“The Yampa/White River basin has been consistently dry since the beginning of this calendar year. It’s such a contrast from last year, so there’s been a lot of interest in that area.”
— Taryn Hutchins-Cabibi, drought and climate change technical specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board
Numerous Colorado officials will embark Tuesday on a three-stop tour of Yampa Valley ranches to assess drought conditions in Northwest Colorado.
Officials from Gov. John Hickenlooper’s cabinet who will tour the area are John Salazar, state agriculture commissioner; John Stulp, policy advisor on water; and Al White, former Colorado Senator in District 8 and current director of the state tourism office.
Officials from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, as well as numerous representatives from state and local agriculture, water conservation, and environmental organizations, also are expected to participate.
The tour begins at 10 a.m. at Keith Pankey’s ranch about five miles east of Craig.
Pankey runs cattle in Moffat and Routt counties in addition to growing hay and cattle feed.
Pankey said he's “in the dark” about the tour and how his name came up.
“I’m not sure who’s coming or what they want to know,” Pankey said. “All I know is it’s one of those drought years and none of it (cattle, hay, feed) is any good.”
Taryn Hutchins-Cabibi, drought and climate change technical specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is one of the tour's organizers.
She said the objective is to enlighten state officials about the social and business impacts the drought is having on agriculture, the environment, municipalities, and tourism.
Last year, the state began implementing its Stage 1 drought plan in response to conditions in southeast Colorado, Hutchins-Cabibi said, which included the convention of the Colorado Drought Task Force.
Colorado is currently activating Stage 2 of its drought plan and has added the Gunnison River, Colorado River main stem and the Yampa/White River basins as critical drought regions.
“The Yampa/White River basin has been consistently dry since the beginning of this calendar year,” Hutchins-Cabibi said. “It’s such a contrast from last year, so there’s been a lot of interest in that area.”
After stopping in Craig, the tour will continue east to the Carpenter Ranch in Hayden.
Geoff Blakeslee, Yampa River Project Director for the Nature Conservancy and Yampa/White River basin representative to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, lives on and manages the ranch with his wife, Betsy.
Carpenter Ranch, a registered Routt County historic landmark and nature preserve, is active with cattle and hay.
But, Betsy said the leaseholders decided not to raise cattle this year for fear of having to turn the animals out on Carpenter Ranch’s profitable hay meadows.
Yet the clearest example of drought conditions in Northwest Colorado can be told by visiting a stretch of the Yampa River that runs along Carpenter Ranch’s northern border.
“It’s so low,” Betsy said. “We measured it today and it’s running about 300 cfs (cubic feet per second). Usually that would be laughable, but when you consider it’s flowing about 90 cfs through downtown Steamboat, you realize it could still be a lot worse.”
The tour will conclude with a stop at the Rocking C Bar Ranch in the lower Elk River Valley about 9 miles west of Steamboat Springs.
The ranch is owned by Doc and Marsha Daughenbaugh, who raise both hay and cattle.
Doc is president of the Northwest Colorado Farmers Union and Marsha is the executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance.
Though they have not had a chance to discuss topics they would like to address with state officials, Marsha plans to provide an update on drought management workshops and emergency management plans that could be implemented locally.
She suspects Doc will talk about their personal stewardship of land and water at the ranch, including fears of having to move cattle earlier than normal, the difficulty of chasing water, and winter preparations should the drought last longer than a year.
“Part of our problem, in addition to the drought this year, is we had such hard freezes clear until the third week of June,” Marsha said. “It would go from 28 or 30 degrees in the morning up to 90 degrees in the afternoon. These poor grasses just didn’t know how to grow and they didn’t take off the way they usually do.”
Next week's tour is not open to the public, Hutchins-Cabibi said, and is designed to provide state officials with a candid opportunity to assess conditions in Northwest Colorado.