Drought danger

Ranchers, irrigators face production, financial crunches if weather remains dry

Daily Press writers

While in Craig Monday, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said that with an 11 percent snowpack, the state is facing the worst drought in Colorado history.

"We have to do a better job of managing our water resources," Owens said, addressing a crowd that he gathered to greet him in the Cashway Distributors parking lot.

The governor made a stop in Craig Monday afternoon as part of a Northwest Colorado bus trip he's making this week.

Irrigators and ranchers in areas fed by minor branches of the Yampa and Elkhead rivers are already seeing significant problems, according to Colorado State University Agricultural Extension Agent C. J. Mucklow.

"Those on minor drainages are already having problems that's where we are seeing the impacts (of the drought) first," Mucklow said. "The ranchers on the major branches of the Elkhead and Yampa aren't in bad shape yet, but they have irrigated 30 days earlier than usual."

Without a break from the arid conditions the growth of summer grazing area will be stunted, forcing ranchers to sell of large numbers of stock. This sell-off will damage the ranching operations both financially and genetically, Mucklow said.

"If the ranchers have to sell off a lot more of their animals than they want to, it won't kill the industry, but it will set a lot of the operations back and some of the smaller ones could go under," he said. "It will not only hurt financially, but they will have a loss of genetics. By selling off a much larger number of stock than what they planned on, a rancher will lose what they've been working towards genetically with their herd."

The solution to the drought issue is simple, obvious but beyond anyone's control: Rain.

"We need rain soon, and lots of it," Mucklow said. "If we don't, we'll see everyone having the problems the smaller guys are already battling."

According to the National Weather Service, showers are expected this week and for the next several weeks, but then conditions are expected to worsen in June and July.

"In the near term, light showers are forecast for (Tuesday) afternoon and the evening should be moist and considerably cooler, but with no more showers," said Gary Chancy, a hydro-meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. "There will be some dry air behind that, so it doesn't look like we'll get a lot of precipitation with that system.

"In the long range, we should see more shower over the next few weeks. When we get into June and July, that is when things will get worse."

Chancy said the dry conditions would worsen during June and July until the monsoon season of heavy rains arrives. That weather pattern normally begins in August and sometimes even in mid-July, but it's impossible to predict now when the monsoon season will begin this year.

The other major threat of the drought is dry, fire-friendly conditions. State officials and local fire department personnel have repeatedly stated this summer Colorado could see an extremely intense fire season.

Moffat County Sheriff Buddy Grinstead has no immediate plans to implement a countywide fire ban, but is in contact with the Bureau of Land Management concerning the fire conditions data.

"I don't have any plans to put the ban in place in the next two weeks," Grinstead said. "I'm in conversation with the BLM and they're gathering data about the criteria for a fire ban.

"Generally, the ban goes into effect in mid-July or August, but the conditions are rapidly approaching what we usually see in July or August."

Grinstead said the state government might make a countywide ban moot by announcing a statewide fire ban, but Grinstead said he doesn't know if or when that could happen.

While in town, Ownes expounded upon some of the challenges facing the area, including the ongoing drought, chronic wasting disease and the threat of wildfire.

Owens said the state must do a better job of managing forests or suffer the consequences of wildfires that could become out of control.

"We have to do a better job of thinning our forests if we want to help preserve them," he said.

Owens also promised that the state would continue to be aggressive in dealing with chronic wasting disease, which was recently discovered in wild mule deer south of Hayden.

When Division of Wildlife officials discovered that two wild mule deer were infected with the disease within the Motherwell Ranch, they took immediate action by killing more than 1,000 deer and elk within a five-mile radius of the ranch.

In all, 10 deer have tested positive for the disease, while officials have found no elk in that area carrying the disease.

Before addressing area issues, Owens went into the Cashway store to purchase a a small game/fishing license because "in Colorado, when you think of hunting, you think of Craig, Meeker you think of Northwest Colorado," he said.

Jim Simos, owner of Cashway, said the state seems to be doing a good job in controlling chronic wasting disease.

"He didn't say a lot more than what (state Division of Wildlife executive director) Russ George has been saying," Simos said. "They seem to have a finger on it. I think they've done about all they can do."

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