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While Colorado’s eastern half revels in rain, the Western Slope is still stuck in a drought

Ute Mountain Utes and other farmers and ranchers plan radical cutbacks in planting and grazing, as snowpack and runoff in some areas approaches 30% of normal.

Jose Valdez plants watermelon seedlings on land leased by Hirakata Farms Monday, May 17, 2021 in Rocky Ford. Plastic mulch covers the plants that are irrigated with drip tape drawing on ground water when canal irrigation isnÕt possible. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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The Ute Mountain Ute Reservation sits at the lower end of a 40-mile, gravity-fed canal, and waits for whatever water the towering San Juan mountains will give up for the season. 

By the second week of May, it was clear 2021 will be a bust. The Utes’ farm enterprise has already switched to hopes for next year and fervent wishes that the hot winds and wildfires won’t do too much damage before then. 

Simon Martinez oversees thousands of acres of alfalfa hay and specialty corn for the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise, 400 miles from well-watered Denver. In a normal year, 25,000 acre-feet of water come down the canal from McPhee Reservoir to irrigate Ute crops. 

This year, the Utes’ junior water right will get them only 2,500 acre-feet from fast-draining McPhee. Late in last summer’s drought, the Dolores River reservoir hit dead pool, meaning there wasn’t enough water to spin hydroelectric turbines and generate electricity for the Four Corners region. River outflows from the dam this summer are likely to hit record lows, and downstream fish will die. 

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Martinez and 20 Ute employees, half the number of a normal year, will grow crops on only one-tenth their usual alfalfa and corn acreage as the devastating Western Colorado drought drags on. 

“So we’re feeling it this year,” Martinez said. “It’s basically been two years, and we hope for there not being a third.”

Colorado’s historic tendency to move water to where people need it has numbed city dwellers to the plight of places currently not getting enough. Denver is nearing its total precipitation for all 12 months of 2020 in just the first five months of 2021, 9News meteorologist Chris Bianchi said. The South Platte River basin snowpack — snow that accumulates in the mountains that waters much of the Front Range population — sat at a sopping 114% of normal in mid-May. 

But snowpack meant to slake the Utes and other farmers and ranchers and towns in the Four Corners is at 36%. And it’s disappearing fast. 

The U.S. Drought Monitor reported that 13% of the state, mostly in the highly populated northeast, had some relief from long-term drought in the past month, just weeks after the same map showed abnormally dry or drought conditions plaguing the entire state. Officials from Denver Water said storage levels for reservoirs fed largely by the South Platte and Fraser River basins  are near normal, at 80% capacity compared to the typical 82%.

However, 75% of the state remains in drought and western Colorado is experiencing the worst of it, said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist at Colorado State University. The western half of the state didn’t get the snowpack it needed to in colder months, and likely won’t make up those deficits in summer monsoons. Coupled with a high melt rate over dry soils that must be hydrated before water can make its way to bodies of water, that means not enough water makes it downhill to reservoirs. 

“It peaked too early, it peaked too low, and nothing has been really slowing that melt rate,” Bolinger said. “So those areas are likely to completely be melted out of snowpack before early June.”

Mike Hirakata co-owns Hirakata Farms in Rocky Ford. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“It’s going to be a rough summer, I believe, for a lot of farmers and ranchers on the West Slope.”

Much of the northeastern portion of the state is greening up this spring in just the way farmers and ranchers look for. 

Some of the northeast and central regions beyond Denver, where everything from sugar beets and wheat to cattle and hay fodder are raised, enjoyed the same weekly rains and September to May snows as the Front Range. 

“May is largely turning out the way we would expect for northeastern Colorado,” Bolinger said.  “That is climatologically our wettest month of the year.”

Bolinger said that the big precipitation on the Front Range is slowly helping the region climb out of a Front Range drought lasting since at least last summer, with “good, consistent shots of moisture in March and April and into May” that are expected to continue.

“For two-thirds, three quarters of the population of the state, what they see outside the window is promising, is good,” said Bianchi.

Red-hot spots in the southwest and northwest show how little has changed for much of the Western Slope even while steady snow and rain improved the situation for Eastern Plains farmers and towns. (Source: High Plains Regional Climate Center)

Central portions of the state where winter snowfall was normal may feel some wary confidence. 

“We’re high in the water chain,” said Dave Gottenborg, owner of Eagle Rock Ranch. He said more senior water rights mean his operation in Jefferson, west of Kenosha Pass, hasn’t been hit as hard as others that are farther from the Front Range.

In southeastern Colorado’s Arkansas River farmland, though, the worries change quickly from muddy northeastern fields that slow down planting to fields that can’t be planted yet because they sit next to canals still waiting for distant mountain runoff. 

At the Hirakata family’s sprawling produce operation near Rocky Ford, growing Colorado-famous cantaloupe, watermelon and pumpkins, Mike Hirakata is transforming some fields from canal irrigation to drip-tape irrigation. Snowpack in the Arkansas River basin to the west stopped at about 75% of normal, Hirikata said. Colder spring temperatures also kept what snowpack there was from running down river and filling up his canals. 

The drip tape draws on groundwater pumped from wells, always a second-best option. “We’re having to adjust acreage from surface water to groundwater, and we don’t know how strong the wells are going to stay the whole year,” Hirakata said. 

Switching to drip irrigation also means planting fields that were supposed to be rotated to fallow this year to improve the soil. Hirakata said that after the changed plans, overall planted acreage could be down about 20% this year because of uncertainties about water, and the farm will stick to its more valuable melon and pumpkin crop instead of adding feed corn. 

“We’re juggling all of our ground right now,” he said. 

That kind of juggling will be the norm this year up and down the extremely dry Western Slope, said Les Owen, Conservation Services division director for the Colorado Department of Agriculture. He hears from ranchers who have Bureau of Land Management grazing leases that the agency is cutting back on the number of cattle allowed in a given area, to protect from overgrazing in the drought. 

Rancher choices become expensive fast, from leasing other private land or buying more fodder, the cost of which goes up in drought years from scarcity and transporting it from farther afield. 

“Or the other option is to liquidate their herds, and that’s always a tough, tough decision to make for producers,” Owen said. “Especially when they’ve spent in many cases a lifetime improving the genetics of their herd. It’s not something you can go down and buy replacements for.” 

Ute Farms won’t be producing enough fodder to help ranchers and farmers with those decisions. Most of the high-quality alfalfa the farm produces near Towaoc gets sent in quarter-ton bales to dairy farmers in Texas. Instead of 30,000 bales to ship in a normal year, the Utes expect only 3,000 bales, Martinez said. 

The farm will grow just enough of its multi-colored, non-GMO Bow & Arrow Brand corn meal to keep the name going for another year, Martinez said, at about 25% of normal acreage. 

A burned tree from 2020’s East Troublesome Fire along the shore of Lake Granby is a warning of future Western Slope wildfires if the drought in the western half of the state persists deep into 2021. Granby reservoir will fill up somewhat with spring runoff, but dry soils are only a few days of hot winds away from high danger. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The shrunken snowpack in the West will mean wildfire danger starts high and stays there, a year after northcentral Colorado was the scene of the most devastating wildfires in recorded state history. Southwestern Colorado was spared some of the largest fires last year, but in the recent past has seen evacuations and massive terrain damage from the 416 and Spring Creek fires in 2018. 

In the wetter, northern half of the state, the relatively positive wildfire outlook can change in just a week or two of early summer heat and hot winds, said Brian Bledsoe, chief meteorologist for KKTV in Colorado Springs. 

“Colorado doesn’t have ‘a’ fire season,” Bledsoe said. “We have grass-fire season, we have timber-fire season, but we can have fire at any time of the year. With our climate here in Colorado, they say, oh, what’s average? We never get average. We get either too much or not enough. We’re never that far away from drought here.” 

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