Western Colorado is facing an "epic" low water year, due to a relatively warm, dry winter. Snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin is at 63 percent of average. Grand Mesa is at less than 50 percent, with Surface Creek forecast with one of the lowest runoffs in the state.
At a presentation hosted by the Delta Conservation District, Colorado Division 4 water engineer Bob Hurford displayed a graph from the U.S. Drought Monitor that shows extreme drought conditions in southwest Colorado -- conditions that are expected to persist in much of Delta County.
Speaking to a crowd largely made up of agricultural producers, he referred to 2002 as a "benchmark bad year, and we're not even at 2002 right now. Prospects aren't looking so good."
The weather forecast calls for above average temperatures and lower than average precipitation over the next 30 days, which is typically the wettest time of the year. Fortunately, carryover storage is looking good. Above average reservoir storage will help offset low moisture for the 2018 growing season, but next year might look completely different if the current drought cycle continues.
With runoff in question, the discussion turned to the types of water rights outlined in the state constitution. Domestic has priority over all other uses, followed by agriculture and then industrial. Those with senior water rights can place a "call" for water with the Division of Water Resources. Until the senior water rights are satisfied, supply is curtailed to those with junior water rights.
The call for water is conditional, Hurford explained. The senior water right holder must put agricultural water to a beneficial use. It cannot be wasted; the user must have an accepted headgate and an accurate measuring device.
"The North Fork is on call even in a good year," Hurford explained. "There's just not enough water to supply everybody. Every drop of water in the North Fork is spoken for."
He discussed a number of strategies for water short years, including administrative exchanges, the loan of irrigation water rights, the lease of storage water, and efficiency improvements for on and off field delivery systems. "This is where the Delta Conservation District really shines," he said.
John Miller, an irrigation water management specialist with the Delta Conservation District, recommended all producers develop a drought management plan. The first step is looking at all available data specific to the grower's location.
"Right now we're in an ah-ha moment, where we're becoming increasingly aware of a potentially rough year," he said. "This is the time to prepare."
For a one-year dry spell, he said managing water between existing fields is better than planting drought-resistant varieties. New plantings, which require more water, should be avoided.
Drought-tolerant crops should be reserved for longer dry spells, because they generally have lower yields. Growers could also look at shorter season crops like sweet corn, pinto beans and sunflowers.
"You also need to look at irrigation system efficiency," he said. "Is the irrigation water getting to a plant or are you losing it?"
Replacing open ditches with piping or installing concrete linings can help cut down on loss. With gated pipe, just half the water is getting to a plant. Efficiency improves with rolling and center pivot irrigation systems, and hits 95 percent with drip irrigation and micro spray. But as efficiency goes up, so does the price, Miller said. That's where cost-sharing programs can help with installation.
After discussing several other options for conserving irrigation water, he said if the weather outlook hasn't improved by midseason, it might be time for hard choices. "You might be looking at less-productive parts of the fields you want to stop irrigating," he said. The "worst, worst" case scenario is simply abandoning a field.
But there is some good news: A lack of irrigation water due to drought often brings higher yields. Overirrigation leaches fertilizer out of reach of the plant roots; with less water, the plant will develop longer roots to reach the water.
Because every situation is unique, he said he is always available to come out and visit with growers individually.
Steve Fletcher, Fire Mountain Canal superintendent, said it looks like Paonia Reservoir will fill, but runoff will quickly be used up and operators will be looking at stored water. As for Leroux Creek, Fletcher said that area is "not looking pretty at all."
"I wouldn't look for much flow out for Leroux Creek for the Fire Mountain Canal."
When asked to predict when the water in the Fire Mountain canal would be shut off, Fletcher said that all depends on rainfall. The reservoir holds 15,000 acre feet of water; the canal carries 180 acre feet a day. That's just over 83 days of supply.
Nolan Doesken, retired state climatologist, provided a broader perspective with decades of weather data.
He said this part of the state has been on the wet side for four years in a row. "So what do you expect next? Drought never leaves us alone for long."