After a low-snowpack year, La Plata County farmers and ranchers are tightening their belts and praying for rain.
Irrigators who draw from Lemon Reservoir in northeast La Plata County expect less water this season than their neighbors who draw from Vallecito Reservoir, a 13-mile drive to the east. Everyone, however, expects less irrigation water than average and a shorter growing season with fewer crops, higher hay prices and less profit.
“This is a bad year, but it’s not as bad as 2018,” said Wayne Jefferies, who receives water from Lemon Reservoir for hay and pasturing livestock east of Durango.
In Southwest Colorado, the snow-water equivalent – or the amount of liquid water held in snow – was at 31% of its historical median as of Friday, according to Colorado Snotel. The county was in the most severe categories of drought identified by the U.S. Drought Monitor: extreme and exceptional drought.
Lemon Reservoir is expected to fill to 40% to 50% of its overall capacity, 40,146 acre-feet. As of Sunday, it stored 17,867 acre-feet of water.
Vallecito is expected to fill to 65% to 70% of its overall capacity, 129,700 acre-feet, based on U.S. Bureau of Reclamation forecasts. It stored 70,193 acre-feet as of Sunday.
Those who draw from McPhee Reservoir in the Dolores area are facing even less: The reservoir is predicted to fill to 32% of its capacity, 295,000 acre-feet. That’s enough for irrigators to receive just 1 inch per acre of irrigation water, or 4.5% of the 22 inches per acre provided when the reservoir fills.
Jefferies hopes the water will last until mid-July, but he expects to run out of irrigation water by early July.
When the irrigation water is more plentiful, Jefferies might produce 6,000 to 8,000 hay bales. This year, he estimates he’ll produce about 1,500 – and that’s being conservative.
“Knock on wood I’ll get one-fourth to one-third of my normal production,” he said.
His goal is to spend this year managing his land to prepare the soil for next year, 2022. He might rotate the cattle that pastures on his land more frequently to minimize their impact on the soil, or he might do a higher cut of hay. Cutting higher on the stalk leaves more plant matter on the ground to protect soil moisture, he said.
“Everyone plans for the worst and hopes for the best,” Jefferies said. “If we really get into a bad situation, people might have to get a job or sell off assets.”
J. Paul Brown, a rancher in the Ignacio area, takes most of his 1,600 sheep into the high country each year. There, he expects they’ll have the water they need.
But at his ranch, which draws irrigation water from Vallecito Reservoir, he’s cutting back.
“I’m just praying for rain. I don’t know how long the water will last,” Brown said. “We’re not going to have as much water through the whole season as we usually do, but we’re going to try to stretch it out.”
He sold off cattle in the fall and winter of 2020 and expects to keep the herd to half of its normal size, 150.
“I think we can get through the summer,” he said. “We’re cutting back by half, so we should have plenty of feed and water for the cattle and the sheep.”
That also means he’ll lose half of his normal income for cattle. And if it stays dry, there won’t be as much hay feed, and the cattle and lamb won’t gain as much weight as they could, he said.
“That has a huge financial impact on us,” Brown said. “We’ve had droughts before and we got through them.”
But this is the kind of year when ranchers skimp and depend on “used horse shoes rather than buying new,” Brown said.
“There’s just a lot of things you won’t do just because you don’t know exactly what the future’s going to hold,” he said.