Ranchers hoping for best in worst drought in 22 years
Editor’s note – This is the secons story in a five-part series on the effect of drought in Summit County.
SILVERTHORNE – Pete Petersen’s Troublesome Creek is living up to its name.
Usually it’s babbling away this time of year. But this spring, it’s about 6 inches deep. And Petersen, who runs cattle just north of Summit County, isn’t sure how he’s going to grow hay to feed his 600 cows and their calves.
“You bet I’m worried,” he said. “There will be a lot of people who will have to sell some cows. We might have to cut the herd down. They might have to eat corn stalks for the winter. We don’t have any grass to turn them out on to.”
The state is in its third year of drought – ranchers on the Lower Blue say it’s the sixth year – and it could spell a disastrous season for the dozen or so ranchers in the northern part of the county.
Ranchers at this altitude only get one harvest a year, and if they don’t get the water they need, the crop yield and quality can be greatly diminished.
“With diminishing water you see a diminishing crop,” said Summit County Commissioner Tom Long, whose family ranch is at 8,200 feet. “A crop can get cut by two-thirds to three-quarters, depending on the drought. You can go from 300 tons to nothing. It just depends on the weather.”
Long typically grows 100 to 150 tons a year of rye grass, timothy and clover hay. “Last year was a tough year,” Long said. “We’d be lucky if we got 80 or 90 tons. In my memory, it’s the least we’ve ever seen.”
Long gets his water from the snowmelt above, which trickles into the ditches he uses to flood-irrigate his land. His ditches have no water in them yet, but he’s in better shape than those who use Black Creek across the valley in the Gore Range. Officials with the Cameo power plant in Grand Junction, which owns senior rights to that reservoir, has “called” on the plant’s water rights, saying they will need all the water allocated to them. Normally, that doesn’t occur until August, and by then, ranchers are ready to harvest. The call means some ranchers along the Gore Range won’t be able to use that water.
“That’s water rights: first in time, first in right,” Long said. “But we can’t use it if it’s not there. You fill the ditches you can fill and grow what you can get wet. The rest of it burns.”
Petersen already has called on his senior rights for water in Troublesome Creek in Grand County. It’s the earliest he’s ever had to do it, he said, and he’s never seen the creek as low as it is this spring.
“You can’t even get your feet wet,” he said. “Normally, we have all the water we need up the Troublesome. This year there’s some folks won’t put a drop of water on their hay meadow. I don’t even know if I can get water.”
Petersen said he’s only had to call on his water rights twice before, in 1977 and 1980, during severe droughts. And never has he had to call on them as early as this year.
Mike Ritschard, who owns two ranches along Troublesome Creek, said he expects to get 75 percent of the hay crop he usually would on one ranch.
“The other ranch will have no water on it this year,” he said. “Usually we pasture about two or three months. We’ll probably pasture less than half the cows, and only 30 days, at that. But that will change if we get moisture. It’s all speculation.”
A third ranch he leases will be the family’s saving grace this year. It’s on the Colorado, and Ritschard can get water right out of the river.
Agricultural water users often have junior rights to municipal water users up- and downstream, further exacerbating conditions in a drought year. Petersen knows of other ranchers on Troublesome Creek who can’t turn on their head gates because there is no water in the ditches.
“That’s the difference between a municipal user who says, “I have to have amount of water every year,'” Long said. “The agricultural user takes what they can get and grows what they can.”
Some are better off than others. Those who raise cattle can sell the animals, thus garnering some revenue while not having to spend money on cattle feed. Others have alternate sources of income.
“We’ve already sold some cows – we won’t have pasture for them,” Ritschard said. “The next 10 days (from May 8) will be critical. We may have to sell our replacement heifers, too. There won’t be enough feed. And we’re looking at having to haul water to our cows this year. People are holding onto cows with the hope we get the moisture to get through the summer.”
But the impacts go further than hay burned in the harsh sun and soil that’s dry only a foot into the ground.
“The real impact is people affected by the drought,” Long said. “The impact goes on for years. When you have a drought, everything’s poor. The cattle don’t grow as well, the horses don’t do as well, the ski industry won’t do as well, contractors won’t do as well – towns don’t do as well. We’re just going to hunker down and pray for rain.”
The emotional and psychological impact on farmers is immense during tough times, too.
“The issues of drought go well beyond the failure of the crop,” Long said. “Marriages dissolve – you’re failing and it’s due to none of your action. There’s nothing you can do but stand there and take the beating. These people have been there long enough, they’ve seen this situation more than once.
“A drought’s worse than a bad storm. It’s a slow, agonizing pain. It’s not something that’s over in a week and you can fix it. It takes years to recover from a drought – if you can come back at all. That’s what makes such a psychological impact on people.”
Until it rains, Long and others are hoping a hard frost doesn’t occur and retard the growth of the crop. Once the crop is up, however, ranchers might be out earlier than usual, taking in the harvest before it dries in the sun.
“It’s impossible to predict how much rain we’ll get,” Long said. “I’m as worried as you can be. But there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“We’re not unique to any other industry with this drought,” Ritschard said. “Boating will suffer, fishing’s going to be dismal, the large elk herds will suffer. Just talking with some of the old timers down here, they’ve never seen it this severe.”
Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or email@example.com.
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