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Rio Grande Basin in severe drought

Hot and dry conditions continue to afflict much of Colorado, but unlike the northwest portions of the state, the Rio Grande River basin has been experiencing dry conditions for nearly two years.

As of July 10, most of the region is classified as in severe drought with portions in Saguache County experiencing extreme drought as defined by the US Drought Monitor. This is a slight improvement from last summer when the Valley was classified as “exceptional,” the driest classification available.

Dry conditions have been compounded this year with temperatures that are well above normal, five degrees above average for most of Colorado, with some areas in the Rio Grande experiencing temperatures six to eight degrees above normal.

While the winter did bring some improvements to the area, it is still quite dry and the 24-month accumulation for precipitation shows that the area is tracking well below normal accumulation for the last two years. A shortage of roughly five inches may not seem like a lot, but in a region where an average year brings just over seven inches that adds up to a noticeable deficit.

These conditions have largely been attributed to La Niña conditions in the equatorial region of the eastern Pacific Ocean. La Niña, is a cooling of sea surface temperatures that influences weather patterns in the southwestern United States, often resulting in drier conditions. Currently, sea surface temperatures have warmed and are now classified as neutral. Continued warming and a full transition to El Niño (a warming of sea surface temperatures) could occur in the second half of 2012. El Niño conditions would favor more moisture for the state.

Warm dry conditions have brought widespread impacts to the agricultural industry. Producers are reporting mixed yields from a wheat harvest that occurred early, with some areas seeing as much as 25-30 bushels per acre and others as low as six. Rangeland conditions are poor to very poor and a Presidential declaration for drought was issued for 62 or 64 counties in Colorado. Dry-land farmers are the most impacted at this time, although irrigators are reporting needing more water than normal for this time of year.

In order to respond to these conditions and impacts the governor has activated the State Drought Mitigation and Response Plan. The plan lays out a series of actions that facilitate efficient communication among state and federal agencies charged with responding to drought. The goal is to get aid to those who need it most in a timely manner. The Agricultural Impact Task Force (AITF) has been activated since May of 2011 for the Rio Grande Basin. This task force has worked to get drought declarations for counties that qualify, open Conservation Reserve Program lands for haying and grazing and provide on the ground feedback to the US Drought Monitor.

The US Drought Monitor is a compound indicator that the US Department of Agriculture relies upon in determining eligibility for aid programs and disaster declarations. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), which manages the state drought plan and its implementation, participates in weekly calls for the drought monitor.

CWCB also tracks impacts as a result of drought and in 2011 worked with Colorado State University (CSU) researchers and the Colorado Department of Agriculture to examine the economic impacts of drought on Southern Colorado. The study found that harvested acre rates for many crops in the Rio Grande basin were slightly increased but that hay production in 2011 was six percent below average. As a result of high commodity production this resulted in an increase in overall economic activity within the Rio Grande basin of $5 million. A contributing factor to this resiliency is that dryland acreage, often the hardest hit during times of drought, represents only 10 percent of acreage in the Rio Grande.

The livestock industry was also impacted with higher production costs, but relatively flat in total revenues. It is anticipated that the longer drought continues the more impacted ranchers are, as they no longer have sufficient hay and forage stocks and are forced to liquidate cattle.

CWCB hopes to continue working with CSU to examine the impacts of the 2012 drought as well. This information will enable the CWCB and partner agencies to target mitigation efforts in the most effective and efficient manner.

CWCB also encourages local drought planning at the municipal level and provides grants for both planning and implementation of the plans. Newly revised guidance documents and sample drought plans are available on the CWCB web page to aid in the drought planning and preparedness process.

CWCB will also be hosting a statewide drought conference September 19th and 20th of this year in Denver. The conference will focus on “Building a Drought Resilient Economy Through Innovation” and will address all sectors of Colorado’s economy impacted by drought. For more information please visit the CWCB website http://cwcb.state.co.us

For more information on Water 2012 in the Rio Grande Basin, please visit www.rgwcei.org or www.water2012.org. This Saturday, Water 2012 will be hosting a tour to Platoro Reservoir. For tour information and to register, please visit the website and select “Calendar of Events.” Also, don’t miss the Water 2012 library display at the Alamosa Public Library. Please contact Leah Opitz with any questions or comments at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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