The water impact in Roaring Fork Valley | AspenTimes.com

The water impact in Roaring Fork Valley

Scott Condon | The Aspen Times

The Lake Christine Fire was the most dramatic product of a hot, dry, smoky summer in the Roaring Fork Valley, but the grip of drought extended well beyond three destroyed houses and a charred hillside.

Mother Nature served a triple whammy this year with low snowpack, lack of monsoonal rains in July and high temperatures.

That created moisture levels in trees, brush and vegetation that fell to 8 percent, matching record low levels and setting the stage for the Lake Christine Fire. The fire burned 12,588 acres after starting July 3 due to human activity. It will cost an estimated $18 million to fight by the time it is extinguished.

Parched pastures and reduced hay production is forcing some ranchers to face a tough choice of paying more to feed their livestock this winter or selling off some of their herd.

Anglers were asked to voluntarily avoid fishing some stretches of the valley's gold medal trout streams in the heart of summer because of high temperatures in low-flowing waters.

The rafting industry limped into a season where peak flow occurred before anyone noticed.

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Aspen instituted its first-ever watering restrictions.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation struggled to get Ruedi Reservoir beyond 90 percent of capacity. Diversions to the East Slope slowed to a trickle much earlier than normal. Some streams and rivers were reduced to levels that someone with long legs could jump across.

There was no comparison between this year's drought and the last severe one in 2012, according to Bill Fales of Cold Mountain Ranch south of Carbondale in the Crystal River Valley.

"This was 100 times worse," he said.

A consortium of Carbondale-area cattlemen relies on collective grazing grounds in the Jerome Park area before U.S. Forest Service grazing allotments higher up in the mountains become available. Ponds that were always dependable in the past were bone dry this year, said Fales, a rancher for 40 years. He had to truck water in for the livestock.

Fales was able to reap close to normal amounts of hay from irrigated fields in the valley floor but land he leases in the vicinity of Jerome Park west of Carbondale ran out of water early. Fields that typically produced 160 round bales of hay produced only eight this year.

"I'm lucky. I have quite a bit of hay left over from last year," Fales said.

That's critical because hay prices have soared to between $200 and $300 per ton. Meanwhile, beef prices have dropped for a variety of reasons, including retaliatory tariffs by China on U.S. farm products.

Any rancher who has to pay high prices for hay to get through the fall and winter is in a tough financial spot.

"That's a losing proposition, from my way of thinking," Fales said. At $300 per ton of hay, he doesn't see his herd making money.

Felix Tornare said he wasn't able to get any water to portions of his Milagro Ranch in Missouri Heights this summer. He had limited water from Cattle Creek and Spring Park Reservoir. It wasn't enough to irrigate all his lands so he had to decide how best to dole it out.

"We were out of water from Cattle Creek June 1," he said.

It was an incredibly dry year piled on top of a prior year that wasn't all that great.

"I've never seen it this dry, really," Tornare said.

He downsized his grass-fed beef operation two years ago, in part because of concerns about the risk with a larger herd. He has about one-third fewer cows now, so he can absorb the reduced hay production. Other ranchers and horse boarding operations aren't so lucky.

"I've seen a lot of semis pull in with hay," Tornare said.

Roaring Fork Valley native Retta Bruegger works with ranchers all over the Western Slope as a regional specialist in range management with Colorado State University Extension. Bruegger, who is based in Grand Junction, helped coordinate a workshop in Delta last month for ranchers dealing with drought. More than 100 people attended, including ranchers from the Roaring Fork Valley.

"The prime issue is not enough forage," Bruegger said.

In some areas, grazing allotments on national forest were too dry to sustain herds. Hay production in the Grand Valley was 80 percent of average.

"They have an array of bad choices," Bruegger said of ranchers. Selling off cattle is a bad option because that reduces chances for future revenue and rebuilding a herd could be more expensive down the road, she said. But paying high hay prices can be a killer for small family operations, she added. It's a decision ranchers occasionally must juggle.

"Drought is part of the reality of ranching in the western U.S.," Bruegger said.

The Cap K Ranch in the Fryingpan River Valley faced an unusual challenge this summer. Its grazing allotment on the White River National Forest is high on a ridge east of the Lake Christine Fire. The threat of the fire making a run and endangering the cows was too risky in the early days of the fire, so Cap K moved them closer to the valley floor, said ranch owner Lynn Nichols.

They were forced to use pasture that would typically be relied on later in the summer and fall, so that reduces their options.

"Fortunately we have hay left over from last season," Nichols said.

Plus, irrigators in the Fryingpan Valley were better off than most because the area had a higher snowpack than other parts of the Roaring Fork River watershed. Cap K's hay production was about normal.

"There's a lot of ranches out there that ran out of water in June," Nichols said.

Fales said the big concern in the ranching community is persistent drought. Without normal snowpack this winter, many of the springs that ranchers depend on for their herds will dry up even sooner than this summer.

The Aspen Global Change Institute is hosting a workshop on drought this month for researchers and policy makers.

Angeline Pendergrass, a project scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, is a co-organizer. She said it is clear that the climate is warming. It's less clear how that will affect precipitation.

As the climate gets warmer, it increases the evaporative demand so it's drier. One outcome could be less precipitation but more intense events, such as deluges of rain and fewer but larger snowstorms.

"One of the concerns in Colorado is having enough water," Pendergrass said.

The state's water supply depends on snowpack. Warmer conditions could result in more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow, leading to quicker runoff and potentially drier summers.

"It just might mean that conditions get more drought-y in general," she said.

However, she doesn't believe this year is necessarily a new normal.

"Every year is not going to be like this going forward," she said.