — that originates in Colorado rolls out of state.

Colorado — really its farmers and ranchers — are stewards for increasingly bibulous downstream states. Just about all the water that feeds Arizona, Nevada and southern California originates in Colorado and the Centennial State’s largest users of that water toil harder with every passing season to eke savings from the gushing supply.

But even with aggressive conservation, that historic torrent of Colorado water has become a trickle in this 19th year of relentless drought, with water levels in the two major reservoirs on the over-allocated Colorado River — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — nearing crisis. (Upstream, reservoirs in Colorado are faring no better, with the state’s largest, Blue Mesa near Gunnison, at only 39 percent full, its lowest level since 1987.)

Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County, the state’s largest reservoir, is at its lowest level since 1987. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Powell is currently less than half full, down 94 feet from 2000. Lake Mead is only 38 percent full.

The Colorado River Research Group, an assembly of university professors who specialize in water management, law and science in the West, have suggested it’s time to rethink how those two reservoirs work together. Specifically, maybe it’s time to drain Powell.

“If storage in Lake Powell cannot rebound in an era where the Upper Basin consumes less than two-thirds of its legal apportionment, then the crisis is already real,” reads an explosive report from the the research group, which projected Lake Powell would end 2018 at such a low level — less than 3,600 feet, down almost 100 feet from 2000 — that the Glen Canyon Dam’s hydropower facilities could be hindered. The impacts of that include losing funding for environmental programs supported by the dam’s electricity and, ultimately ending any releases heading downstream into Mead.

“Our hydrology is changing; so must our water-use practices,” reads the research group’s report, which called the present situation at Powell “untenable” and revived a once radical idea of draining Powell, leaving Mead as the sole storage facility for Arizona, Nevada and California, part of a growing chorus of scientists supporting the “Fill Mead First” notion.

As drought leads to larger wildfires, ashy runoff is killing tens of thousands of Colorado fish. Read more.

On the ground in Colorado, farmers are feeling the early signs of a looming water crisis triggered by warming temperatures that scientists say marks one of the driest 20-year periods in the past 1,200 years.

“We have no water after the fifth of August. No water and no ability to get augmented water,” says Ed Tuft, who planted about 4,500 new apple trees in the past two years, giving him almost 400,000 fruit trees spread across 400 acres along the trickling North Fork of the Gunnison River.

The Paonia Reservoir emptied on Aug. 5, one of the earliest dates since the 18,150-acre-foot irrigation water storage facility was built in 1962. And they started filling the reservoir in December, one of the earliest starts ever for the reservoir that waters more than 15,000 acres of farm and ranchland.

The North Fork of the Gunnison River Basin — which stretches more than 33 miles from Paonia Dam to the Gunnison River below the Black Canyon and irrigates more than 15,000 acres of farm and ranchland — saw snowpack fall to 52 percent of average last winter, marking one of the basin’s worst winters on record.

That compares to 63 percent in 2002 and 74 percent in 2012, the previous benchmarks in a prolonged drought that has lingered for 19 years.

“But this season, this season is worse and our records show that,” says Dixie Luke, president of the Fire Mountain Canal and Reservoir Company that distributes Paonia Reservoir water to 488 shareholders along 35 miles of ditches. “We probably would not have filled that reservoir if we had started after December. We usually start mid-April but we saw this coming. No fall moisture. No snowpack. The fruit growers are struggling. Many of us are concerned about our hay crop. Things could get ugly without heavy snow this winter.”

Ridgeway Reservoir, in southwest Colorado, is at its lowest storage level in at least a decade. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The fruit growers — the minority of shareholders in the Fire Mountain network — begged Luke to limit the flow through the ditch, which they hoped would prolong their irrigation season. Luke said transit loss through the earthen ditch —  seeping into weeds or evaporating — is the same at 75 percent flow as it at 100 percent flow.

“So it doesn’t make sense to run less. We didn’t think we’d gain anything,” she said.

Hogwash, says Tuft. A bit of water loss in the ditch would be worth a longer season for his fragile young trees.

“When you have fruit trees and the water turns off, you are in trouble,” says Tuft, who spent $250,000 renting water, building reservoirs and revamping his irrigation systems from sprinklers to drips, all of which allowed him to keep his trees wet through the first week of September.

“We have managed to beg, borrow and rent water. We are old timers here so we know how to do that,” says Tuft, whose family founded Leroux Creek Foods in Hotchkiss in the 1980s producing Honeycrisp apples in the North Fork Basin. “But I do know quite a number of others who have not had water on their trees since Aug. 5 and I just don’t see how those trees are going to survive. All the old timers I talk to around here, every one of them tells me this is the worst drought in history.”

Colorado farmers and ranchers know the drought drill well.

After 1976, 2002 and 2012, they installed sprinklers and drip-systems to replace the immoderate approach of simply flooding fields. Water guardians are learning too, moderating flows from federally built dams to accommodate changing demands.

“It’s pretty basic what we learned in 2002 and 2012. We have some better forecasting since then and while there are always tough years, it’s become tough because it’s more unpredictable right now,” said Ed Warner, manager of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office. “We are trying to stretch out all our water supplies and understand the ramifications of our every move. Do we cut it now and stretch it out or don’t cut and run out earlier? The answers are different for the environment and all our various water users.”

Those previous extreme drought years came with reservoirs below capacity. This season began with brimming storage, so while this season’s pinch is painful, it’s not as bad as it could have been.

“I remember those bad years well,” said Steve Anderson, manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, which waters 83,000 acres with 128 miles of major canals and 438 miles of lateral ditches in Montrose and Delta counties. “Everybody does.”

His users — most growing hay and alfalfa for cow and calf operations — are weathering this summer, Anderson says.

“But if we have another water year like we experienced last winter, it’s going to be really tough in this valley. Really tough,” he says.

Dan Varner and his wife have been brokering cattle at their Delta Sales Yard for 22 years. Typically, summer is the slow season, and they sell about 200 head of cattle every other week. This summer they have been selling as many as 400 cows every week.

Ranchers are getting fewer harvests from their hay fields. Springs that have run for years are dry. Hay prices have climbed to as high as $350 a ton this year from $80 to $120 a ton last summer. Ranchers typically trim their herds by about 5 to 10 percent in August, but this year many are pulling four times as many cows from their herds, selling them early and at a loss, Varner said. It’s too expensive to water them and keep them fed.

“I’m hearing a lot of places are hauling water to their cows. It’s really hard when these guys have to sell their momma cows. That’s the factory right there. That happened in 2002 and I feel like we just recovered from 2002 last summer,” Varner said. “I’m hearing this deal is going to get worse and worse — that’s what I’m hearing from everybody. We can probably survive this summer, but if we don’t get snow — I’m talking measured in feet — this year, it’s going to be really bad next year.”

John Harold is holding court on the deck of the retrofitted Army truck that crawls through his corn fields.

Forty workers scramble on and around the truck, filling more than 400 crates of corn every half hour. A truck with full crates is detaching and heading to the cooler for shipment. Another truck is pulling up with hundreds of empty crates. By the end of the day, they will ship 300,000 ears of corn. In full swing, when the other crews arrive, Harold will send a million ears of his Olathe Sweet corn a day to markets across the country.

His workers ask to pose with him for photos. They use their few minutes of down time to watch World Cup soccer on their phones, crouching in the shade of the machine. Where’s the other crew? someone asks. Harold says they are stuck at the border.

“They might not get here at the rate they are going. If that happens, you guys are going to have to work 24 hours a day,” he says.

A harvest crew with the Tuxedo Corn Company of Olathe, Colo., takes a break after harvesting thousands of ears of Olathe Sweet sweet corn from a field west of Olathe on July 10, 2018. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For the workers who get paid per crate, that elicits cheers and more than a few “no problema, jefe.”

And then he’s on the the phone again. The crew in the onions is ready to move to another field. His beans are sprouting early and need tending.

“Look at all that,” he says between phone calls, pointing to fields of lush hemp. “Is that the future?”

There are about 1,500 acres of hemp growing in the Uncompahgre Valley, and more is on the way. It uses a bit less water than corn and is much more hardy.

Harold is reticent, though. He can’t use workers with federal visas on hemp. And, he says, “I’m wary of anyone who comes in here and promises me big money.”

Anderson, the guardian of Uncompahgre water, says some of his users are planting hemp like any other crop, alongside beans and red onions and corn.

“What I hope is that it gives the farmers in the valley yet another crop to raise that can make them some money,” Anderson says. “Hard times breed ingenuity, you know.”

In the Lower Arkansas River Valley, just a few miles south of Manzanola, John Schweizer tends to his 54th crop on land his father used to farm.

As his pickup crawls past rows of corn and a late-season stand of alfalfa that run alongside the Catlin Canal, he encounters something he hasn’t seen much this year.

Mud.

He’s not complaining. The late July cloudbursts were a godsend, though their effect has been widely scattered — reflecting the larger statewide moisture inconsistency. A half-inch deluge here, nothing just a mile away.

Schweizer shifts into four-wheel drive and continues across the property where he runs a little more than 200 mother cows and cultivates 600 acres of irrigated land on an operation that was within a hair’s breadth of buckling under the weight of the drought.

Then came the rain. A full inch one Sunday night. A week later, another inch followed a few days later by a half-inch.

“It’s so much different than it was 10 days ago it’s not even funny,” he says.

John Schweizer on his land in southeast Colorado. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

Calling this year’s drought “the worst I’ve ever seen,” he notes that acres and acres of fields usually flush with corn weren’t even planted this year in anticipation of a dry season. Schweizer figures that without the recent rains, he’d have been down to only seven days or so of water reserves to tide him through the rest of the summer.

Drought threatened the only life he’d ever wanted — “to be a cowboy and raise cows.”  He turned down a full scholarship to play college basketball to stay here and build his operation. Now, Schweizer considers himself “pretty well retired” — which means, as he’s about to turn 84, he still cuts most of the alfalfa on a spread he works with his son and grandson.

This summer, he moved his cows from one irrigated pasture to the next until he ran out of water to replenish the grass. Much of his pasture land is saltgrass, which develops a deep root system in alkaline soil but doesn’t grow very tall without rain.

“We was about to get in a real bind,” Schweizer says. “Now we got this rain on it, and the saltgrass will grow and we had a little flood water out of the river. So we’ve had some extra irrigation water. We should have a little better chance at some grass now.”

But the dry weather had just about persuaded him to start moving some of the cows to sale. The alternative — providing feed in the absence of pasture grass — seemed a bad financial choice by his calculation. Still, he didn’t relish the idea of undoing something that took years and years to establish.

“Having finally got there, and then to turn around and have to disperse that herd I’ve spent a lifetime trying to accumulate, I’m not sure what it would do to me,” he says. “I hope I don’t have to face it. But it was getting closer every day.”

John Campbell has seen that difficult day arrive for too many ranchers.

Campbell, who manages the Winter Livestock Auction in La Junta, figures this year’s drought has been just as devastating as 2002 in those places hardest hit — though this one hasn’t encompassed as large an area.

He can see it in the faces of the ranchers who have decided to disperse their herds.

“If you’re dry, the drought will darn sure get you,” he says. “It’s extremely difficult to out-manage a drought. You’re forced to make decisions based on the unknown — and that’s when it’s going to rain.”

By midsummer, he says, he was selling cattle at three times the rate he normally would that time of year — “and that’s a direct result of the dry weather.”

Most ranchers will cut their numbers before they try to replace grass with expensive feed. Some even weaned their calves in July, he adds. Normally they don’t do that until October or November, because calves show their best weight gains between midsummer and fall. But weaning early can drop maintenance costs by up to half.

Campbell lays out the math: If you’re selling calves in July, you’re probably selling a 300- to 400-pound calf instead of a 600-pound animal in November. That 200-300 pounds you’re foregoing to save on feeding costs translates to $400-600 a head in lost revenue.

Under more favorable conditions, ranchers might rotate their cattle among winter ranges. But drought conditions this year promise less winter pasture grass, meaning additional feed expense.

“For the cows they keep, the cost is more substantial because they don’t have winter grass they normally depend on,” Campbell says. “It’s a double blow.”

And then there’s the process of trying to rebuild a herd. In these circumstances, that effort flies in the face of the normal market cycle.

“One guy selling today, he got some rain,” Campbell says. “But it was too little, too late.”

Out on the rolling canyonlands of Las Animas County, Grady Grissom, the 56-year-old manager of the 14,000-acre Rancho Largo Cattle Company, has learned a fundamental truth about navigating a business at the mercy of variables like climate and nature.

Although drought has gripped this vast range, the smart rancher looks for wisdom not in the arid landscape or the passing clouds, but from those who came before — generations before — and have managed to survive.

Grady Grissom on his property in southeast Colorado. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

“The management of those places has adapted to drought,” says Grissom, who recalls heeding the advice from a couple of 90-something experts along the way. “They may do it a different way than we do, but the way we do it is pretty common — not to be fully stocked.”

Grissom takes a balanced approach to contending with drought. By adjusting the numbers of cows, calves and yearlings he keeps on the ranch, and in potentially dry years running only half as many as the ranch would normally support, he reduces stress on his grazing land, as well as his bottom line.

“It’s like diversifying in the stock market,” he notes.

But he also recalls hearing a cautionary observation.

“One of those old-timers told me that the markets won’t break you in this business,” Grissom says. “But the weather will.”