Community Agriculture Alliance: Be realistic about today |

Community Agriculture Alliance: Be realistic about today

Dale McCall
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

The past 18 months have been trying on every level for all of us. And the past six months have been especially difficult for those of us who make a living farming and ranching. While we may have faith in the future, we need to be realistic about the realities of today. At the top of the list of difficulties for production agriculture is the ongoing drought across the Western U.S.

This summer the Bureau of Reclamation issued the first-ever Tier 1 shortage declaration based the low water level in Lake Mead. This means Arizona and other western states are facing severe reductions in water supplies, with even deeper restrictions on the horizon. Lake Mead, just outside of Las Vegas, is the largest reservoir in the U.S. It hasn’t been this low since the 1930s when the reservoir was first filled. There are many reasons why this situation is unfolding.

The snowpack in Colorado is lagging well behind average. Demand for water is increasing as major cities double and redouble in size. And, frankly, the climate is hotter overall. The latter may be a new normal, rather than reflecting a season or two of drought. Some call this aridification, a long-term change in the regional climate.

The second largest reservoir in the U.S., Lake Powell, is formed by Glen Canyon Dam in southern Utah. This lake, too, is receding as inflows are not keeping pace with demand. In addition to providing water for production agriculture, drinking water for places, including Las Vegas, and encouraging recreational opportunities, both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are tasked with generating electricity.

As you might guess, electrical generation is off considerably at both dams, and the reliable output is dropping daily. Residents (and governments) of Phoenix and Los Angeles have a vested interest in maintaining water levels to generate electricity that also “flows” west.

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Farmers and ranchers in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming have been dealing with dry conditions for years and across every river basin (as well as the drawdown of the Ogallala Aquifer). Colorado’s unique role as a “water producing state” is being tugged at and tested by downriver states to the east and west. Producers have stepped up conservation efforts through new water management techniques and technology.

As a general farm organization with members from coast to coast, Farmers Union is well positioned to work with other stakeholders and with government agencies to assure agriculture is at the forefront of strategy development to find solutions.

The ongoing dry conditions are causing additional problems for farmers and ranchers. Wild fires are causing an extended run of days with poor air quality. This puts all outdoor activities — think farmworkers — at risk. As much as rain is welcome, even small showers over burn scars from last year’s fires have resulted in road closures.

The weeks-long shutdown of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon took place just as farmers needed to get fruits and vegetables from the Western Slope to buyers on the Front Range. Detours took countless additional hours and required countless tanks of expensive fuel. Meanwhile, dry weather led to a significant grasshopper invasion.

Agriculture is one production industry that is dependent entirely on the weather. And weather extremes cause cascading effects that do damage long after the event occurred. Too much water in too short of a time causes flooding. Too little water during the growing season can kill a crop. It can take years for a farm or ranch operation to recover.

One final thought, here. Agriculture and tourism are both hurt by severe weather events. Snow skiing, fishing, hunting and rafting are often the economic lifeblood of rural communities.

Only by working together — collaboration and cooperation — will we find win-win situations. If we are reduced to competing against each other — be it industries or states — we will all lose.

Dale McCall is president of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

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