WATER LINES: Arkansas River Basin hit hard by multi-year drought

Caitlin Coleman

Wide open spaces, dust blowing against a dark gray soon-to-rain backdrop, a few cattle in the distance, some puddles from recent rains, green weeds or sparse grass in certain fields and the sweet smell of cantaloupe — then the taste. That was a recent scene driving down Highway 50 from Pueblo to Lamar and back again through Colorado’s Arkansas River Basin, currently one of the driest parts of the state.

As of Monday, Aug. 12, the region has been designated as a drought area for 1,014 continuous days. Southeastern Colorado has faced three seasons of drought that’s been progressively worsening and people in the area have seen months of blowing dust, crop and rangeland loss and have been forced to liquidate 70-80 percent of area cattle herds. People are worried and upset. On Aug. 12, a bus loaded with nearly 50 state and federal employees, representatives and senators, other local and regional managers and decision-makers who attended the Colorado Water Conservation Board‘s Arkansas River Basin Drought Tour also saw it.

“I’d like to thank all of you guys for coming down and looking at our drought,” said Colin Thompson before discussing the Arkansas River Compact. This bus of decision makers heard about the problems with blowing dust and the Soil Erosion-Dust Blowing Act, impacts on agricultural producers, wildlife impacts, different farming techniques and concern from residents.

“As decision makers and policymakers, it’s good for folks to get out and see what actual impacts on the ground are so they are able to visualize and conceptualize the devastating effects that drought can have on Colorado,” said tour coordinator Taryn Finnessy of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The landscape didn’t look as dry as it has been. Southeastern Colorado has seen 2-8 inches of rain over the past six weeks, which has done little for surface water supply but helps with demand, and has provided enough moisture to start grasses and weeds and to hold down some of that dust. “There are mud puddles which we dreamed would happen,” said Colorado state climatologist Nolan Doesken. “They’ve finally happened here.”

Some portions of Southeastern Colorado experienced a level of drought classification in October 2010, by May 2011, conditions were extreme and exceptional. In early 2012, conditions improved but declined again to severe by late June 2012. Last year’s high temperatures resulted in record-breaking evapotranspiration rates and very dry soil. Although the area has received recent precipitation, the drought is far from over.

Area producers are seeing economic impacts — the 2013 winter wheat crop was almost nonexistent, corn planting for 2013 was less than 5 percent of average and there’s been at least an 80 percent loss of rangeland — projected crop loss for the region is more than $72 million. The impact is wide ranging and producers worry that they haven’t seen the end of it.

“From an agricultural standpoint this is a big area of the state and agriculture is the state’s number one economic area,” Finnessy said. Economics in the Arkansas Basin can impact the state’s economy as a whole.

This article was originally published on the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s blog, which can be found at

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to

Caitlin Coleman is with the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.