Agricultural Resilience Grows With Drought: But Challenges Remain

Lately, Colorado is dealing with more than its fair share of unpredictable weather patterns, extreme swings in temperature, catastrophic weather events, low snowpack, and reduced river flows, and of course, the impacts of prolonged drought on every part of our state.

This was especially clear during the mid-August drought tour of the Yampa River Basin, which brought us, along with nearly 50 other state and local leaders and elected officials to northwest Colorado to see the effects of the extreme and prolonged drought firsthand.

The tour stopped at reservoirs, visited public lands, and met with producers of private farms and ranches across Routt and Moffat counties, all of which have been severely affected by the drought for multiple years.

At the first stop at Little Bear Ranch in Moffat County, several ranchers discussed not only the obvious impact of drought — less water to feed and sustain their cattle and sheep — but the related and less obvious issues, such as uncontrollable noxious weeds and insects.

Rancher Nick Charchalis explained that he and many of his neighbors struggle as they consider how to forge ahead in the face of such dire circumstances. As temperatures climb and stay higher earlier in the season, ranchers are reminded of Dust Bowl days, when conservation districts were formed to combat these exact issues.

Over the past 80 years, the Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources has worked with the state’s 75 conservation districts to implement sustainable practices.

This work has been instrumental to improving soil health, providing assistance to individual producers, and supporting education and outreach efforts at the local level — work our agencies are deeply committed to continuing. But as Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River Conservation District pointed out, the demand for agricultural products like food and fiber doesn’t stop just because producers are struggling.

A harsh reality

We were joined by Gov. Jared Polis during stops at community areas like Loudy-Simpson Park and Elkhead Reservoir, where we heard speakers from water districts, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Colorado Climate Center.

They discussed the efforts to understand and address the impacts of the climate crisis, such as a continuing trend of less than average snowpack and increasing soil and air temperatures, and pointed to real-life examples of the findings of a recently released United Nations climate report.

All scientific data points to warming trends that have and will continue to significantly impact all aspects of our land, water, and food production. Increases in temperature can desiccate vegetation and soil, weakening their defenses against wildfires, flash flooding, and other catastrophic events.

The report’s data is a harsh reality for Colorado producers. Ranchers Jo and Jim Stanko and Marsha Daughenbaugh of Routt County want Coloradans to understand producers have been anticipating these difficulties and working hard to mitigate their effects and prepare for future adverse weather patterns.

Despite integrating best management practices for soil health and water efficiencies for years if not generations, the drought still means the Stankos and Daughenbaugh are unable to grow enough hay and are considering culling their herds.

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A resilient response

As more Coloradans come to understand the multi-faceted consequences of prolonged drought, we are fortunate to have examples of resilience leading the way: farmers who are conservationists, putting back into the land more than is taken out; ranchers who work together to portion out water for livestock and growing forage; and state and agency officials who are identifying the greatest needs in the field and supporting those efforts through dedicated programs and direct funding.

With $200 million in ag stimulus funds, CDA and DNR are supporting the work of conservation districts, individual producers, tribes, and other cooperative organizations in the areas of soil health, agriculture events, and loans and grants.

Funding to combat the effects of drought, address infrastructure needs, and increase water efficiencies while protecting wildlife is also available through the Colorado Water Conservation Board on behalf of the Colorado Water Plan, as well as many other areas where agencies are working collaboratively to address on the ground needs.

Physical toll exacts an emotional one

When we hear the drought warnings from those on the frontlines, we must also remember that they are in fact, the frontlines, with producers and workers bearing much of the weight so that we can continue to have food on our plates. The present physical toll also exacts an emotional one, and we know that anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues will continue to be areas where producers will need support from their fellow community members.

To that end, we’re focusing on mental health support by funding more rural health clinics throughout the state. Coloradans in agriculture know that the future is uncertain, but their determination to innovate, research opportunities, and invest in their communities and families is what keeps agriculture the backbone of Colorado and of our resilience against the impacts of drought and a changing climate.

Source: Kate Greenberg is the Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture. Dan Gibbs is the executive director of the Colorado Dept. of Natural Resources. The 2021 Drought Tour was organized by the Drought Impact Task Force, a joint effort between CDA, DNR, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, CSU Water Center, and about 20 additional agency and Ag association partners, and took place Aug. 11-12, 2021, in Routt and Moffat counties.

GJ Sentinel By Dan Gibbs and Kate Greenberg

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