Their land sits mere miles apart, but irrigators on the Florida River will likely have a shorter irrigation season than some of their neighbors on the Pine River in eastern La Plata County.
Vallecito and Lemon reservoirs, northeast of Durango, are essentially large banks of water for downstream users. While spring snowmelt has almost filled Vallecito’s reservoir, Lemon is lagging behind. Water managers expect spring runoff to stop in the next few weeks, which means some farmers and ranchers will have to turn to limited water storage supplies and could run out before the growing season ends.
“2020 is shaping up to be a short irrigation season. It’s going to depend on how the weather plays out in the future,” said John Ey, Florida Water Conservancy District superintendent. “It is a below-average year right now. Mother Nature can change that. This is Colorado – we know that.”
Lemon Dam, managed by the FWCD, releases water to the Florida River and about 1,000 downstream irrigators. The reservoir had 28,500 acre-feet of water in storage, or 71% of its capacity, as of Wednesday, Ey said. The predicted warm weather could help the reservoir continue to fill, but it is unlikely to gain more than a couple thousand acre feet.
Vallecito Reservoir, managed by the Pine River Irrigation District, sits about 6 miles east of Lemon. It releases water to the Pine River and about 1,100 irrigators. It stored about 119,900 acre-feet of water, or 96% of its capacity, as of Tuesday, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“We’re dry, but we anticipate we’re gonna fill,” said Ken Beck, PRID superintendent. “Filling is a big, big deal.”
For the first few months of summer, irrigators can receive water from spring runoff without cutting into their allotted water storage. Once they turn to storage, they have a limited amount of water to use before they are cut off for the season.
Ey projected the Florida irrigation season will end in August for most users – at least one month sooner than the full season ending in early October. On the Pine River, irrigators with senior water rights will be able to irrigate until October, while those with junior rights might also run out by August.
Phil Craig, a lifelong hay farmer on the Florida River Mesa, measured the irrigation season in hay cuttings. Hay sales are his main income source, and he almost always grows and harvests hay twice a season. With a short growing season, he said the second cutting is “up in the air.”
“It’s always concerning. If we don’t get a second cutting of hay, that’s 40% of our income lost,” said Craig, who is also president of the FWCD. “Virtually everybody on the system would be in the same boat as far as that goes.”
On callSome irrigators might get cut off from the system sooner than others. Both reservoirs expect to go “on call” in the next few weeks. Water systems go on call when downstream demand overcomes the supply flowing in. At that point, users start dipping into water storage in the reservoir, which functions like a savings account.
A prioritized allotment system known as “first in time, first in right” also kicks into gear. Entities with the most senior, or oldest, water rights receive their full allotment of water storage first. Those with more junior rights give their allotment up first.
“The earlier you go on call, the more you hurt the lower priority ditches. They’ll feel the impact of that first,” Beck said.
As of Wednesday, Ey projected Lemon Reservoir might go “on call” around Monday, but he emphasized the water level is still fluctuating. The irrigation supply is currently set at 60% – more than the 53% supply in 2018, but far less than 2019’s 100% supply.
Craig, who has a more senior water right, expects to be able to draw from the irrigation supply until the end of the season. More junior users could lose their irrigation access sooner, he said.
“Right now, they’re all still in. Those very junior ones will start to go out, my prediction is, within the next week. Then, it’ll work its way on up to the most senior ones,” Craig said.
Beck estimated the Pine River would go on call around mid-June. If the reservoir fills, the irrigation supply will be 100% capacity.
Pine River Canal Co., one of the larger ditch companies on the Pine River, expects to have a normal year, said Garret Becker, ditch rider for the company. It usually goes on call about the first or second week of June, then draws from storage until October.
Some other Pine River Valley ditches run until the company goes on call. Then the others are bumped out of priority, Becker said.
Steve Pargin, who has farmed southeast of Ignacio for more than 40 years, said Pine River irrigators might be short on water, but “won’t be in a big hurt.” He said it’s too early to tell how his business might be impacted but felt he would have enough water to get through October with rain or water storage.
“Mother Nature may give us more rain than she has in a long time. If that happens, the Florida Mesa and us out here, we won’t have to worry about irrigating,” Pargin said. “That can happen.”