Overcoming drought disaster in the future
April 14, 2006
by Molly Johnson
Fence Post Intern
Let’s face it … around here, water is a touchy subject … especially when there seems to be none. Not only has water been hard to come by this summer, it’s been almost impossible. Many may not have noticed the drought when they turned on a sprinkler to soak their already green lawn, or jumped into their long, hot morning showers to wake up, but those who are involved in producing our food supply have definitely taken notice.
Anyone who has anything to do with water rights, water shares, water conservation and water quality have taken “heed” of the drastic situation facing the state of Colorado. The next couple of months could prove to be a strategic fight with Mother Nature and a battle filled with dry soil, dusty lawns and lost hope for those who may lose their livelihood as food producers.
How bad is it really? Just switch on the news at night and watch as wildfires engulf thousands of acres. Drive out to the country and gaze upon the barren fields of brown, dusty rows awaiting water. Normally by this time, corn is nearing a foot tall, but this year, crops in the field are few and far between. And who could forget the nearly dry rivers and the increase in hay prices?
“This is the earliest ever that ice has come off of Granby Lake (on April 19) and the earliest ever that Trail Ridge Road has been open (May 7)” said Brian Werner, spokesperson for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “Right now, most ditch companies are allocating one-third to one-fourth of what they normally do. This indicates how bad the drought really is.”
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In the 1980s, the “Windy Gap” water project was built but since then very few reservoirs, pipelines or storage projects have been completed. Partially due to endangered species issues and federal regulations and agencies, but mostly because “it’s hard to get the public excited,” said Werner. “A year like this helps the public understand the value of (water) storage.”
Werner is the first to agree that disaster prevention as a result of a drought year is all about education and risk. “Some cities are willing to take more of a risk than others,” he said. “You’re never able to plan for a year like this ” you can just mitigate how bad it’s going to affect you.” Werner emphasizes that the average citizen is interested in learning how to conserve water, but it just takes an eye-opener, like this year’s drought, to prove how badly they need to be educated.
Gary Simpson, president of the Northern Colorado Weld Water Board said it is possible to prevent (or substantially limit) the disaster that inevitably follows a drought. “While we may not be able to prevent the actual drought ” Mother Nature has her own agenda there ” we can prevent some of the devastating loss and damage caused by drought by planning better for the future,” he said.
Simpson reasons that we are in a severe drought. “Every 20 years there’s a major drought, and we’re in one, and there’s not much we can do about that,” he said. However, water storage and water projects that have been held up for environmental reasons could have been beneficial during this drought time. “These projects would allow us to make maximum use of water,” said Simpson. “I realize that some environmental issues are at stake, but unless Colorado stops growing, people are going to keep demanding water,” he said. “It takes a severe drought to make people aware of these issues.”
Having a lack of water projects actually carried out to completion, coupled with the public’s unawareness about the need for these projects, adds up to one big mess. Not only is there not enough snowpack or rainfall to replenish the storage we have, but there simply aren’t enough storage vessels to “quench” Colorado’s thirst! “This is a desert; we have an average rainfall of 12 inches and people need to realize that,” said Simpson. “The more and more people we keep adding to this state, the more water projects we are going to need to satisfy their needs.”
On the other hand, CSU Cooperative Extension agent Jerry Alldredge, said, “This (drought) could really be a blessing in disguise. We need to be prepared mentally to conserve water in times of need.” Alldredge is positive in thinking that this year’s drought will force both “sides” (urban and agriculture) to conserve water, and to get along with each other. “It’s a struggle between the survival of lawns and the survival of the food supply,” he said. Alldredge suggests that cities should increase their water rates and restrict usage. “If they go over their allotted amount, they should get charged per gallon,” he said. In agriculture, he suggests there is a need to create an incentive to use the water based on a “use it or lose it” case. But for now, “we need to prioritize water use, use it on higher value crops like sugar beets and onions and plant more drought tolerant crops,” he said.
Greeley, Colorado seems to be in pretty good shape so far this year ” whether as a direct result of proper planning or pure luck ” no one is really sure. Greeley is perhaps one of the only cities left in Colorado that hasn’t had water restrictions imposed on its citizens.
Just like any “normal” year, Greeley citizens are allowed to water their lawns every other day from May 1 to Oct. 1. Ruth Quade, the city’s Water Conservation Specialist, says a drought plan is in place, but said that the city’s water storage has not yet hit the trigger level, which means there is adequate storage to handle this year’s demand. “We have water for this year, but don’t have water to waste,” said Quade. “Everyone in the city is looking out for us; awareness is big for us this year.”
Simpson pointed out that if cities don’t use all their water, they could rent it back to agriculture at a price the farmers could afford, which could benefit both parties. However, Dick Stenzel, Division of Water Resources Engineer, said that no one is giving up their water. People can’t afford to share or give up any water because they are looking for assurance to have enough water to last the rest of this year and also carry them into next year. Stenzel also echoed the need for more water projects in Colo., “The runoff just wasn’t there, but if there were other storage vessels, we would have had the benefit of their storage,” he said. There’s not much we can do about it now.
“Conservation is the next step,” he said.
“Farmers are always gambling; they can just hope for a cycle of storms that would re-fill our reservoirs,” said Stenzel. And as for the rest of us, we can just be thankful for the water we do have for the time it lasts.
So next time you take a bite out of that juicy watermelon grown from the green Earth, offer up a little word of thanks to all those hard-working farmers who place their hopes, dreams and livelihoods at the hands of Mother Nature.