In the Ute Mountain Ute language, paa is the word for water, nüvav means “snow,” uway means “to rain” and tühpar üatüaa means “dried up cropland.”
These words weigh heavily on the minds of Ute Mountain Utes in Southwest Colorado because they are missing the critical ingredients of snow in the mountains and rain in the valleys.
Tribal member Wilford Lang drove a tractor for more than 20 years for the tribe’s 7,600-acre alfalfa and corn farm, southwest of Towaoc.
He has seen water supply fluctuate up and down. But when flows in the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir came in at 10% for the 2021 season, he and 20 other workers on the farm suddenly lost their jobs.
“I was one of the main guys, but no water, no crop, no equipment operators needed,” said Lang, 45. “Before when we had droughts, we managed to keep working. This one was worse.”
Water is sacred for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and with less to go around, the tribe is searching for ways to augment its supply.
Tribal elders remember water scarcity long before the Colorado Ute Water Rights Settlement of 1988, which provides water for tribal lands from the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir.
Vera Summa remembers the 1950s, when she and her grandmother collected water from the springs and mesas of Sleeping Ute Mountain. During winter, adults, elders and children collected snow in bundles and hauled it out on their backs, Summa said.
“Get the snow and melt it, that is how we used to drink water,” she said. “The snow used to be 3 feet in the mountains. We collected it and stored the water in barrels.”
The Mancos River runs through Ute Mountain reservation lands, but it dried up after Jackson Reservoir was built in 1950 to serve the Mancos area upstream, said elder Laverna Summa, Vera’s sister.
“The water just quit. It was salty water, and we did not depend on it,” Laverna Summa said. “We traveled by horse and wagon to fill up containers with water.”
“When I was a little girl, there were a lot of streams that came from springs on the Ute Mountain where we always collected water,” said tribal elder Colleen Cuthair-Root. “When I visit those places today, the springs are not seeping any more.”
Water shortages are happening again, brought on by a worsening dry spell that started in 2002.
In 2021, drought-stricken fallow fields have replaced the bounty of alfalfa and corn harvests on the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch operations, an economic hardship brought on by the worst water year in McPhee Reservoir history.
Marginal mountain snowpack was sucked up by dry ground and whisked away on the warm spring wind.
The runoff from mountain snowmelt never made it to McPhee, where the water level already was low from the previous parched year.
The 2021 deficit caused a 90% water shortage for farmers tied to the Dolores Water Conservancy District, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
The tribe’s 7,600-acre farm received just 10% of its 24,517 acre-foot allocation.
The water shortage dried out fields and brought financial challenges for the farming and ranching operations. The tribe laid off half its farm workers, about 20 total, most of whom are tribal members.
“That is the hardest part, losing jobs,” said General Manager Simon Martinez. “The silver lining is we kept our corn mill fully staffed and operational.”
Farm operations include the Bow and Arrow mill, a state-of-the-art facility opened in 2014 that sells non-GMO, gluten-free and kosher cornmeal to food manufacturers, grocery stores and distilleries.
The mill’s products are used to make chips, polenta, pasta, grits, cornbread, whiskey and more.
Martinez used most this year’s limited water supply to irrigate the white, yellow and blue corn crops and keep the mill and its staff of 13 going. The tribe’s ranching operation, with a 600 cow-calf herd, has been kept whole.
So far, business has been brisk at the corn mill, but the drought weighs on everyone’s mind.
“Right now, we’re busy, but we could run out of corn – that’s kind of at the back of your mind,” said Aarion Eyetoo, the mill’s quality assurance manager. “We need these jobs to support our families.”
Schuyler Jacket, who has worked 12 years in the fields and at the mill, senses the change in climate.
“It feels like this is the first time we have been hit this hard by drought. Before, we had a few dry spells here and there – not like this, though,” he said.
The modern Ute Farm and Ranch deploys 110 center-pivot sprinklers during normal years. Only 10 operated this year.
Lang operated tractors, combines and swathers on 110 circle farms that usually green up the desert south of Towaoc, at the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain.
In the late 1990s, he was there when the alfalfa farms became fully developed, thanks to tribal water rights and a steady flow of water from McPhee Reservoir, built in the 1980s.
He experienced development of the Bow and Arrow Brand corn mill, new crop plans, and the transition to satellite technology on tractors, which automatically directs machines along the most efficient crop line to save fuel and time.
“We are very modern, the farm has been good at adjusting, we control our corn sales now instead of contracting it out. I learned different machines. It all depends on water though,” he said.
Lang said the farm and ranch operation and Bow and Arrow corn mill have been an economic boon for the tribe. They provide well-paying careers for many tribal members and create a deep sense of pride.
“We see it on the shelves in stores, and know we are a part of it,” he said.
The 2,000-member Ute Mountain Ute Tribe does not have the geologic resources or wealth of its sister tribe, the Southern Utes to the east. Ute Mountain Utes depend heavily on tribal enterprises for revenue, including the Ute Farm and Ranch, Ute Mountain Casino, Weeminuche Construction Authority., Ute Mountain Tribal Park, the Travel Center and Ute Mountain Pottery.
By contrast, the 1,200-member Southern Ute Tribe is one of the wealthiest tribes in the country, thanks to its oil and gas operations.
During normal water years, Martinez said, the farm harvests 2,000 acres of the corn varieties, enough to sell to other farms. But dry conditions this year allowed it to grow corn on only 500 acres, with lower yields per acre, and all it reserved for the Bow and Arrow mill operations.
The tribe has 70,000 bushels of corn in silos from last year, plus this year’s harvest of 100,000 bushels — a fraction of the 500,000-bushel harvest in normal years.
Likewise, the tribe this year grew only 1,200 acres worth of its premier alfalfa, which is coveted by Texas dairy cow operations because of its high relative feed value, produced by Southwest Colorado’s warm days and cool nights. That compares with 5,000 acres in normal years.
The drastic drop in crop revenue fell short of the $660,000 in annual delivery costs for the water on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Towaoc-Highline Canal.
So far this year, Martinez said, the tribe has paid $150,000 of that bill and has asked the Bureau of Reclamation for drought assistance to pay the rest.
The request is being reviewed, said Robert Stump, of the Reclamation office in Cortez.
Martinez and his reduced farm staff still must tend to thousands of acres of fallow fields, and they are discing the soil and controlling weeds to prep the fields for next year.
Long-term forecasts for the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah call for abnormally dry and hot weather.
Ute Mountain tribal member Ethan Summa, who works in the corn mill, sees the water crisis as motivation for the community to collaborate more on the issue.
“We are all in the stalemate together, we’ve got to come up with a solution,” he said. “When McPhee is low, it is not just a tribal issue. Everyone around us is impacted.”
Martinez hustles through every day, managing operations, overseeing deliveries, taking phone calls and crossing items off a large whiteboard in his office.
He said Ute Farm and Ranch will adjust to a likely future with less water.
“We will decide next year what crops we can grow with the water we do have,” Martinez said. “I am optimistic by nature, but what are the chances we will get our full 24,500 acre-feet from now until March? The weather’s really got to change.”
Ute Mountain Ute water rights have a complex history.
As part of the Colorado Ute Water Rights Settlement of 1988, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe gave up 1868 rights on the Mancos River in exchange for more junior water rights to the Dolores River in McPhee Reservoir, said Mike Preston, a water consultant for the tribe.
The settlement was made partly in response to the Mancos River going dry through Ute Mountain Ute land after Jackson Lake was built upstream in Mancos.
As original inhabitants, Native American tribes have inherent water rights, which were codified by the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision that mandates that tribal reservations have access to water.
As part of the 1988 settlement, the Dolores Project and McPhee Reservoir satisfied Ute Mountain Ute water rights via delivery from McPhee and the gravity-fed 39-mile Towoac-Highline Canal to Ute Farm and Ranch.
The settlement also created a reliable domestic water line to Towaoc from the Cortez water treatment plant, which gets the water from McPhee.
Ute Farm and Ranch shares equally with other water district farmers when water supply is below normal.
Consequently, the tribe took a 90% hit this year, along with other ranches and farms. The fish pool, 32,500 acre-feet earmarked for native fish habitat downstream of McPhee Reservoir, also took the cut. Municipalities do not share in the shortage.
McPhee, the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the tribe are more exposed to drought because their water rights on the Dolores River are junior to those of Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co.
In these dry times, the tribe has redoubled its efforts to study and potentially claim all its water rights, including on the San Juan River, said Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart. The river touches the Ute Mountain reservation while flowing from New Mexico to Utah.
“We want to look into and pull back our water rights on the San Juan. Downstream they will say, ‘It impacts us’ because they have been using it all this time, but not if we have the rights,” Heart said.
Colorado’s prior appropriation water system of “first in line, first in right” can leave more junior water right holders high and dry in extreme drought, a situation that is playing out now.
The practicality and fairness of the system in a new era of aridification and chronic water shortage has been a point of discussion, Heart said.
“We have been here the longest, but don’t have senior status, plus we have OandM costs on the canal to get our water,” Heart said. “We’re seeing a megadrought. In the future if the drought gets worse, who will get cut short, Montezuma, Cortez or us?”
The tribe has hired additional staff to work on water issues, and Heart encourages leaders to “think out of the box.” He said the tribe should have looked into buying Totten Lake, which recently was sold to Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. Totten feeds McElmo Creek, which flows through tribal lands.
The tribe still has junior rights on the Mancos River, Heart said, and could put out a “call” on the river. The process would trigger a tighter accounting of diversions by the state water engineer to see whether the tribe is losing out on any of its water rights.
“We’d like to talk about adding storage to Jackson Lake, so we could release our share down the Mancos and collect it here,” Heart said. The water could augment water shortages from the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir.
When Cuthair-Root served a term on Tribal Council and learned about the tribe’s water rights position with McPhee Reservoir, she felt there were benefits, but shortcomings as well.
“I didn’t like the terms. Whether we receive our allocated water or not, we still have to pay the canal costs,” which are more than $600,000 per year, she said. “The council should revisit water appropriations, have a discussion and timeline to modify, to see if anything can be done to help out the tribe.”
Montezuma Valley Irrigation’s senior water rights date to 1888 and 1885 and include the first 795 cubic feet per second of the Dolores River. Anything above that flow mostly goes to Dolores Water Conservation District.
McPhee Reservoir water serves multiple users
Water allocations from McPhee Reservoir and Dolores Project are divided among multiple users. At full capacity, the reservoir delivers up to 278,482 acre-feet of water per water season in the following amounts:
— Full-service farmers: 62,267 acre-feet of water for 29,000 acres in Montezuma and Dolores counties.
— Ute Mountain Ute Tribe: 24,517 acre-feet for 7,600 acres.
— Downstream fishery: 31,798 acre-feet. The fish pool is stored in McPhee Reservoir, and releases downstream are managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
— Montezuma Valley Irrigation District: 90,000 to 150,000 acre-feet for 26,300 acres.
— City of Cortez: 2,300 acre-feet.
— Town of Dove Creek: 280 acre-feet.
— Dolores Water Conservancy District: 5,120 acre-feet.
— San Juan River fish and wildlife water: 800 acre-feet diverted for federal mitigation of wetlands and Totten Lake in Cortez.
In normal runoff years, the river flows well above that level and is enough to satisfy MVIC rights and fill McPhee reservoir.
But during extreme dry periods, MVIC’s senior position buffers the impact of drought somewhat for its shareholders because at lower flows, their river rights are more senior and more likely to be filled.
MVIC, which stores water in Narraguinnep, Groundhog and Totten reservoirs, has rights to about 130,000 acre-feet of Dolores River Basin water annually. This year, it received only 92,000 acre-feet because of the drought.
The poor snowpack caused a 30% shortage this year for MVIC, and the irrigation season was shortened by about 20 days, said MVIC manager Brandon Johnson.
“It’s pretty scary when you look at the long-term forecast, pray for good snow in the Dolores Basin,” he said. “We made it through this year, but farmers definitely had less water to work with and lower crop yields.”
After the layoffs, Lang’s restless energy and established work ethic did not allow him to sit by idle for long.
With fields lying fallow, he took a job as a gym coordinator for the tribe’s recreation center, and sees new doors opening if the farm job doesn’t come back.
“Organizing games and exercise programs for youth and the community is something I’ve often thought about doing. Less money though,” Lang said. “I do miss the farming, it is familiar and comfortable. Here, I’m learning something new.”
He has basketball coaching experience and looks forward to the North American Indigenous Games and the Tri-Ute Games, which host competitive events between the three Ute tribes in the region.
Lang said the Ute Farm and Ranch and Bow and Arrow corn mill have been an economic boon for the tribe. They provide well-paying careers for many tribal members and create a deep sense of pride.
He became aware of tribal job opportunities through internship programs when he was a student, and he would like to see that continue and grow.
“As a young person, the internship is what got me interested in farming and ranching,” he said. “It’s so important to show our youth the opportunities we have here. They are our future leaders.”
He remembers taking student tours with professionals to archaeology sites, the tribe’s Weeminuche Construction company, farms, cattle operations, the casino, Ute Mountain pottery and office jobs.
“Setting up that interest early is what will lead to our tribal members leading these organizations,” Lang said. “We need more of those internships.”
He passed on the farming bug to his oldest children, who have also driven tractors on the tribe’s farm.
The drought changed Lang’s life.
The uncertainty has him longing for 10-hour days in the tractor harvesting the tribe’s bounty, but at the same time it might have opened up new career possibilities.
“Honestly, I never thought I’d lose my job from drought. I always knew what farms go through, but it was still a surprise when it happened,” he said.
Cuthair-Root said Ute Mountain Ute ancestors have a story about a future persistent drought.
Her grandmother told of a premonition about the earth getting dry and wildfires ravaging the landscape.
Sleeping Ute Mountain, a sacred mountain range that forms a silhouette of a Ute warrior reclining in full headdress, rises up to save the people, according to the story.
“He scoops up the people by the handful, and whoever he collects are the ones saved. They enter the mountain, and there is enough harvest in there to get them through,” Cuthair-Root said. “Our elders saw this. It’s worrisome, as the years go by, we are seeing less and less water.”
Support for this story was provided by the Colorado Media Project, Water Education Colorado, and the Gates Family Foundation.