Drought is forcing Colorado farmers to make tough choices

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Not so long ago, the red sandstone walls of Dolores River Canyon in southwest Colorado towered over roaring rapids teeming with native fish.

Now it is largely empty.

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

“It truly is an amazing, miserable canyon with a kind of gentle river that was once a giant and wonderful symbol of the Wild West,” said Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Low water levels in the river leave fish like blue-headed sucker and round-tailed chub with nowhere to go, White says.

/ Sharon Chischilly for NPR

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Jim White, center, stands by the dry riverbeds of Dolores River Canyon, next to Ryan Unterreiner and John Livingston who are also part of the organization.

A creature sits in a dry river bed in Dolores River Canyon.

/ Sharon Chischilly for NPR

A creature sits in a dry river bed in Dolores River Canyon.

“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 it. But what they can’t handle is basically a dry channel.”

Drought is also hitting farmers in Colorado and across the West.

There was so little water this year that farmers who use water from the Dolores River to irrigate their fields got only a fraction of what they usually get. These farmers are forced to play on a future it is becoming less and less likely.

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

The McPhee Reservoir in Dolores, Colorado moves water through canals to farms tens of miles away. Water levels at the reservoir have dropped by more than 50 feet in some parts. It is so low that entire islands of the reservoir that should be underwater are visible.

In the Colorado River Basin, which includes the Dolores and McPhee Rivers, higher temperatures due to climate change are making the landscape drier. Dry soil and higher evaporation rates make it more difficult for water from melting snow and precipitation to reach its destination – whether it is a fish pond in the Dolores River 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 is one of the largest water users in the region.

The farm depends on water from the reservoir to cultivate fields of alfalfa and corn. This year, the farm was unable to grow given its water quota; they had to lay off 50 percent of their staff, who are mostly members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. The farm only used 8 of its 110 fields in 2021. In contrast, in 2020, it used 109 of 110.

Simon Martinez, ranch manager, shows a map of the 2020 and 2021 planted fields at Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch.  The farm only used 8 of its 110 fields in 2021. In contrast, in 2020, it used 109 of 110.

/ Sharon Chischilly for NPR

Simon Martinez, ranch manager, shows a map of the 2020 and 2021 planted fields at Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch. The farm only used 8 of its 110 fields in 2021. In contrast, in 2020, it used 109 of 110.

“It’s the effect of the drought,” explains farm manager Simon Martinez.

He says their bill for getting water from the McPhee is over half a million dollars a year – whether they get their full allowance or just a small chunk, as they have it. done this year.

“We’ve been able to pay this over the years, the last 17 years, regularly. It’s a problem now because of what we’re dealing with,” he says. “It’s not that we’ve had to go in this direction before. It’s new ground for everyone because there was no harvest, there was no income, there was no there was no income. ”

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 have seen a lot of fluctuations in the climate itself,” he says. “But lately this year has been the worst.”

Farmers are gamers – and nature is on its side

Father and son farmers Brian and Landan Wilson face a similar situation. Their family has farmed 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 a lot less than usual.

Landan Wilson drives to check out his farm.

/ Sharon Chischilly for NPR

Landan Wilson drives to check out his farm.

Landan Wilson walks with his father Brian Wilson in Pleasant View, Colorado.

/ Sharon Chischilly for NPR

Landan Wilson walks with his father Brian Wilson in Pleasant View, Colorado.

“We had 1.7 inches of water available to us as farmers. The total allocation is 23,” said Brian Wilson. “It doesn’t look much better for 2022 than for ’21.”

Landan bought his first land in 2017, when he was just 22 years old. He hopes to cultivate as long as possible.

“It’s scary,” he said. “With the current water situation, it worries me and worries me. It is certainly not ideal. And I knew farming would never be easy at first. I just didn’t know it would be that bad. ”

Her father, Brian, hopes for the best. “I hope we have a good winter and see a lot of snow in the mountains,” he says. “I am a player. Farmers are still players.”

But there is a saying in the game that the house always wins. In this case, home is nature, and it defines the chances that fish and farmers bet their lives and livelihoods.

For farmers, help will come from the government or from 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, wants to know when things get better.

“We don’t know where the light is at the end of the tunnel,” Curtis said. “We can do a year. We can maybe fight for a few years. But that’s not how it was built to operate in these hydrological conditions, and we don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

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

/ Sharon Chischilly for NPR

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

As Curtis gazes at the man-made 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 chances.

“We don’t have anything in the bank right now,” Curtis said. “Everything that we are going to use next year has not yet fallen from the sky. So the risks are much higher and another year of drought will only exacerbate the economic hardship for our farmers.”

State officials are trying to help.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis recently passed a bill creating an office focused on agricultural drought and climate resilience. It was part of a slate of climate and energy bills it approved over the summer.

And advocates say the federal government must also step up its efforts, investing more in drought resilience in the West. The infrastructure bill and reconciliation package currently before Congress is a step in the right direction, said Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River program at Audobon. They would like invest millions dollars in projects to mitigate the effects of drought in the region. Part of this money will go to modernizing existing water infrastructure, as well as new water storage projects aimed at keeping reservoir levels higher.

“We can’t produce water, but we can take better care of the watershed,” Pitt says. “As these issues accumulate, we will need to see new ways of managing the landscape to keep the Colorado River watershed a place that can support our human communities as well as wildlife.”

A view of the McPhee Reservoir.

/ Sharon Chischilly for NPR

A view of the McPhee Reservoir.

Ranch manager Simon Martinez weaves his way through packaged corn ready to ship.  While the corn mill helps pay the water bill, the reality of the effect of climate change on the farm is made clear by a significant reduction in crops and water allocations.

/ Sharon Chischilly for NPR

Ranch manager Simon Martinez weaves his way through packaged corn ready to ship. While the corn mill helps pay the water bill, the reality of the effect of climate change on the farm is made clear by a significant reduction in crops and water allocations.

It is a help that Simon Martinez, manager of Ute Mountain Ute Farm, would be welcome. Martinez is trying to stay positive – that help is on its way, either through more water next year or through the government. But as the climate continues to warm, years like this could become more and more common.

“My optimism is that help will come,” Martinez said. “,

In Martínez, Steve Mullis, Barry Gordemer and Nina Kravinsky reported, produced and edited the audio story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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