U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mitt Romney rafted the Colorado River last weekend in an effort to raise awareness about climate change and the drought in the West.
Beginning at the Hittle Bottom Campground in Utah, about an hour from Grand Junction, Bennet and Romney were immediately faced with the reality of the problem they hope to solve – the low water levels caused by the drought.
They extended their trip by an extra hour and a half because of the slow flow of the river caused by low water levels. Typically, the stretch runs at about 7,200 cubic feet per second, but on Saturday, it was at only 2,700 cfs, according to Bennet’s news release.
“In the West, we come together to take on shared challenges, and we need that same spirit in Washington to create meaningful and durable solutions to climate change,” Bennet said in a written statement.
The federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time in August, causing the government to mandate water cuts in some Southwest states beginning in 2022.
The main takeaway from the trip was collaborating on and finding solutions to worsening natural disasters such, as mudslides, wildfires and droughts, Bennet said. Local government officials and leaders from water, agriculture and business communities joined the senators.
“I look around this landscape and say, ‘OK, we’re here for a minute of time and we will be known by future generations as the great generation or the worst generation,’” Romney said. “I’m pleased that folks on both sides of the aisle recognize that importance of this topic, and hopefully, we can begin to make a meaningful difference and put together the kind of national climate strategy that has so far been missing.”
Carlyle Currier, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said the only thing politicians can truly do right now is raise awareness about the issue and try to understand what farmers and ranchers are struggling with and how it affects their livelihoods.
“Politicians can’t make it rain, they can’t make more water, but they can be sympathetic,” Currier said.
The effects of natural water shortages have already been felt for ranchers across Southwest Colorado.
Ken Lausten manages family-owned Cachuma Ranch in Dolores. During a normal growing season, his cattle have enough pasture to graze, specifically during the winter season when there are dormant plants. Dormancy is an important factor for when pastures can be grazed, because these perennial plants know to stop growing and conserve energy during the winter months because of cold weather and less rainfall.
Lausten said because of the drought and varying atypical temperatures, the growing season for many of his plants have elongated, and because he doesn’t want to disrupt it, his cattle can no longer graze on certain pastures.
“In the upper part of Disappointment Valley, there are plants that stay growing later in the season, and there’s some dormant plants in the ground as well, but when there’s plants actively growing, we try to stay off of those and let them finish growing through the season,” Lausten said. “This last year, we managed to reduce our herd a bit and not utilize some of our pastures. We spent quite a bit of money on hay since we reduced our cow herd.”
Because most ranches had to sell off their cattle because of a reduction in grazing land and poor pasture conditions as a result of water shortages, Lausten said his cattle sold for less than they would have in previous years. He sold his cattle partly to meet requirements to obtain a Forest Service permit, but the changing climate was also a factor.
“We knew we were going to have to sell off some cows for the Forest Service acquisition to match our resources for our winter pasture, but because of the drought, there were so many other ranches that had to sell off, and there were also more open cows, cows that didn’t become pregnant during their breeding cycle, and a lot of that is related to nutrition, so overall, there was a lot of cows this last fall,” Lausten said. “That was probably our biggest financial hit last year because those cows were worth 30 or 40% less than they normally would.”
Ranchers also heavily considered rising hay prices when deciding to reduce their cattle herd. Because hay requires a large amount of water to produce, farmers have been producing less of it. Combined with the increased demand for nutrition for cattle, hay prices have increased.
Currier said in the Grand Junction area, he has seen prices for over $250 a ton, a significant increase from previous years.
Dan Huntington, however, won’t jack up the prices of the hay he produces at his ranch in La Plata County. Not wanting to put people in more financial despair, he is feeling the impact himself.
“Hay production has been significantly reduced. I’m down 50 to 60% of a normal year because of the whole water situation,” Huntington said. “The quality is down and the quantity is down. Prices are up, but I’m not one to jab people when they’re hurt and needing hay, so yeah, it’s a hit to the pocketbook.”
Lausten said to combat financial impacts, he is being more selective about breeds of cattle, picking ones like Criollo cattle, that are more fit for higher altitudes and dry land. According to The Jornada, a research program focused on land resources in the Southwest, Criollo cattle need little to no supplemental feed, allowing them to thrive in arid environments.
Huntington said despite the financial hit, he is waiting for nature to take its course.
“I just pray that Mother Nature treats us good this winter,” Huntington said. “If it persists, livestock numbers are going to go down and there’s going to be a lot of property that goes up for sale and ranches being broken up for subdivisions to be able to pay their mortgages.”
Currier said the Colorado Farm Bureau is working with government officials and other organizations on issues such as drought contingency planning and finding solutions to use water more efficiently throughout the irrigation process.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a $550 billion federal spending bill, also includes drought mitigation and rural water projects in the West.
Kelsey Carolan is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a senior graduating in December 2021 at American University in Washington, D.C.