U.S. Water News Online
DENVER -- The drought may seem long gone along Colorado's
Front Range, where water restrictions have been eased or lifted after
a wet spring refilled reservoirs and turned lawns from brown to
But even with the summer heat fading, southwestern Colorado, most
of Utah, western Montana, western Wyoming and parts of New Mexico are
still stuck in an extreme drought, according to the National Drought
Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.
For some Montana farmers, that means a once-promising season is
withering due to lack of rain.
``Early in the spring, we had pretty good precipitation early. We
were optimistic about it,'' said Curtis Lund, Montana's deputy
agriculture statistician. ``But from mid-June on, it's just been dry.
It's really taken its toll on the spring crops.''
Farmers in Colorado's drought-ravaged San Luis Valley are even
considering paying each other to quit planting for a while to cut
water use and rebuild groundwater supplies.
``We've run up against our limits here,'' said Ray Wright, a
farmer and president of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.
The numbers can be deceiving: Colorado's wheat crop, for example,
could reach 77 million bushels this year, double last year's harvest
when the state suffered through one of the worst droughts on record.
But hopes for next year's crops are wilting -- farmers are
delaying planting because the ground is too dry. Hundreds of
irrigation wells in northeast Colorado have also been shut down in a
dispute over the impact of pumping South Platte River water.
In Montana, spring moisture helped boost production. The total
wheat crop is projected to reach nearly 148 million bushels this
year. Last year's total was 109 million.
The numbers could drop, however, if the dry weather continues,
Farmers are already concerned about next season because the ground
is so dry. State agriculture officials have warned ranchers that a
third of the rangeland is in ``very poor'' shape.
Wyoming's wheat harvest is forecast at 4.8 million bushels this
year, up from last year's 2.3 million but smaller than the
pre-drought harvest of 6.1 million, said Dick Coulter, state
In southwestern Wyoming, hard hit by drought, farmers and ranchers
are running out of irrigation water, which could affect the amount of
hay available for livestock.
The size of crops including beans and sugar beets in north-central
Wyoming's Bighorn Basin is expected to increase 22 percent from last
year, Coulter said.
``But it's not going to be a big bumper crop,'' Coulter said.
``We're not going to recover from the drought in one year.''
Melting snow makes up about 80 percent of the water in Colorado
rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs. Eight major Colorado river
systems also provide water to 10 Western states.
Wright, who grows potatoes near Monte Vista in Colorado's San Luis
Valley, said snow runoff has been below average for several years,
but exceptionally low the last four years.
The valley is the country's No. 2 producer of fresh potatoes,
according to the industry-backed Colorado Potato Administrative
Committee. Farmers fear that status could be in jeopardy.
Wright and others want to create a district that would collect
fees from farmers based on how much water they use and then pool the
funds to pay people to not plant. The goal is to recharge groundwater
``Our calculations show that even if we return to normal
precipitation and runoff, it could take 20 years to recover the
aquifer,'' Wright said.
Area farmers have reduced crop sizes as the drought has dragged
on. Still, the potato crop likely will be about average this year,
said Chris Voigt, executive director of the potato committee.
``But next year, I think it will be really tough on us,'' Voigt
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