Well below average rainfall in June put northern Colorado back in the “drought” category, and also evaporated some of the optimism farmers had earlier in the growing season.
The region’s South Platte River basin entered June with a snowpack that was about 50 percent above normal.
The snowmelt from the mountains, farmers thought at the time, would keep their irrigation ditches running with water well into the summer.
But last month, the Greeley area — Colorado’s epicenter of agriculture activity — received about one-third of an inch of rain — less than 20 percent of the historic average — and the dry conditions forced some local farmers to use more of their irrigation water than originally anticipated.
Northern Colorado is now back in a “moderate drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, after it had briefly shaken its drought status in early June.
The lack of rain and increased use of irrigation water last month now has ditch levels dropping, local farmers say.
“If we don’t get some decent rains in the next 10 days to two weeks, things could get ugly pretty quickly,” said Dave Eckhardt, a grower of corn, onions, sugar beets and wheat near Greeley.
Storm clouds rolled into the Greeley area only a few moments after Eckhardt made those comments a week ago, and rains were expected again in the next few days.
Farmers are hoping it will be enough to keep their crops growing, since irrigation water for some of them might run out before the end of the growing season.
Artie Elmquist, a farmer near Meade, Colo., said he’s wanting to see 60 percent to 70 percent of his sugar beet crop survive.
He got a late start planting this year because rains in April and May muddied his fields. The June dryness set in not long after he finally planted his beets.
He’s typically finished planting in April, and then uses May rains to get the crop growing out of the ground.
But this year, with June giving him little moisture to work with, he had to irrigate his crop out of the ground — something he has to do only once every 10 years or so, he noted.
Crop insurance can help, if it stays dry and his crops suffer, Elmquist said. But, in many cases, insurance payments only help re-coup some of the farmer’s input costs.
“You’re certainly much better off if you can just grow a crop,” Elmquist said.
Despite the lack of rain last month and increased water use, northern Colorado farmers are better situated than other regions.
Parts of southeast Colorado have been enduring drought for several years.
And overall conditions in northern Colorado are so far better now than they were a year ago, Eckhardt and Elmquist said.
In 2012, the two irrigation ditches that run water to Eckhardt’s fields ran dry by mid-June.
On one ditch, the Eckhardts could use extra water from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project — the largest water-supply project in northern Colorado. Last year, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District board of directors, which oversees C-BT operations, set a high water quota, and that freed up additional water for the Eckhardts and other farmers in the region.
However, the other irrigation ditch used by the Eckhardts doesn’t have access to C-BT water, and last year the Eckhardts had to let 700 acres of crops along that ditch dry up.
Since the C-BT Project went into use in 1957, the Northern Water board has set a quota each year to balance how much water could be used through the growing seasons and how much water needed to stay in storage for future years.
The Northern Water board upped its water quota to 100 percent last year, because reservoirs were filled to historically high levels, thanks to a record snowpack in 2011.
But that extensive use during the 2012 drought drained some of the C-BT Project’s 12 reservoirs to historically low levels, and they now need to be filled back up, Northern Water board members have said.
Cities in the area, which in many years lease extra water to local farmers, are also holding on tight to their water, trying to re-fill their low reservoirs.
Additionally, a number of farmers in the area are limited in their ability to pump water out of the ground to make up for any lack of rain.
In the mid-2000s, augmentation requirements were made more stringent in Colorado. Augmentation water is required to make up for depletions to the aquifer.
With those changes, many farmers and their irrigation ditch companies today can’t afford enough augmentation water to get their wells pumping at full capacity.
With groundwater-pumping limitations and city officials and Northern Water board members reluctant to release water from their reservoirs, farmers are left to hope that Mother Nature cooperates better in the upcoming months than it did in June.
Helping a number of farmers, including Alan Frank, who farms near Greeley, is the fact that they planted more acres of wheat — a crop that requires less water.
Like Frank, many farmers in Weld County doubled or even tripled their wheat acres back in the fall, anticipating water-availability issues when the spring and summer rolled around.
“It’s helped save water,” Frank said of growing more wheat this year. “But we’re still going to need more help from the weather to make sure everything else can survive.” ❖