While Colorado’s eastern half revels in rain, the Western Slope is still stuck in a drought
Ute Mountain Utes and other farmers and ranchers plan radical cutbacks in planting and grazing, as snowpack and runoff in some areas approaches 30% of normal.
The Ute Mountain Ute Reservation sits at the lower end of a 40-mile, gravity-fed canal, and waits for whatever water the towering San Juan mountains will give up for the season.
By the second week of May, it was clear 2021 will be a bust. The Utes’ farm enterprise has already switched to hopes for next year and fervent wishes that the hot winds and wildfires won’t do too much damage before then.
Simon Martinez oversees thousands of acres of alfalfa hay and specialty corn for the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise, 400 miles from well-watered Denver. In a normal year, 25,000 acre-feet of water come down the canal from McPhee Reservoir to irrigate Ute crops.
This year, the Utes’ junior water right will get them only 2,500 acre-feet from fast-draining McPhee. Late in last summer’s drought, the Dolores River reservoir hit dead pool, meaning there wasn’t enough water to spin hydroelectric turbines and generate electricity for the Four Corners region. River outflows from the dam this summer are likely to hit record lows, and downstream fish will die.
Martinez and 20 Ute employees, half the number of a normal year, will grow crops on only one-tenth their usual alfalfa and corn acreage as the devastating Western Colorado drought drags on.
“So we’re feeling it this year,” Martinez said. “It’s basically been two years, and we hope for there not being a third.”
Colorado’s historic tendency to move water to where people need it has numbed city dwellers to the plight of places currently not getting enough. Denver is nearing its total precipitation for all 12 months of 2020 in just the first five months of 2021, 9News meteorologist Chris Bianchi said. The South Platte River basin snowpack — snow that accumulates in the mountains that waters much of the Front Range population — sat at a sopping 114% of normal in mid-May.
But snowpack meant to slake the Utes and other farmers and ranchers and towns in the Four Corners is at 36%. And it’s disappearing fast.
To read the rest of the Colorado Sun article, click here.
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