Drought brings out the best among neighboring ranches | AspenTimes.com

Drought brings out the best among neighboring ranches

Times of drought often bring out stories of fights over water rights, but in at least one case in the Roaring Fork Valley the hard times brought out the best in folks.

The Sopris Mountain Ranch knew it was going to be hard pressed to grow a decent hay crop this summer. Rather than use the limited water it had available from West Sopris Creek just for the sake of using it, the residents there passed it downstream to the Fender Ranch, a working cattle operation.

“Our livelihood doesn’t depend on being able to produce this hay like some of these other ranchers,” said Greg Hunt, ranch manager at Sopris Mountain Ranch.

He typically irrigates about 500 acres of pastures and fields at the 2,000-acre ranch. The property was converted to a large-lot subdivision in the late 1980s. Many of the 40 homeowners have horses, and horses are also boarded there.

Hunt said he realized in March that he wouldn’t have enough water for irrigation of fields so he started making arrangements to buy the hay he needed to feed the horses through winter.

Drought conditions were exacerbated by cold weather at night, which lasted almost to July. Hunt said the crop couldn’t grow without warmer temperatures at night.

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“We couldn’t make one bale,” said Hunt.

By June he realized it was fruitless to divert the water the ranch had rights to use. With the blessing of the ranch’s board of directors, he decided to share it. He informed Bill and Willie Fender, a father-and-son ranching team on Sopris Creek, that he would send more water their way.

“We took what we needed and gave them a little more,” Hunt said.

He definitely wasn’t looking for any credit for the good deed. For a guy who has been running ranches in the valley for the better part of 30 years, it was just something you do for a neighbor during tough times.

But for water commissioner Bill Blakeslee, Sopris Mountain Ranch’s actions were inspirational. Blakeslee is probably more aware than anyone in the valley of the good and bad deeds that drought brings out. As an employee of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, he helps administer the water rights from Glenwood Springs to Independence Pass, so he sees it all.

He is the person who must turn off headgates to individual landowners’ ditches where the water is needed by someone with senior rights.

“In a couple of drainages, some people gave up their water to help their neighbors,” said Blakeslee. “That renews your faith in mankind.”

Hunt said Sopris Mountain Ranch is already feeding hay to its horses because there wasn’t enough grass in pastures to support them all. Typically, they wouldn’t be feeding hay until sometime in October.

Hunt found enough hay to get through the winter. He didn’t want to disclose how much the ranch spent, although he indicated it is a long way into five digits.

For Hunt, 52, and his 54-year-old ranch hand, purchasing hay and handling the 75-pound bales all summer had an added benefit. They figure they have put up about “one million pounds of hay apiece,” which whipped them into shape.

Hunt’s initial contracts to purchase hay were for $4 and $5 per bale. Those contracts were made before it became apparent just how bad the drought would get and how high hay prices would climb. Later in the summer, Hunt said, some of those sellers “wouldn’t honor the contracts.”

On the other hand, local hay sellers like Reno Cerise of Basalt and Tom Clark of Emma have charged a fair price and haven’t gouged desperate buyers, Hunt said.

“This brings out the good in some people, and it brings out the greed in some people,” Hunt said.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]