Water column: Drought has many impacts on cattle ranching | PostIndependent.com

Water column: Drought has many impacts on cattle ranching

Elizabeth Chandler
Water Law Basics

Poor stream flows and extremely dry conditions caused a lot of economic hardship in our area this summer. The Lake Christine Fire resulted in severe financial losses for many businesses, the recreation and fishing industries were severely impacted by low stream flows, and agriculture is experiencing the widespread impacts of hot and dry weather.

The United States Drought Monitor lists Garfield County as "D3," exceptional drought. This indicates that within the county major pasture losses are common, the fire danger is extreme, and there are water shortages. What does this mean for agriculture?

According to Corey Hicks, county executive director for the Farm Services Agency, farmers have reported summer kills of alfalfa in their pastures, and over 50 local agriculturalists have applied for drought assistance relief.

Even this wonderful rain we recently had won't bring those fields back — the alfalfa is dead. To regain production, the fields will need to be reseeded and will take at least two good water years to reestablish the production level from the summer of 2017. The resulting loss of hay production and fall pasture means livestock producers will have to sell down the mother herd.

In many instances, these females are genetically selected and raised over many generations and cannot be replaced. Jay Gentry, long-time area cattle broker, estimates it will take 10 years for these producers to recover from the sell-down of the mother herds. The increased supply of livestock to the market will exceed the demand from the buyers and result in lower prices being paid for the animals being sold.

Another impact to producers is the poor condition of the summer range. Several producers were forced to haul water long distances to facilitate keeping their animals on the summer range. Others were forced to reduce or remove animals from the range to protect the remaining forage.

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Reservoir storage helped agriculture and recreation this year. Almost all of the reservoirs in Colorado were full at the start of the spring. Water was released from these reservoirs to help fish, augment stream flows and provide for summer irrigation. Currently, most of our reservoirs are at about 50 percent to 60 percent of capacity. Dr. Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist, estimates it will take at least two years of average snowfall to refill the reservoirs.

The recent rain in our area is recharging the water in the soil and improving stream flows, but unless the rains continue the drought designation will not change, according to Dr. Bolinger. The warmer than normal summer temperatures combined with the long dry period from June through October have exacerbated the drought to the point it will take a long period of precipitation to improve the drought status.

Summer hay kill, mother herd sell off, and low reservoir levels all combine to make owning an agriculture business very stressful. Hoping for the return of the normal hydrology knowing it will take at least two years before your fields are back to normal and several more to rebuild your mother herd, is a leap of faith. This is a leap of faith that dictates your way of life and the hope of continuing the family business. A leap of faith in something none of us has any control over.

The local conservation districts will be holding an Ag Water Workshop on Nov. 7 at the Glenwood Springs Branch Library from 6-8:45 p.m. RSVP is required, but admission is free. More details can be found at: http://www.mountsopriscd.org/.

Elizabeth Chandler is program coordinator for the Garfield-Pitkin County Consumptive Use Water Plan. The Mt. Sopris, Bookcliff and South Side Conservation Districts are gathering information about agricultural water use on the middle Colorado River as it extends from the mouth of the Glenwood Canyon to the mouth of the DeBeque Canyon. This information will be used to help ensure that local farmers and ranchers will be able to continue producing food and fiber in the healthy and sustainable landscape we all enjoy. For more information about the conservation districts call 970-404-3439.