SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
KLINE – The morning sun blazed overhead as Pat Greer picked up a handful of reddish dirt from one of his alfalfa fields. The soil, parched from days without water, ran through his hands like sand.
Behind him, fields that would normally be knee-high with wheat, oats and corn lay barren, filled only with scruffy weeds and grass.
“Ain’t nothing there to cut,” he said, looking over the rows of recently harvested alfalfa. The piles were only inches high when normally they would reach to his knee, Greer said.
As weeks without precipitation stretch into months, the outlook for farmers in the southwestern part of the county becomes more and more dismal. While farmers in other parts of the county can depend on reliable irrigation flows thanks to local reservoirs, dozens of farmers on the Fort Lewis Mesa have had to watch helplessly as their only source of water, the La Plata River, slowed to a trickle.
The low water levels are the result of a perfect storm of low snowfall this winter and a warm, dry spring that caused most snow to melt early and quickly. With no reservoir to capture the river’s flow, these farmers are the most vulnerable witnesses to what many say is the driest year in at least a decade.
Most Fort Lewis Mesa farmers’ irrigation rights were shut off in May, more than a month earlier than usual for most. Their crops are withering and finding places to graze their cattle is getting increasingly difficult, forcing many to make tough choices to survive while they wait, and pray, for rain.
Barn half empty
Knowing water would be scarce, Trent Taylor said he cut back on all his spring planting this year. Usually Taylor, owner of Blue Horizon Farm, plants hundreds of acres of wheat to supply his business making whole wheat products. This year, he will be forced to rely on what he stored from last year.
“There is no way to compensate,” he said. “You just have to grin and bear it. In this business, you just have to expect the ups and downs.”
The “downs” are not hard to find among many farmers near Taylor.
Last year at this time, the Greers’ barn was full of hay, but this year it’s three-quarters empty. The few bales that are stacked inside were harvested last year or were purchased from a farmer in Dove Creek, Pat Greer said.
Matt Isgar has produced a fraction of the hay he usually gets and had to cut his crop a month early before it started to die from lack of water.
If their hay crop ends up dying this year because of lack of water, many farmers worried they will have to reseed hundreds of acres next year.
With pastures drying up and hay production down, some local ranchers said they are considering selling some of their animals because they are no longer able to feed them.
“Our fields have just burned up,” Isgar said.
But it’s really a lose-lose situation, said Doug Ramsey, a sheep farmer south of Hesperus. Selling his sheep now would earn him only half of what he would make selling in November, but buying enough hay to last the animals until then would counter any profits he would make.
With grazing pastures across the region quickly changing from green to brown, farmers in Colorado and elsewhere are looking to purchase more hay earlier in the season, causing prices to rise, said Robbie LaValley, who focuses on range and livestock as area extension agent with the Tri River Area extension office near Grand Junction. If this weather pattern continues, those prices will likely stay high, LaValley said.
Saving up the water
Many residents out here blame the lack of water storage for the dire water situation. The Animas-La Plata Project, which stores 124,000 acre-feet in Lake Nighthorse near Durango, originally included irrigation water for Fort Lewis Mesa farmers, but that provision was cut in the final plan.
Meanwhile, construction on a new reservoir near the New Mexico border will begin next month.
Years in the making, the reservoir will help satisfy Colorado’s nearly century-old obligation to provide half of the La Plata River’s water to New Mexico, therefore keeping more of the river’s summer flow for Colorado farmers. But the reservoir won’t do any good this year and frustrations among farmers remain high.
“You don’t see dry golf courses or parks, but you do see dry fields,” said Jim Greer, Pat Greer’s son. “You don’t see anyone eating golf balls to survive.”
Currently, half of the La Plata’s flow is being diverted to New Mexico through the less porous Cherry Creek Ditch, causing the river to go dry in several spots south of Hesperus. As the La Plata dries up, farmers aren’t the only ones to feel the effects. Wildlife, fish and the towering cottonwoods that depend on the river will suffer and begin to die without its water, Pat Greer said.
Farmers everywhere hoping for rain
North and east of Fort Lewis Mesa, other farmers and ranchers are also worried about their crops and livestock. Ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands may be required to leave early if the parched vegetation becomes over-grazed, said Matt Janowiak, Forest Service Columbine district ranger.
Even farmers and ranchers who are still getting irrigation water are struggling with lower yields because of the weather.
Florida Mesa farmer Gary Zellitti’s first hay cutting was one third of what he usually brings in. Zelletti said he is now using storage water from Lemon Dam since his water rights on the Florida River were shut off last month, two months earlier than normal.
Because Lemon didn’t fill up this year, he also expects his supply of reservoir water to run out in August, when usually it lasts until October.
Farmers across the state are confronting similar situations.
Farmers near Delta have faced reduced irrigation and some may be completely cut off in July, said extension agents in the office near Grand Junction. Losing irrigation is especially damaging to fruit tree growers in the Grand Junction area because a lack of water affects the trees roots and fruit production for years afterward, extension agent Curtis Swift said.
As it looks right now, draught conditions will “put a bind in all of Colorado’s agriculture,” he said.
Earlier this month, Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking for federal assistance to assist farmers and ranchers who are currently facing drought conditions throughout the state.
But for now, farmers’ only hope is that the summer monsoons will come on strong and early, said Darrin Parmenter, director and horticulture agent at the La Plata County Extension Office.
“You curse Mother Nature and pray to her in the same breath,” he said.