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Decision Time For Colorado Farmers As Drought Looms

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(credit: CBS)

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BUCKEYE, Colo. (AP) – Brown stalks of corn sliced off a few inches above the ground stretch across a field at Ackerman Farms north of Fort Collins, where Eldon Ackerman’s family has farmed since 1928.

For Ackerman, it’s decision time.

He planted silage corn in the field last year. But as the drought has continued, Ackerman has decided to let the field sit fallow – unplanted amid a drought that is ravaging Northern Colorado agriculture unlike anything farmers have seen in decades.

Another decision: “I’ve had to lay off three employees because we just don’t have the water,” Ackerman said. “The city of Fort Collins let us know in November they weren’t going to rent water to us for ag use.”

The water Ackerman Farms was entitled to was sold off years ago, and recently Ackerman has had to rely on Fort Collins’ excess water to keep his fields wet.

With Colorado’s mountain snowpack still starved of water, Fort Collins isn’t sending its excess water to farmers this year.

“I’m going to be 70 percent short of water,” he said. “I’m going to have to make some drastic decisions. It’s going to be a disaster, really.”

Ackerman’s decision: Let 70 percent of his land sit there, cropless.

The final word about how much water many farmers will be able to draw from the region’s reservoirs comes in April, but region agricultural producers are bracing for bad news as they make decisions about what and how much to plant because there isn’t as much water in the reservoirs as last year.

“Let me tell you, we haven’t made those decisions yet, but it’s looking like we will be fallowing some land,” said Richard Seaworth, who farms near Wellington. “Right now, it looks pretty bleak for us.”

The Colorado Department of Agriculture has no estimate for how many acres across the state are expected to remain fallow over the coming growing season, said Ron Carleton, deputy Colorado agriculture commissioner.

The short-term impact might not be devastating statewide, but if the drought wears on much longer, fallowed land may become unproductive because it’ll simply be too dry to farm, he said.

Drought is forcing farmers close to the foothills to fallow their land because they rely more on reservoir water and snowpack runoff than well water, said Colorado State University agricultural and resource economist James Pritchett. Farmers in far eastern Colorado rely on the Ogalalla Aquifer, preventing them from having to fallow their land.

There are 350,000 fewer acre feet of water sloshing around in the area’s lakes and reservoirs than there was a year ago – enough water to fill two reservoirs the size of Horsetooth Reservoir. And, the water locked up in the snow destined to drain into the Poudre and South Platte rivers is 29 percent below the normal level for this time of year.

For Ackerman, that means a major hit to his 2013 cash flow because of the land he can’t farm.

“The revenue is going to be way down,” he said. “That’s why I started back in November trying to figure out which employees to let go.”

Ackerman’s story is common among Northern Colorado farmers as they try to figure out how much of their land they can farm with a water shortage imminent.

“Do we lay people off?” Seaworth said. “I just don’t know.”

Waverly farmer George Wallace said his bottom line won’t be hurt quite as much by the drought as other farmers because he has other sources of income, but he’s having to make tough decisions about what to plant and how to manage those crops.

“It may be that I only take two cuttings of alfalfa hay,” he said. “It’s fairly water intensive. I may allow it to go dormant after the second cutting.”

One of the biggest reasons northern Larimer County farmers will be stuck with a water shortage this year is that Fort Collins isn’t allowing them to rent its water because the city’s water supply is taking a hit from both the drought and the effects of the High Park Fire.

Here’s how water renting works: Fort Collins, which gets half of its water supply from the High Park Fire-ravaged Poudre River and half from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project’s Horsetooth Reservoir, typically has the right to use more water than it consumes.

So, Fort Collins rents the right to use its excess Horsetooth Reservoir water to nearby farms while the city takes most of its water supply from the Poudre River. Renting water usually generates about $500,000 in revenue for the city, which will lose most of that income this year.

After the High Park Fire destroyed the quality of water flowing down the Poudre, the city started taking nearly its entire water supply from Horsetooth Reservoir. Last year, the city was able to take about the full amount of water it is allowed to take from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, or C-BT.

The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District will decide in April how much C-BT water Fort Collins will be allowed to receive this year. Because of the drought and the weak snowpack, Fort Collins is likely be allotted between 50-60 percent of its allowable share of water, Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner said.

That means there just isn’t enough water for the city to rent to the nearly 125 farmers who normally rely on it, said Fort Collins water resources manager Donnie Dustin.

The city struck a deal with farmers to lessen their pain this year by giving them the water contaminated by High Park Fire runoff.

“We’re doing a swap this year,” Dustin said.

The city will use the clean Horsetooth Reservoir water the farmers usually get, and the farmers will be given up to twice as much water from the ash and silt-laden Poudre River, which can cause problems for farmers’ irrigation systems.

“We’ve had an overwhelming response,” Dustin said.

But that’s still not enough to keep cropland green because there won’t enough of the dirty water coming down the Poudre this year.

“There’s just no snowpack,” said Troy Seaworth, Richard Seaworth’s son. “We’re looking at half the water we usually get. All the water we get is from snowpack, and right now, we just don’t have any.”

Numerous questions about the upcoming spring and summer are facing farmers at the most critical time of the year for planning what crops to plant and if they can obtain affordable feed for their cattle.

“With the snowpack down, are we going to be able to get precipitation in the spring?” Carleton said. “How hot are temperatures going to be? Right now, things are fairly serious.”

Even if Northern Colorado has a wetter-than-normal spring, all that water won’t be enough to make up for more than a year of drought, and it won’t be enough moisture for the plains to weather the normal late-spring dry season, said Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken.

It takes more than one year to recover from a drought, he said, and the region is still in the midst of a severe one that is likely to continue.

If the rains don’t come, it could be too much for Larimer County’s farmers to bear.

“The reality is, we’re kind of becoming extinct,” Richard Seaworth said. “We’re an endangered species, and this may be the silver bullet that takes us all out.”

- By BOBBY MAGILL, The Coloradoan

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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