Most farmers in Garfield County and surrounding counties use their irrigation water efficiently, according to a water management specialist with the Bookcliff Soil Conservation District.
And drought years like this year "are our best salesman" to get more farmers on that same page, added Dennis Davidson after a Thursday night presentation at the Rifle Branch Library, part of the "Discover Earth" program.
Davidson, who retired from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Glenwood Springs after almost 40 years, explained the role snow surveys play in helping farmers decide which crops to plant and what to expect in terms of stream flows and water supplies through the summer.
He also showed how far the farming industry has come in increasing water efficiency, with equipment such as center pivot, "big gun" and side roll sprinklers.
"I'd say most farmers around here are very cognizant of the need to be efficient with their irrigation water," Davidson said. "It's when they realize the equipment they have isn't adaptable to be more efficient that we get more interest" in helping finance improvements or purchases.
Historically, farmers in the county grew crops that included potatoes, strawberries, sugar beets and many others that are no longer part of the local agriculture industry, Davidson explained.
"Transportation was the main reason those crops were abandoned," he said. "With sugar beets, they had to take them to Grand Junction to a factory there for processing. Then when that closed, they had to go to Delta. And transportation costs are still the main reason we don't see those crops return."
Hay is now the major crop grown in the county, Davidson said, for cattle and horse feed.
Davidson also talked about the Silt Salinity Control Program, which started in 2006 in the Silt Mesa area. Its goal was to reduce the amount of salt in alkaline soils reaching the Colorado River.
The program has treated 2,400 acres and kept 4,500 tons, or 42 railroad cars, of salt from reaching the river each year, Davidson said. Some 171,000 feet of pipeline was also installed, he added.
Many drainages in Colorado, such as Dry Hollow south of Silt, have already dried up, Davidson said. A winter that set many record lows for snowfall, followed by hot, dry weather in the spring and summer, has led to the current situation, he added.
"In January, we had an all-time record low" of snowfall, Davidson said. "In 2011, we set all-time record highs. It's very unusual to have that occur in back-to-back years."
Water efficiency improvements can be ineffective, he added, unless farmers correctly manage their water. The irrigation season is around 150 days long, Davidson said, out of a 180-day growing season.
"That means they have to get the right amount of water to the right place at the right time," Davidson said.
Over irrigation flushes vital nutrients deep into the soil, below the crop's root level, he added.
Conservation programs and water efficiency improvements are important, Davidson said, because "if we lose our agricultural water, what do we do?"