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Drought saps agricultural economy in Southwest Colorado

Alfalfa crops will be just a fraction of normal yields this year in Montezuma and Dolores counties and on Ute Mountain Ute reservation because of the lack of available irrigation water. (Journal file)
Weak snowpack leaves McPhee Reservoir low for season

The grim reality of major irrigation shortages this year in Southwest Colorado is setting in for farmers, water managers and fish habitat.

Irrigators tied to McPhee Reservoir contracts will receive just 5% to 10% of their normal supply, said Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

The shortages affect full-service users in the water district in Montezuma and Dolores counties, the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch and the downstream fishery.

The water district said no supplemental irrigation supplies will be available to the senior water-rights holders.

Alfalfa farmers are consolidating acreage to try to produce one small crop.

When there is a full irrigation supply in McPhee, Dove Creek farmer Lyle Deremo cultivates alfalfa on 900 acres, with three cuttings, and yields of 5 tons per acre.

This year, he can irrigate 130 acres, with just one cutting.

“It’s marginal, there are a lot of zeros” on his production sheets, Deremo said. “All you can do is use what you have the most efficiently.”

His main alfalfa customers are dairy farms in Texas.

The agricultural economy will take a hit this year because of a weak snowpack year and low water supply. (Journal file)

“Financial impacts will be hard on all agriculture producers,” said Dolores Water Conservancy District board president Bruce Smart, in a news release. “The recovery for producers, the Ute Mountain Tribe and the district will take years.”

The tribe’s Farm and Ranch Enterprise reports it will limit employment and cut back on buying farm supplies.

The 7,600-acre farm will only receive 10% of its normal water supply, tribal officials said.

The tribe will limit operations to growing corn for its Bow and Arrow Brand cornmeal mill, and to protect high-value alfalfa fields, said Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart.

“We have spent 25 years developing productive crops on 109 center-pivot fields and a trained workforce of tribal members,” Heart said in a news release. “With most of our fields fallowed and very little crop income, everything that we have developed is at risk.”

Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprises operates a commercial mill for processing corn grown on irrigated fields. (The Journal file)

The tribe intends to work closely with the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to protect the continued viability of the Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise.

Heart notes that the tribe’s participation in the Dolores Project is a result of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act. He said the tribe will exercise the settlement rights “in the fullest to protect our Farm and Ranch Enterprise.”

The economic impact of the irrigation water shortage will be widespread, as farmers expect a significant decrease in revenue that will trickle through the local economy, water officials said.

If next year’s supply doesn’t improve “multigenerational farm families may face bankruptcy,” said Curtis.

Unirrigated alfalfa fields will dominate the landscape this summer. Farmers noted that with some rain, the fallow fields can produce enough forage for cattle grazing. Ranchers have been contacting farmers to take advantage of the option, Deremo said.

Curtailed supply for Dove Creek

The town of Dove Creek depends on McPhee Reservoir water for its domestic water supply. The water is delivered via the Dove Creek Canal and into town reservoirs and a water treatment facility. But because of a shortened irrigation season, the canal will not run all summer, as it does during more normal water years.

The water district is working closely with Dove Creek officials to keep the town’s water reservoirs adequately stocked for the winter months, Curtis said.

During normal water years, the Dove Creek Canal runs to the first week in October, allowing Dove Creek to store 100 acre-feet that lasts them until May 1 the next year. This year, the canal is expected to shut off for irrigators before the end of June.

The other large irrigation supplier in the area, Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., also faces shortages. Customers will receive only half their normal allocation. The irrigation company has the most senior water rights on the Dolores River, and therefore the impact of the water shortage is somewhat less.

Montezuma Valley Irrigation has storage rights in McPhee Reservoir, and owns Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs.

Runoff low in Dolores River

Poor winter snowpack the past two years and no monsoonal rain for the past three years have hurt reservoir levels and depleted soil moisture.

“These water deficits dried up smaller tributaries in the upper watershed and sent us into the winter with an enormous hole to fill from the first spring snowmelt before starting the runoff,” Curtis said.

The winter snowpack failed to deliver at historical average, peaking at only 83% of normal snowpack on April 1, then dropping to 25% after another dry, windy and warm spring. Recent rains and snowfall on the high peaks were helpful, but not enough to significantly improve water supply.

As dry conditions continue, 2021 is shaping up to be the fourth-lowest recorded runoff in the Dolores River, after 1977, 2002 and 2018.

Fish will suffer

As part of the McPhee Reservoir project, the downstream fishery is allocated 32,000 acre-feet of water during normal water years for timed releases downstream to benefit sport and native fish.

This year, the fish pool will receive 5,000 acre-feet of its normal allocation.

The Dolores River below McPhee dam will see flows of 10 cubic feet per second for a few months, then it will drop to a trickle of 5 cfs for eight months until spring.

The river below the dam faces significant trout and native fish population losses, said Jim White, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“This is going to impact the trout fishery,” White said in an April news release. “I would expect to see about half or more of the trout fishery habitat suffer and lose much of the trout population.”

White suggested that anglers fish early in the day and carry a thermometer to check water temperature. Fishing should stop when the water hits 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

The low flows will also affect native fish in the lower reaches of the Dolores River – the flannelmouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub. The fish, listed by CPW as species of concern, have adapted to warm water, but they still need pools and flowing water to survive.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com