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Adjusting for drought requires innovation, planning

Susan Behery, a hydraulic engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation, makes a presentation Friday during the Southwestern Water Conservation District seminar at the Double Tree Hotel. Panel member Ben Wolcott, center, discussed drought management strategies for the Mancos Valley. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Mancos Valley takes lessons from dry years to improve irrigation system

Mancos rancher Ben Wolcott gave an on-the-ground perspective on managing water during drought in the Mancos Valley and on his family ranch during the annual Southwestern Water Conservation District annual seminar in Durango Friday.

Wolcott is a water consultant for the Mancos Conservation District working on the Mancos Watershed Stream Management Plan. His family has been ranching in the area for 50 years, raising beef cattle on a series of pastures.

Less water has been a limiting factor for livestock production the past few years on his ranch because of decreased forage and reduced herds.

In the past two years, he has reduced his herd size by 95%, part of the plan based on water and forage availability.

“Being able to plan for that water availability is extremely important to our business. Do we adjust our herds up or down?” Wolcott said. “The Mancos River is the framework for making decisions for the ranch. All the (snowpack and runoff) models are like watching the morning news for us. Are we going to have water today or not?”

Reducing risk and uncertainty during dry times and maximizing profit in wet years requires careful planning.

His ranch has charted critical decision points and dates that focus on snowpack data, river flows, reservoir levels, rain gauge levels and precipitation amounts.

“We add them together and have a series of dates we make decisions on. We take that information and turn it into useful concepts,” Wolcott said.

In this photo from 2013, Gary Kennedy watches water flow from Jackson Lake.
In this photo from 2013, Gary Kennedy uses a new monitoring system to read water levels at Jackson Lake. The system connects to the Bureau of Reclamation website, where water users can check the status of the reservoir.

For example, if Jackson Reservoir is 60% full and there has been less than 6 inches of precipitation in the previous 12 months, the ranch will sell every cow over a certain age.

“We have a very laid-out plan. What allows us to navigate shortage is having made the decisions ahead of time,” Wolcott said. “We have the plans thought-out with various courses of action so that we can be successful.”

Taking a proactive approach also reduces the mental stress of tough decisions like cutting herds.

This year, based on the decision chart for forage and water availability, the ranch will increase its herd.

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“It is changing all the time, and proactive planning has been very effective in allowing us to manage our grass and maintain pasture cover throughout the winter and graze continuously,” Wolcott said.

Whenever a livestock producer is faced with a water shortage, they have to make a choice. They either have to buy hay and deliver it, a costly option, or reduce demand for the resource by destocking, and that reduces cash flow later on.

“You have to plan for either event, or things can become catastrophic in a hurry,” Wolcott said. “Make changes or suffer the consequences.”

Wolcott sees the land as the more important resource. The cattle are the tool to work the land. So in low water years, reducing the herd makes more sense.

A dynamic system

Part of Wolcott’s mission is tracking Jackson Reservoir and Mancos River water through a maze of ditches, then problem-solving delivery issues, especially in drought years.

He also “drags producers to the table so they can share their experiences and concerns” and help develop the Mancos watershed management plan.

Deep understanding of an irrigation system opens up possibilities to save water. Mancos has a dynamic watershed, with unique challenges.

It includes more than 50 small ditches with adjudicated water that have various priority rights. The fact that the watershed is over-appropriated also makes it a challenge to manage.

Because there is no on-stream reservoir, the Mancos River has large daily swings in flows as the snow melts into the river and temperatures fluctuate.

Stream slows can change dramatically over a 12-hour and 24-hour period.

For example, water managers can try to deliver 20 cubic feet per second to a senior water user downstream, knowing it will vanish from the river in the next four hours.

The Mancos Water Conservation District is working to address is the situation where the process of delivering of water to various users temporarily dries up the river.

When there is even a slight miscalculation in water delivery, the river can go dry.

“Once it goes dry, it takes an exponentially amount of water to re-wet it and recover, so part of our management plan is to prevent that from happening,” Wolcott said.

He said delivering the limited amount of water the past two years was very straightforward because it became simpler. The situation became a lesson to re-evaluate the overall delivery system to find whether there were ways to improve efficiencies and make it less complex.

The Mancos Watershed Stream Management Plan is gathering data, concerns and ideas to learn from irrigators on delivery timing, losses and gains on the river.

“We have this glimmer of hope to better understand the cycle. We have some idea, but after watching last year, we don’t know nearly enough,” Wolcott said. “Drought has given us the opportunity to innovate and try new things to make water go further.”

Another idea to improve the system is a smart meter project that compiles the data in a centralized location or portal. Users and managers could then gain a better understanding of irrigation demand, then tweak the timing of deliveries to improve irrigation water management.

“When I hear the phrase ‘navigating shortage’ I think, Try new or forgotten ideas and practices that allow our ranch to stay profitable and ecologically beneficial. I truly believe that land managers in the Southwest will innovate and not only navigate the shortage of changing climate, but also be able to thrive,” he said.