Community Agriculture Alliance: Deep snow in mountains, dry farmland down below
April 3, 2014
As of the first week of April, the statewide average snowpack in Colorado is 113 percent. Only the southwestern watersheds are lagging behind. The Colorado River snowpack is at 125 percent. The South Platte is at 135 percent of average. Good news, right?
Well, yes, in terms of keeping ski resorts in business well into spring. And yes, in terms of hopefully reducing fires in Colorado's high country. But no in terms of farming and ranching. At least, not as things currently stand.
Weld County is a powerhouse in America's agricultural production. Yet Weld County and many other Colorado counties that are home to farming and ranching are suffering from an ongoing drought.
Snow in the mountains does not mean the end of drought on the plains. Last September, the Front Range north of Denver was hit with excessive rain. You might think a lot of rain would be a good thing. The hard fact is the rain did not soak in. It simply flooded farms and ranches, causing significant erosion, unbelievable damage to roads and left irrigation ditches in need of significant repair. It literally was too much of a good thing.
It is worth noting that Denver snowfall in March was 5.3 inches, just half of the average of 11.5 inches. Total snowfall so far in Denver is 31 inches compared to the average of the normal 47 inches for this time of the year.
We have a ways to go to restore the subsoil moisture underneath Colorado's farmland. We have a ways to go, as well, to rebuild irrigation ditches and roads after last year's floods.
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Farmers soon will plant their crops, hoping that rainfall comes at the right times and in the right amounts. They will rely on water allocations to keep their crops growing. The higher-than-average snowpack should give farmers a sense of relief. But in a state in which there never is enough water to go around, a lingering drought will continue to challenge farmers.
Later this year, voters might be asked to consider ballot issues relating to water. It will be important for the people of Colorado to consider how these initiatives may be helpful — or harmful — to the state's farmers and ranchers.
One good year or one bad year can make or break any farm operation.
Last year's flood was a single event that ended in hours but left damage that will last for years.
An ongoing drought, however, has been affecting the plains. It, too, is causing damage that could last for years, but just not as obvious. Colorado needs to keep the big picture in mind when it comes to water and how we use it.
Water is the lifeblood of ski resorts and golf courses and rafting companies. Water also is the lifeblood of agriculture. The state's economy needs tourism and agriculture to succeed in order to thrive. This year's snowpack should not cover up that fact.
Kent Peppler is the president of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.