Not long ago, the red sandstone walls of Dolores River Canyon in southwestern Colorado towered over a roaring torrent full of native fish.
Now it’s almost empty.
The drought exacerbated by climate change has left cobblestone ribbons, drips, and small, shallow pools on once-strong rivers.
Jim White, an aquatic biologist at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said:
According to White, low river levels can cause fish such as bluehead suckers and roundtail chubs to lose their place.
“Fish have lived around and around rivers for over a million years, up to two million years,” he says. “These fish have evolved at low and high flow rates and can handle some quantities, but what they cannot handle is essentially dry waterways.”
The drought has also hit farmers in Colorado and throughout the west.
Due to the lack of water this year, farmers irrigating their fields with the water of the Dolores River got a fraction of their normal water volume.Those farmers are forced to gamble In the future It is less and less likely to be predicted.
A farmer on a ranch planted a crop in a part of his field
McPhee Reservoir, in Dolores, Colorado, transports water through canals to farms tens of miles away. The water level in the reservoir has partially dropped by more than 50 feet. It’s so low that you can see the entire island of the reservoir, which should be underwater.
In the Colorado River basin, including the Dolores and McPhee, the landscape is dry due to rising temperatures due to climate change. Dry ground and high evaporation rates make it difficult for water from melting snow and rainfall to reach its destination. Whether it’s a pool of fish on the Dolores River or Uto Mountain Uto Farm and Ranch Enterprise, an approximately 8,000-acre farm 40 miles downstream from the reservoir.Ute Mountains One of the largest water users in the area owned by the Ute people..
The farm relies on water from the reservoir to grow alfalfa and corn fields. This year, the farm wasn’t growing very well due to water allocation. They had to dismiss 50 percent of the staff, most of whom are members of the Ute Mountains. The farm used only 8 of the 110 fields in 2021. In contrast, in 2020 we used 109 out of 110.
NPR’s Sharon Chischilly
“This is the effect of the drought,” says farm manager Simon Martinez.
He says their invoice to get water from Makfi is over $ 500,000 a year. It’s whether they receive all the quotas or just a few, like this year.
“We have been able to pay for it on a regular basis for the past 17 years. Because of what we are dealing with, it is now a problem,” he says. “I didn’t have to go in this direction so far. This is a new frontier for everyone, as there were no crops, no income, no income.”
To cover the cost, according to Martinez, the farm had to rely more on the corn milling business, which is its lifeline this year.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the climate itself,” he says. “But lately, this year is the worst.”
Farmers are gamblers — and nature sets probabilities
Father and son farmers Brian and Randan Wilson face a similar situation. Their family has been farming in southwestern Colorado since the early 1900s. Like the Ute Mountains Ute Farm, they grow alfalfa using water distribution from the Makfi Reservoir. This year, they were producing much less than usual.
“We had 1.7 inches of water available as farmers. The full quota is 23,” said Brian Wilson. “2022 doesn’t look better than 21.”
Randan purchased his first land in 2017 at the age of 22. He wants to farm as much as he can.
“I’m scared,” he says. “In the current water situation, there are worries and worries. It’s definitely not ideal. And I knew that starting farming was never easy. I know it’s so tough. I didn’t expect it to be. “
His dad, Brian, wants the best. “I hope we have a good winter and a lot of snow in the mountains,” he says. “I’m a gambler. Farmers are always gamblers.”
But there is a saying in gambling that the house always wins. In this case, the house is natural and sets the possibility for fish and farmers to bet their lives and livelihoods.
For farmers, aid will come from the government or the sky
Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores River Water Reserve, which manages the reservoir and distributes water to farmers and residents, wants to know when things will get better.
“I don’t know where the light at the end of the tunnel is,” Curtis says. “We can do a year. A couple of years may struggle. But this is not a method built to work under these hydrological conditions, it is. I don’t know how long it will last. “
Curtis admits that it can be unstable when looking over an artificial lake, a Makfi reservoir with snow-capped mountains on the horizon, surrounded by trees and hills.
“Currently, banks have zero,” Curtis says. “Everything we use next year hasn’t fallen from the sky yet, so the risks are much higher and another year’s drought only exacerbates the financial hardships of the farmers.”
State officials are trying to help.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis recently signed a bill to set up an office focused on agricultural drought and climate resilience.It was Part of the slate Of the climate and energy bills he approved in the summer.
And supporters say the federal government needs to strengthen as well by increasing investment in western drought resilience. Infrastructure bills and coordination packages now in front of Congress are a step in the right direction, says Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program Director in Audubon.They are Invest millions Of the dollar in a project to mitigate the effects of a local drought. Part of the funding will go to modernize existing water infrastructure and new water storage projects aimed at keeping reservoir water levels high.
“We can’t make water, but we can take care of the basin,” says Pitt. “As these issues build up, we need to find new ways to manage the entire landscape to keep the Colorado River basin in a place that can support human communities and wildlife.”
Ute Mountains Ute Farm Manager Simon Martinez welcomes assistance. Martinez is trying to maintain a positive attitude. The support is either increasing the amount of water next year or being provided by the government. But as the climate continues to warm, such years can become more and more common.
“My optimism is that help is coming,” says Martinez. “Why not? Why shouldn’t you?”
Martínez, Steve Mullis, Barry Gordemer and Nina Kravinsky reported, produced and edited the audio story.
Drought forces Colorado farmers to make tough choices: NPR
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