Dolores Project irrigators will receive a bit more water than previously announced, but drought conditions at McPhee Reservoir mean farmers can expect only 20 percent of their normal share this season.
Full-service irrigators in the Dove Creek block will have access to only 5.5 inches per acre of water this year, and full-service users in the Hovenweep irrigator block will receive 6 inches per acre, a slight increase from earlier predictions, reported Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
“We have hit peak runoff, but based on the Dolores river flows we were able to announce delivery of an additional half inch for Dove Creek and Hovenweep. It’s still grim, though,” Preston said.
In years when the reservoir fills, full-service irrigators receive around 22-24 inches per acre of water, enough for three to four cuttings of alfalfa in the growing season.
Depending on acreage, in general it takes 5 inches of irrigation water to produce a healthy yield of alfalfa, the region’s most reliable crop. Farmers can expect only one cutting this year, but a solid monsoon season could mean more.
An acre-inch of water is equivalent to 27,154 gallons.
Limited supplies are more difficult and stressful to manage, and officials are advising irrigators to not wait on their water.
“We’re encouraging irrigators to take their water early. Don’t sit on it too long because once the reservoir drops below a certain level, we can’t pump anymore,” Preston said.
He explained further that waiting is problematic because of the physics of water delivery. When everyone’s share flows down the canal together, it is delivered to head gates more efficiently. But holdouts risk losing out on their share because there is no flow left to carry it down the canal.
“Taking it early gives everyone a chance to realize that amount of water before there is not enough available to deliver it anymore,” Preston said, adding that the half-inch increase can make a difference in crop quality and yields.
Several irrigators have used up their share or will soon, officials said, and irrigation for the Dolores Project is expected to be shut down in August.
Farmers are scaling down production this year, prioritizing and adjusting strategies.
Focusing on healthiest fields of alfalfa will be a priority to maximize limited yields, said Abdel Berrada, senior scientist for the CSU Ag Research Center at Yellow Jacket. And different crops are being considered.
“Farmers have different strategies in a drought. Some will irrigate until they run out of water to get one good cutting. Others will only irrigate the best stands, and plow the rest under, perhaps planting beans on the fallowed land,” he said.
Pinto beans, another trademark crop regionally, require less water, and once they germinate and get started they can do well with the help of monsoon rains in August and September.
“Bean prices have been good, so it is an alternative to think about,” he said.
More efficient and careful use of water also becomes more paramount in drought years, said Bob Bragg, radio broadcaster for “Ag Markets” on KSJD.
“More people are starting to use soil moisture meters and probes and finding out they are irrigating more than they need to,” he said, “So it is a way to get more exact information rather than just saying ‘OK, that seems like enough.’ It’s about conserving water and using it as wisely as possible.”
Bragg said there are some promising alternative crops for drought-stricken areas that may do well here and deserve more research. An African grass called teff offers forage that does not require a lot of water. Millet is also a drought-resistant crop that could benefit farmers in the region. Millet is used for bird seed and in cereals. The crop is favored because its productivity and short growing season under dry conditions and high temperatures.
Dire conditions for agriculture hurt the economy, and farmers are feeling the brunt of it.
“The agriculture community is living and breathing on the limited supply that we have,” Preston said. “It is a matter of financial survival for a lot of families, and it affects the whole economy here.”
McPhee is the principal storage feature of the Dolores Project, which includes a system of canals, tunnels, and laterals to deliver water to more than 61,000 acres of land, including on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation.