In arid Southwest Colorado, farmers live rainstorm to rainstorm. The dark gray clouds that gather every afternoon since last week have been a reprieve for the region after a hot, dry spring.
“Every little bit helps,” said Gus Westerman, Dolores County Agriculture Extension agent, as the only natural water Dolores receives is the rain.
On Friday, as afternoon rain showers picked up in Southwest Colorado, Dolores received as much moisture in one afternoon as it has since April, Westerman said.
“We are an agriculture-based economy,” he said, “so success in agriculture trickles down to the rest of the local economy.”
Megan Holcomb, senior climate specialist for the Colorado Conservation Board, said “everyone has been wringing their hands and waiting” for the monsoon to come. It is always hard to predict when the rains will start, but last fall they were absent, she said.
La Plata County and Montezuma County have not seen a lot of moisture either, said Cortez agriculture expert Bob Bragg. The Mancos area is running out of water, as well as La Plata County, he said. Lemon Reservoir never reached 100% capacity in the spring, with a high point of 81% capacity in early June.
“If this is monsoon season, we’re in trouble,” Bragg said.
Ken Beck, superintendent of the Pine River Irrigation District, said water is falling about a foot per day.
“The monsoon rains haven’t done a whole lot for us yet – we’re hoping they do more,” Beck said.
There are strict rules for irrigators on how water can be used, to stretch the supply as far as it can go.
The Dolores Water Conservancy District allocates a certain amount of water per year to producers in the county, who grow mostly alfalfa – a high-quality hay, hard red spring wheat and pinto beans. Last year, the water budget for farmers was 22 inches. But the conservancy cut it back to 19 or 20 inches this year because of the dry spring.
Mark Williams, a hay farmer along the Pine River, said the last rainstorm brought close to an inch of water, which helps because it puts nitrogen in the soil and increases how long farmers can run irrigation. And grass in the pastures jumped an inch, Williams said.
“We haven’t had that,” he said.
High winds combined with the heat and dryness of spring and early summer exacerbates problems for farmers. Strong wind can evaporate the natural moisture that plants produce during photosynthesis, Bragg said.
Westerly winds have also left the western halves of fields dry because they blow irrigation water from sprinklers away from the crops, he said.
People who rely on aquifers and wells don’t feel the effects of drought conditions as much, said Kevin Rein, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. But farmers in Southwest Colorado rely directly on rivers and streams.
High temperatures in the spring melted snow faster than normal. The runoff from the snowmelt was absorbed quickly into the bone-dry soil, which soaked it in like a sponge. Because the soil was already incredibly dry from a virtually rainless fall, the snowmelt didn’t restore the river levels to normal. And little rainfall over the spring and early summer kept them relatively low, leading to drought conditions, said Holcomb with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
During dry years like this, it can be more difficult to parse out water rights between different users upstream and downstream because there is less of it, Rein said.
And even though reservoirs were 100% full across the state in the spring, “we rely on these reservoirs through the summer months,” Holcomb said.
The compounding crises of COVID-19 and the drought can have “lasting impacts on rural, mountain economies,” Holcomb said.
“Drought is not something that passes through like a flood,” she said. “It’s a long game.”