A severe drought that has depleted snowpack in the mountains, left pastures painted with huge swaths of dirt and sent the price of hay skyrocketing.
And much of the parched land may stay thirsty.
Arid conditions prompted the Colorado Water Protective and Development Association to send a letter Feb. 20 to all its members announcing that they will not be able to tap into any of the CWPDA water resources in the upcoming pumping season.
“It’s very sad and it’s very hard to digest,” said Ann Lopkoff, general manager of the CWPDA, which provides irrigation to farms and ranches in the Arkansas River Basin. “Unfortunately, it’s just the reality of the whole thing.”
More than 1,000 well users depend on the organization to manage water diversion from the Arkansas River and its tributaries. The CWPDA contracts with southeastern Colorado municipalities for use of water and supplies to farms and ranches. They take water requests from farmers at the beginning of each year and allow a certain percentage of those requests to be pumped from their wells, depending on how much water the association has stored.
It’s like a banking system with water as the currency. Farmers can use the water that’s allotted in their account. Overdrafts must be made up.
In the pumping season that ends March 31, ranchers were allowed to pump 70 percent of the water they requested.
Water systems are still catching up after overdrawing water resources in the 2002 to 2005 drought and the latest drought that began about 2011. That means there’s no extra water to pump during the irrigation season beginning in April and ending in the spring of 2014.
“Past depletions take priority over upcoming allocations that we can make,” Lopkoff said. “What you pump five years ago, some of that can just now be hitting the river.”
Lopkoff did not have specific numbers pertaining to the amount of depletions that need to be replenished. She said CWPDA engineers are still working to determine the exact amount.
Snowpack in the mountains dropped significantly over the last two years. The Natural Resources Conservation Service earlier this month reported the depth at a dismal three-quarters of normal.
Those numbers have left area farmers battling for water against past depletions, demands from states like Kansas, which also has rights to water from the Arkansas River basin, and the needs of cities and towns.
Bart Adams, who owns ranches in southern El Paso County and Penrose, said he knows several ranchers who began selling off livestock last year because dwindling crops pushed the price of hay skyward.
Adams owns B&B Farms where he grows and sells hay and has 27 head of cattle on land south of Fountain. He didn’t sell any animals in 2012, but fears he might have to make that tough decision to liquidate his herd if the area doesn’t get “a lot of snow in the next month-and-a-half,” he said.
“They’ll go to summer pasture here in April,” the ever-optimistic Adams said. “providing we have enough moisture. If we don’t, we’ll sell them.”
Adams said he earns about half his income from cattle and hay sales. He also runs a trucking company that hauls hay and other agricultural goods.
Earlier this month, Adams looked out across a field where he hopes alfalfa will be flourishing by mid-summer. The cattle roamed the land as he shook his head in disbelief.
Adams said he has bought hay from Nebraska, Wyoming and Kansas just to keep his animals fed, noting that it costs him about $6,000 a semi-load for the feed. He said two years ago, the same truckload would have been about $2,500 to $3,000.
Adams is skeptical about the recent decision by the CWPDA to chop their allocations down to nothing. He and other ranchers south of Fountain have watched golf courses and other lawns in cities like Colorado Springs remain green during the drought and wonder why the organization made such a drastic move.
Dave Kinnischtzke, who has owned K-5 Cattle since 1989, understands that the CWPDA is required to replenish water depletions.
“Since 1993, water has become more of a challenge for agricultural entities,” Kinnischtzke said.
Kinnischtzke manages production for other farmers and sells hay to such places as the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. He said his efforts to get answers from the CWPDA since the Feb. 20 letter have gone unanswered.
Lopkoff said the organization was able to store water at the Pueblo Reservoir from the mid 2000s to 2011, but most of that is gone “because it was drier than anticipated.”
She said what is left, unfortunately, will help replenish past withdrawals and will be gone “by the time this pumping season is over.”
The effects of the drought could also have long-term consequences, even if the area gets a sudden surge of rain and snow.
“There’s a whole lot of damage being done to the land right now because of the drought,” said Sharon Pattee, a board member for CWPDA and the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts.
Pattee farms 65 acres in Fountain and grows alfalfa to sell as horse feed. She said her focus is on maintaining the highest quality feed and takes pride in maintaining her land. That is one reason she became involved with the Association of Conservation Districts.
Pattee said many ranchers grazed off native grasses during the drought and wind erosion has added to the problem.
“What will happen if we do get rain, unfortunately, is we will have a huge weed problem,” she said. “What’s going to come up first are the weeds.”
Pattee, an accountant who supplements her income with the alfalfa sales, said she “is wondering what I’m going to do this summer if I’m not growing hay.”
She remains positive, however, hoping that Colorado is nearing the end of the drought.
In fact, several ranchers in southern El Paso County expressed optimism despite the recent restrictions on pumping allocations and very dire ratings from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Much of the county was given at least an “extreme” rating in the latest report released this month.
Adams said what appears to be unwarranted optimism tends to come naturally for farmers and ranchers, especially in the unpredictably dry Rockies.
“Before gambling was legalized in Colorado, they probably should have put all the farmers in jail,” Adams said with a chuckle.