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Montezuma County declares drought disaster

State and federal programs offer drought assistance, emergency loans
Irrigation water sprays on beans northwest of Cortez. Persistent drought has led to a severe water shortage for farmers this year. (The Journal file)

A disaster emergency has been declared in Montezuma County because of persistent drought conditions.

The order passed by the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners on June 1 says the purpose “is to activate the response and recovery aspects of any and all applicable local and interjurisdictional disaster emergency plans, and to authorize the furnishing of aid and assistance under such plans.”

Recent winters in Southwest Colorado have seen below-average snowpack, and a lack of monsoonal rains has depleted soil moisture. The lack of precipitation has left reservoirs unfilled this year, a devastating impact for the agricultural economy.

“No water, no crops, no revenue,” said county emergency manager Jim Spratlen. “With the (disaster) declaration, we can go for some assistance.”

McPhee Reservoir irrigators will receive just 5% to 10% of their normal allocation this year, leaving thousands of acres fallow.

Montezuma County has only had one good snow season (2018-19) in the past four years and has had dry summers, said Peter Goble, drought specialist with the Colorado Climate Center, during a meeting with county officials.

Much of the precipitation that has fallen had been absorbed by dry soils and does not make it to rivers and reservoirs, he said.

The disaster status opens up emergency assistance programs from county, state and federal agencies. It also helps the Dolores Water Conservancy District receive drought assistance from the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the infrastructure of McPhee Reservoir and its canals.

In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 63 Colorado counties primary natural disaster areas because of the severe drought conditions.

Emergency loans are available for producers. The loans can be used to replace equipment or livestock, reorganize the farm operation and refinance certain debts.

Colorado State University Agriculture Extension provides education and connects farmers and ranchers with resources for drought management and assistance, said Greg Felsen, Montezuma County director and extension agent.

The forecast for a summer monsoon is not favorable for Southwest Colorado, according to the National Weather Service.

Dry conditions are predicted for June, July and August, according to the National Weather Service meteorologist Megan Stackhouse.

Monsoonal summer rains occur in the Southwest when atmospheric conditions allow a path for subtropical storms to flow north from the Mexico and Californian gulfs, she said.

They partially depend on the location and development of a high pressure ridge in the Southwest, which helps to draw up the moisture from the south, but they also can block the storms if positioned too far west.