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Farmers face 75% water shortage out of McPhee Reservoir

McPhee Reservoir as seen from the top of the Sage Hen rim. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Another dry winter hampers local farmers; supply is slightly better than last year

A dry winter left irrigation supply from McPhee Reservoir at 75% below normal, but it’s slightly better than last year, water officials report.

All users except municipalities will share in the shortage.

This year, full-service farmers tied to the Dolores Water Conservancy District will receive just 5.4 inches of water per acre, or 25%, of the 22 inches per acre when McPhee has a full supply, said DWCD General Manager Ken Curtis.

The Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch operation also will operate on the 25% supply, receiving just 6,129 acre-feet of its 24,517 acre-feet allocation when the reservoir is full.

The 32,500 acre-foot fish pool – an annual amount reserved in the reservoir for habitat release below the dam – will be cut to 8,125 acre-feet.

Currently, McPhee is releasing 10 cubic feet per second for the downstream fishery. The flows will increase to 25 cfs in late May and remain there until the end of June. It will drop to 15 cfs until September, then to 5 cfs from October to March.

If there is a silver lining it’s that the supply is better than last year.

For the 2021 season, full-service farmers received 1 to 2 inches per acre, or 5% to 10% of the 22 inches per acre during normal snowpack years.

Last year’s water supply was the lowest since the reservoir was filled in the late 1980s.

As a form of temporary drought relief for farmers, the DWCD board cut the base water charge this year by $7.50 per acre-foot.

Bear Creek, a tributary of the Dolores River, was flowing high from snowmelt May 15. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

Water from high-elevation snowpack is still coming off the peaks and into the Dolores River Basin.

According to the Colorado River Forecast Center, there is a 70% probability that runoff into the Dolores River above McPhee will be 124,000 acre-feet, or about 54% of the 229,000 acre-feet of active supply when it fills.

Curtis said it’s uncertain on how much more water will come down from mountain snowpack. Depending on the final runoff, farmers could see an increased allocation of 2 inches per acre. That decision will be made in mid-June.

Dolores River flow at the town of Dolores peaked at 2,200 feet per second on May 11. As of May 23, it was running at 724 cfs.

The Montezuma Valley Irrigation District has storage rights in McPhee and owns Totten, Groundhog and Narraguinnep reservoirs.

The district is operating on a shortage but is in a better position because of more senior water rights. Last week, the district estimated an irrigation supply for customers of 32 inches per acre, or 67% of the 48 inches per acre at full supply.

MVIC fills Narraguinnep Reservoir from its storage in McPhee, but for flexibility it can store it in McPhee and release it into canals from there.

Canals for DWCD and MVIC are running.

As a result of the water shortage the past two years, many DWCD farmers decided to terminate older alfalfa fields, said Gus Westerman, director of the Dolores County CSU Agricultural Extension Office.

The fields are replaced with another crop for two seasons before a new alfalfa crop is planted, he said. Farmers are rotating in mixed forages, pinto beans and safflower. A concern is that these crops require water later in the season, and it is unclear how much will be available.

Another issue is the dry spring further depleted soil moisture, so early irrigation water is needed to replenish it.

Westerman says full-service DWCD farmers expect to consolidate their limited water supply and produce one full cutting of alfalfa each. During full supply years, farmers can produce three cuttings.

“So far farmers are hanging on and relying on risk management tools like crop insurance and drought aid programs. The extended drought has not been easy on folks,” Westerman said.