Community Agriculture Alliance: The Yampa Valley — a lab for climate resilience agriculture
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Routt County ranchers are no strangers to a variable climate. A 1940 water right decree for a ditch that irrigates the Legacy Ranch south of Steamboat Springs reads, “… further owing to the gradual change in climatic conditions prevailing in the vicinity of said lands, causing considerable decrease in the annual precipitation over a period of several years last past, and especially since the year 1933, the volume of water allowed … is insufficient … to properly irrigate the land …”
That period of several years last past was the same dry period that triggered the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains, marked consecutive low flow years on the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs and followed the relatively wet period that occurred during the negotiations of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. It was quickly becoming apparent by 1940 that Colorado ranchers and farmers would have to prepare for vastly different year-to-year precipitation regimes.
Eighty years of haying and grazing later, Routt County ranchers are still adapting to variable runoff and rainy seasons, but an even greater stressor has appeared on the horizon — aridification of the Colorado River Basin.
Colorado’s emergence from a 19-year drought offers a welcome but short-lived respite to water managers that look to meet growing water demands with decreasing supplies in the face of a shifting climate.
In the absence of collaboration among the affected states, water shortages in the Colorado River Basin as a whole are likely to lead to levels in Lakes Powell and Mead dipping below minimum power generation and could trigger a call on the Colorado River Compact.
This needed collaboration is taking shape as the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan that prescribes the reoperation of federal reservoirs in the Upper Basin; cloud-seeding and nonnative vegetation control of phreatophytes; and the investigation of temporary, compensated and voluntary demand management. The impact of the latter to Yampa Valley agricultural operations is yet to be understood.
The Colorado State University Extension Office and Western Colorado Research Center will be evaluating the production, quality and recovery of mountain meadow hay grasses under demand management-type irrigation regimes at the Legacy Ranch, which is owned by the city of Steamboat Springs.
This research will also evaluate the success of alternative forage species that are drought-tolerant, including legumes, binary mixtures and grasses that are efficient at using water in the early season with limited irrigation.
Not only will this research predict the Yampa Valley’s ability to participate in a demand management program without injuring the viability of agriculture in its community, it also explores the Yampa Valley’s adaptability to a shifting climate — one with earlier runoff, lower late season flows and variable rainfall.
Routt County ranchers have persisted through a century of variable water years. Innovations in climate-adaptive forage species could enable its persistence for another unpredictable century.
Kelly Romero-Heaney is the water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs and the Routt County Municipal Representative for the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable.
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