Colorado farmers struggle to cope with a drought that keeps coming back

Climate change-driven drying trend limits benefits of healthy snowpack

Farmers and ranchers across Colorado are dealing with low precipitation levels and disappointing spring runoff, which have left much of the state under an official drought classification. (Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk)

It’s no fun having to water your crops at night, but for Abe Rosenberg and many other farmers across southern Colorado right now, the weather isn’t giving them much of a choice.

“If we try to water during the day, or even in the morning, it’ll just evaporate too quickly,” said Rosenberg, who owns a 35-acre farm near Antonito in Conejos County. “Right at sundown, we’ll start watering, and we’ll do it fairly heavily so the soil gets a good saturation to last through a full day.”

A long stretch of hot, dry weather this spring and summer has spelled trouble for Colorado farmers and ranchers, with nearly 70% of the state experiencing drought conditions and more than a third classified as in “extreme” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. As of July 1, more than half of the state’s counties, encompassing nearly all of the Western Slope and southern Colorado, are under official disaster declarations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s super bleak right now,” Rosenberg said. “It’s been really tough. Some of the rivers are going dry — I live on the San Antonio River, and it runs dry during conditions like this. A lot of our grasslands are completely bone dry.”

The return of acute drought conditions is all the more unsettling given that Colorado experienced what was, by recent standards, a very wet 2019. A year ago, the state was officially drought-free, with no areas under the Drought Monitor’s lowest classification, “abnormally dry” conditions, for the first time in the service’s 20-year history. As 2020 began, above-average snowfall led to Colorado’s second-in-a-row healthy snowpack year.

In just a few short months, however, all of that has changed. Warm spring temperatures and a drop-off in precipitation levels rapidly depleted the snowpack in most of Colorado’s river basins. In June, hot, windy weather caused near-record levels of “evaporative losses” — moisture lost when it evaporates from soil and bodies of water — across much of the state.

“You start with a precipitation deficit, which is bad,” Becky Bolinger, a Colorado State University researcher and Colorado’s assistant state climatologist, said during a National Integrated Drought Information System briefing on July 9. “But then you add that the atmosphere wants to take even more moisture from the ground than what it normally does, and that quickly exacerbates a drought situation and puts even further stress on the vegetation. It was something that came on very quickly in June and made the situation a lot worse.”

As of July 7, more than a third of Colorado is classified as experiencing “extreme” drought. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Increased drought levels lead to a wide variety of negative impacts across the state, from elevated wildfire risks and other ecological stresses to greater scarcity for municipal water utilities, but no one feels the effects more acutely than Colorado’s farmers and ranchers, who typically use nearly 90% of the state’s available water supplies.

For agricultural producers in the San Luis Valley, the extremely dry conditions have led to a long list of headaches. Drought means less planting and lower crop yields. It means added costs for feed, as rangeland that is typically irrigated to promote grass growth lies barren. It means nighttime watering, and more time and money spent maintaining wells that have become the only reliable sources of water.

“We had five days where we didn’t have any water, because we were trying to get this well fixed,” Rosenberg said. “It was a very tricky time.”

Meanwhile, for Jillane Hixson and other “dryland” farmers on Colorado’s Eastern Plains — they grow drought-resistant crops, like wheat and milo, and rely entirely on rainfall, rather than irrigation, to water their crops — the effects of the drought have been catastrophic. Few places in the state have been hit harder by the 2020 drought than southeastern Colorado, where Hixson and her family have farmed for generations.

“We’ve almost had the equivalent of about zero precipitation in the last year,” said Hixson, whose farm is just south of Lamar in Prowers County. “That means failed crops, and no opportunity to plant another crop. It means that we’re going bankrupt. You’ve got third-, fourth-, fifth-generation farmers all going broke because there’s no rain.”

In a June letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and to Colorado Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, Hixson described the region’s “dust-bowl conditions … where normally productive soil, now ‘brown powder,’ is causing livestock to suffocate in high-wind ‘dirt storms,’ amidst thousands of acres of failed winter wheat crops with no moisture to plant 2020 spring crops and even jeopardizing 2021 crops.”

While statewide drought conditions haven’t yet reached the levels seen in the historic dry spells of 2012 and 2018, many farmers’ struggles have been compounded by a series of disastrous growing seasons in close succession. Crop insurance and the USDA’s disaster programs aim to provide relief for drought-stricken growers, but Hixson told Newsline that there are too many holes in this safety net, especially for those who have faced crop disasters over multiple years.

What’s worse, measures like the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, designed to help farmers weather the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, largely excluded Colorado farmers, Hixson said, because relief payments were calculated based on farmers’ January inventories, long before Colorado’s wheat harvest. The Paycheck Protection Program hasn’t been any help, either, since farms rely mostly on seasonal contract workers.

“Farmers are used to hard times, we’re pretty resilient,” Hixson said. “I guess what’s so upsetting to me right now is that the government is passing out trillions of dollars, literally trillions of dollars, and a wheat farmer can’t get a dime. In the middle of a drought.”

Changes in Southwest might be irreversible

The persistent drought conditions faced by Colorado farmers and ranchers in recent years are part of a long-term trend driven in large part by man-made climate change. Much of the southwestern United States, dominated by the Colorado River Basin, has experienced chronic drought since roughly 2000, a 20-year stretch that ranks as the region’s longest and most severe dry spell since at least the 16th century.

Drought conditions have persisted in Colorado since 2000.

Hydrological research has attributed much of the current drying trend to rising temperatures — a “hot drought” driven as much by factors like faster snowmelt and higher evaporation rates as by simple decreases in precipitation. Much of Colorado’s Western Slope has warmed by an average of more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels, outpacing the global average, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

“Climate change is water change,” said Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center. “The atmosphere is this enormous solar-powered cycle that moves water around the planet, and if you heat the planet up, that cycle’s going to change in fundamental ways. We’re seeing that at work right now.”

With global temperatures continuing to rise, many scientists no longer find “drought” to be an appropriate word for what’s taking place across the Southwest. They’ve turned to technical terms or neologisms like “megadrought,” “aridification” or “desertification” to describe the long-term — and potentially irreversible — transformation of hydrological conditions in Colorado and other Western states.

“We are not likely to ever return to normal conditions; that opportunity has passed,” scientists with the Colorado River Research Group, whose members include Udall, wrote in a 2018 paper. “Rather, there are two possible new normals. First is a continuation (and likely acceleration) of the current drying trend and the accompanying increase in variability, an outcome largely ‘baked into’ the system by existing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. A second, and better, new normal would be to establish regional hydrologic conditions at a steady new level — a step change — that results from the stabilization of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at some new equilibrium.”

While the Colorado River Basin, which supplies drinking water to over 40 million people across seven states, looms large in discussions of Western water issues, many other parts of Colorado, from other Western Slope drainage basins to the San Luis Valley and most of the Eastern Plains, have suffered similar drying trends.

“It’s certainly more worrisome to the south, and less worrisome to the north, but it’s worrisome everywhere,” Udall said. “It’s as if the storm tracks are clipping the northeast corner of the state, and the north-central mountains. So Steamboat and the South Platte actually kind of do OK, but almost everywhere else is really hung out to dry, if you will.”

As the return of severe drought this summer makes clear, the reality of climate change in Colorado means that spells of high precipitation and healthy snowpack levels no longer matter as much as they used to.

“When we have 100% snowpack, but you have very dry soils — those soils need to be recharged before you actually get any water in our rivers,” Udall said. “What we’ve seen repeatedly over the last few years is that soils in Colorado were super dry when runoff season came, and that’s why 100% of (normal) snowpack in many places turned into damn near 50% of (normal) runoff, which is shocking.”

Climatologists expect that as long as Colorado’s long-term drying pattern persists — as long as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to drive global temperatures upwards — drought conditions will never be too far over the horizon, no matter how promising short-term conditions may appear. On the ground, the volatile swings in weather and water supplies are giving farmers whiplash.

“It’s been a huge fluctuation,” said Rosenberg. “Last year, we actually experienced a lot of water, and it felt like we were starting to put a little bit back into the (San Luis Valley) aquifer for the first time in quite a while. And then this year it’s like a complete 180, where everyone is basically fighting for every drop of water they can get.”

For now, farmers and ranchers across Colorado are doing what they can to cope with the weather, and praying for more rain as the monsoon arrives. Long-range forecasts, however, aren’t very encouraging, with the federal Climate Prediction Center projecting warmer- and drier-than-average weather through the end of September, and potentially beyond.

“Every time it rains, everybody’s having a little celebration,” Rosenberg said. “We’re very hopeful that we will get some kind of rainfall later this year. And on the flip side, there’s a lot of fear that things will just continue to get worse.”