Ranchers, fire crews prepare for the drought

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – As the weather starts to warm up, ranchers, firefighters and water managers are plotting strategy for dealing with the drought that continues to grip Aspen and the rest of Colorado.

Longtime Carbondale rancher Tom Turnbull takes some comfort from the fact that the snowpack is beefier now than last spring.

“It looks a lot better than last year despite all the doom and gloom,” he said.

Nevertheless, the snowpack isn’t great. The Independence Snotel site, an automated measuring device, shows the snowpack at just 70 percent of average east of Aspen but 130 percent of the level one year ago, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency.

In the Fryingpan River Valley east of Basalt, the snowpack at the Ivanhoe site is 98 percent of average and 133 percent of last year’s level. However, the snowpack is bleak at lower elevations of the valley. At the Kiln site, the snowpack is just 69 percent of average and at Nast Lake it’s only 39 percent.

In the Crystal River Valley south of Carbondale, the snowpack at Schofield Pass is just 75 percent of average but 119 percent of last year. It’s even more pronounced at McClure Pass, with the snowpack at 74 percent of average but 179 percent of last year, the agency reported.

Turnbull and other Roaring Fork Valley ranchers need the snow to melt slowly rather than all at once. Last year, March warmed up like a blast furnace, and no spring moisture fell.

“It started to run before anybody could use it,” Turnbull said of the snowmelt. “We have good rights, but it was hard to find water.”

More gradual warming allows water from melting snow to soak into the ground first and then replenish the rivers and streams.

It also will be critical for hayfields to receive rain at the end of April and beginning of May. Ranchers in the Roaring Fork Valley generally reported getting only two-thirds of their normal hay yield last summer because conditions were so dry. Turnbull said his son, Matt, who runs the cattle operation, will use all the hay they have stored before the cows go to high-country grazing allotments in the White River National Forest.

If the rains don’t come, it could be disastrous for cattle operations coming on the heels of last year. Some ranchers had to purchase hay at prices at or near $400 per ton, the highest in years, Turnbull said. Many ranchers in western Colorado sold off cattle last year because of the grim economics. It wasn’t worth keeping them given the high cost of feeding them.

“Four hundred dollars a ton just doesn’t cut it,” Turnbull said. The Turnbulls reduced the size of the herd only slightly, he said.

Wayne Ives, range manager for the Aspen-Sopris District of the U.S. Forest Service, said letters were sent to 17 permit holders of grazing allotments in the national forest in February alerting them that decisions on using the land will be made this summer on a case-by-case basis.

The Forest Service is trying to work with ranchers, as it did last year, to prevent adding to their hardships.

“Last year they took a pretty tough hit,” he said. “Two years in a row of that could be pretty tough.”

In some cases, ranchers have reduced the size of their herds, so they don’t need full allotments, Ives said. In other cases, the Forest Service might delay when cattle can be released onto the allotments. The earliest time in the Roaring Fork Valley is typically mid-June, he said.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District might use pastures this summer that were scheduled to be withheld from grazing in a “rest rotation” schedule, Ives said. Using those pastures spreads the impact over broader ground rather than concentrating it, he said. Many pastures bounced back well last year because of late summer rains, he noted.

If conditions worsen through the summer, ranchers might be required to move their cattle off sooner, Ives said.

The cumulative effect of two years of drought is also on the mind of Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson. He attended a Wildfire Roundtable discussion among fire chiefs and other officials in Grand Junction a couple of weeks ago that included a presentation by experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They said the drought is likely to continue, even with normal or above-average levels of moisture this spring and summer, because conditions are so dry, according to Thompson.

The 1,000-hour fuels – the largest trees in the forest as well as the pinyon and juniper – already have extremely low moisture content.

“We can’t catch up. We’re still going to be in drought,” Thompson said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor weekly map released April 2 shows all of Pitkin and Eagle counties rated in “extreme” drought. That is the fourth-worst classification of drought on a scale from 1 to 5. The entire state is rated in some level of drought. The southeast corner is the worst with “exceptional” drought. The southwest corner is best off with “moderate” drought.

Pitkin County has been rated in “extreme” drought since early January.

The condition of much of the forest is regarded as poor because of infestation such as the mountain pine beetle, other diseases and years of fire suppression.

“We’ve got decadent oak brush in every valley we have,” Thompson said.

His concern is that an average or wet spring will spur growth of grasses – which turn into flash fuels that are ignited easily when they die off during the hot weather of July and August.

“So – on guard,” Thompson said.

Fire departments in the Roaring Fork Valley will help residents be on guard. They will host presentations this spring modeled after the Ready, Set, Go! Program managed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Every Thursday in May, a different presentation will be hosted by a different fire department. The program was designed to inform residents of high-fire-risk areas how to prepare themselves and their properties against fire threats.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, numerous homes are located in what is considered the wildland-urban interface – where subdivisions are built on the edge of forests.

The Basalt Fire Department estimated that 500 homes in its district were in high-risk areas for wildfire 10 years ago. Now, Thompson said, it’s probably 1,000 homes – not because that many new houses were constructed in high-risk areas but because understanding of wildfire is greater now. A fire outside Colorado Springs last year, for example, showed how wind-whipped embers can wipe out a subdivision even if it isn’t interspersed in a forest, he said.

The presentations on the Ready, Set, Go! principles will include topics such as creating defensible space around homes and compiling kits with valuables that homeowners can leave with at a moment’s notice.

More information will be released on the presentations closer to May. The Ready, Set, Go! website is at

Thompson said he doesn’t see relief in sight in the long-range weather forecasts. That likely will have consequences on open burning, such as backyard bonfires and camping fires.

“I see us going into fire restrictions early,” Thompson said.

The ongoing drought already has spurred talks of lawn-watering restrictions in some Colorado cities and towns. Basalt Town Manager Mike Scanlon said his staff hasn’t discussed yet if there is a need for lawn-watering restrictions.

Meanwhile, Ruedi Reservoir is significantly lower now than it was at the same time last year. The reservoir is about 60 percent full with 61,383 acre-feet of water. Last year it was 70 percent full with 71,174 acre-feet.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the reservoir, generally waits for snowpack data and streamflow forecasts on May 1 to make definitive projections on whether the reservoir will fill.

“At this point, we’re skeptical it will get all the way full,” said bureau spokeswoman Kara Lamb.


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