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Farmers, Ranchers looking at cuts to irrigation allocations

McPhee Reservoir may be rare exception with full ration of water
The San Juan Mountains north of Durango hold less than 50 percent of normal snowpack this year – a perilous state for farmers and ranchers dependent on irrigation of fields and pastures.

Ranchers and farmers dependent on irrigated water for their operations are preparing for a tough year, as they may receive just 50 percent of normal allocation.

The situation is brighter for some and depends on which regional reservoir a farm or ranch draws its water from. Farmers drawing water from McPhee Reservoir on the Dolores River are holding out hope for a full allocation this season.

Pleasant View-area farmer Travis Daves, who has 2,000 acres of irrigated farm land, plans to plant all 2,000 acres with alfalfa, corn and spring wheat.

He is aided by the fact that McPhee, at about half full, is higher than normal for this time of year thanks to generous runoff from the winter 2016-17 snowpack. McPhee holds 381,000 acre feet, of which 229,000 are its active capacity, the volume of water that can be used for irrigation.

Daves said if the small recent storms continue, farmers drawing water from McPhee will be all right. He’s expecting a full allocation of irrigation water, which is about 22 inches per acre.

“They’re saying we’ll get close to a full allocation. The worst-case scenario is for 70 percent,” he said. “It’s hard to know how the next few weeks will go,” he said, but he added the storm last weekend left 4 to 5 inches of snow on his farm.

In addition, he said the long-range forecast is for a shift in the jet stream, allowing more storms into the Four Corners during this stingy La Niña winter.

The outlook is less bright for those farming on the Florida Mesa and dependent on water from Lemon Reservoir.

Phil Craig, who has 130 acres he plants with hay on the Florida Mesa, said the snow-water equivalent for Lemon is at 45 percent of the 30-year average, and he expects only a half allocation of irrigation water this year, which will take him through June or perhaps the Fourth of July before he runs dry.

During a normal year, he has enough irrigated water to run through mid-September.

He’s planning for only one hay cutting this year, compared with three cuttings in a normal year.

Craig, who is president of the board of directors of the Florida Water Conservancy District, said his plans could change depending on good spring moisture and a good monsoon season, but right now, he’s expecting just a single cutting.

He generally runs 20 to 50 head of cattle, depending on conditions, and this year he’s planning on 30 head.

“I’m definitely not going to expand this year.”

Craig said he’s also heard people are considering stockpiling hay this year in preparation for another bad year next summer.

“People are assuming there won’t be much hay next year,” he said.

Like McPhee, Lemon, which holds about 40,000 acre feet, is about half full, which Craig says is helpful because usually this time of year, Lemon is about one-third full.

Like Daves, Craig still holds out for the possibility the La Niña pattern will break down, offering generous April showers.

“I’ve seen Aprils where we’ve seen good amounts of snow, so it can happen. Anything’s possible,” he said.

Steve Harris of Harris Water Engineering said regional reservoirs that are holding above-normal volumes of water compared to the average for this time of the year is what’s providing some optimism that the growing season won’t be completely lost.

“Reservoirs are in OK shape, half or better filled,” he said, the result of a good 2016-17 snowpack. But with lack of snowpack this year, he said most irrigation districts in Southwest Colorado will not be able to give full allocations. He said the districts are “generally looking at 50 percent to 80 percent of normal allocation.”

He added, “Essentially, it means you might not be able to irrigate after July.”

Harris said he expected hay and alfalfa growers to get only one or one-and-a-half cuttings this year compared to a normal year’s three cuttings.

The Pine River Irrigation District, he said, is currently looking at about 80 percent of normal supply for irrigators.

Again, he said, the reason the allocation is that high is because of the bountiful spring 2017 runoff.

The major problem for irrigators will not be this year, but next year if Southwest Colorado gets two low snowpack years in succession, Harris said. He cited patterns in 2001 and 2002, the year of the Missionary Ridge Fire, and 2012 and 2013 as examples of back-to-back weak winters, with farmers able to muddle through subpar years in 2001 and 2012 only to be clobbered in 2002 and 2013 when irrigation rations were cut substantially.

“When the real hit may come is next year,” he said.

“Ranchers and farmers are used to droughts,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but most can probably get through it.”

Harris said it’s so late in the season, he doesn’t hold out much hope for this winter’s snowpack.

The snowpack that will supply runoff to the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan rivers is at 53 percent of normal.

“It’s very unlikely we will get anywhere near a 30-year average. At this point, it would be really, really hard to catch up to a 30-year average or a 100-year average or any kind of average,” Harris said.

Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, operator of McPhee Reservoir, said despite snowpack that is only slightly above 50 percent of the 30-year average, irrigators on the Dolores Project are sitting “right at the edge” of a full allocation.

Again, he credits the generous 2017 runoff that’s left McPhee storing about 50 percent of the water needed for this year’s growing season.

If regular storms return through April, Preston said people with water rights on the Dolores Project will get a full allocation for irrigation.

“Of course, we haven’t had a normal amount of storms so far,” he added.

If the stingy season holds on through April, Preston said there’s a chance the full allocation might be reduced to 80 percent.

The latest inflow forecast for runoff into McPhee for the spring is for 110,000 acre feet – enough for a full allocation to irrigators.

“It’s possible, even probable, that irrigators will get a full allocation, but it’s not guaranteed,” he said.

McPhee needs about 1 inch of snow-water equivalent from a normal amount of storms through April to ensure a full allotment of water to irrigators, he said.

The storm that hit last weekend provided seven-tenths of an inch of snow-water equivalent.

Like Harris, he warns that the real crunch may come in 2019.

“Another bad year hurts the community’s stability, the rancher’s stability, the district’s stability. Everybody’s affected.

“Nobody needs another shortage year, not the farmers, not the district and not Mother Nature.”

parmijo@durangoherald.com

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