Vanishing Rio Grande puts pressure on farmers during extreme drought |

Vanishing Rio Grande puts pressure on farmers during extreme drought

Crop circles are seen from the air near Alamosa, Colorado on June 13, 2018. Flight for aerial photos was provided by Eco Flight. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

MONTE VISTA — Seldom has the Rio Grande, the nation’s fourth-longest river and the one that nourishes the most drought-prone terrain, flowed so low.

One headwaters tributary curling around the Great Sand Dunes National Park has dried up. The main stem of the Rio Grande probably won’t make it out of Colorado to New Mexico this summer, state water authorities calculate, let alone Texas and Mexico.

The federal government has designated the San Luis Valley, like most of the land along the Rio Grande’s route to the Gulf of Mexico, as in “extreme drought.” And years of gains by farmers ordered to replenish a depleted underground aquifer, the water equivalent of a savings account, may be lost if farmers with wells turn back to pumping to survive.

“It’s getting scary. We’re a way over-appropriated system,” said alfalfa grower Greg Higel as he stood at the edge of his 9,000 acres by a paltry, ankle-deep flow, shaking his head. He doesn’t have the option of drawing from a well. “We’re going to be out of water in 10 days.”

The pressure hitting food growers along the Rio Grande headwaters in southern Colorado reflects a widening water squeeze that has revealed the precariousness of life across the southwestern United States, where prolonged dry times and climate change increasingly force adaptation.

Exceptionally low snow in the Rocky Mountain region this year, at 37 percent of “normal” atop the Rio Grande River Basin, is playing out in water volumes less than 20 percent of the 120-year average.

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