U.S. Water News Online
DENVER -- Wheat farmer Virgil Kochis is looking for some
bright spots this season, which is shaping up as another bad one for
Colorado as the West remains mired in a crippling drought.
The warm, dry weather is causing winter wheat to mature too
quickly, which costs it a full head of grain. Kochis planted about
1,200 acres on his Elbert County farm last fall, 20% less than usual.
He said he will also have to turn to lower-value crops that
require less water to help make up for lower yields from more
valuable crops such as corn.
``The only nice thing about millet, it's a low-input crop, it
requires very little fertilizer,'' he said. ``It's all for birdseed
and that market's doing pretty good.''
These are dire days for many Colorado farmers. So far this year,
58% of the winter wheat crop is in very poor to poor condition,
according to the state Agriculture Department.
Last year, drought forced Colorado farmers to plant the smallest
winter wheat crop in 56 years, just 2.3 million acres. The state was
the nation's fourth-largest winter wheat producer in 2000 with a crop
valued at $266 million. Drought dropped the state to No. 6 in 2003.
In northeast Colorado, the South Platte River is seeing some of
its lowest flow levels in memory. And the state still must comply
with rules requiring certain amounts of water for endangered species
recovery in Nebraska.
Many farmers plan to grow alfalfa hay, but demand is low because
ranchers have reduced their herds to cope with drought. Agriculture
officials say it's too early to predict the economic consequences of
another bad year.
``We might be looking at half a crop on (winter) wheat,'' state
Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament said. ``If we get some moisture at
the right time for the irrigated crops and the pastureland and the
rest, there is still a possibility out there.
``But wheat is the farthest along and I'm afraid the die has
already been cast.''
Like many other farmers, Kochis will let some land sit fallow
rather than plant fall-harvest crops such as corn, which needs
late-season rain to pay off. He's not alone.
``I consider it a matter of risk management in not planting any
more acreage than I feel certain I have adequate water to serve,''
said Ray Wright, a potato farmer in southern Colorado's San Luis
Wright said some farmers in the fertile valley have been planting
fewer acres for the past two years in hopes that unused surface water
will recharge aquifers that have been sharply drawn down by heavy
After the latest measurements, statewide snowpack stood at 70% of
the 30-year average and at 82% of last year's level at this time,
according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The snowpack, which supplies about four-fifths of the state's
water, peaked in early March at 78% of the average peak. As of April
1, the latest figure available, statewide reservoir storage levels
stood at 81% of average.
Across much of the state, below-average snowmelt is expected. The
highest runoff volumes were expected in the San Juan and Animas
basins, with runoff at or slightly above the 30-year average.
Farmers in the South Platte basin, meanwhile, are expected to
benefit the least from mountain snow, with runoff volumes projected
to be less than half the average.
Due to low water supplies, more than 800 wells -- about 20% of the
total -- along the South Platte have been or will be shut down under
rules requiring farmers to acquire enough surface water to replace
the groundwater they plan to use, division engineer Jim Hall said.
In southern Colorado, Wright said the long-term effects of several
years of drought are just beginning to emerge.
``We've seen some farms for sale in some of the water-short areas
and there doesn't seem to be much interest,'' he said. ``We're
gaining a new level of awareness among producers that this is a real
problem and is not going to be disappearing in the short term.''
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