Gov. Polis whacks water use, says drought is extreme

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users has issued a call to cut water use by 20%. The Colorado Water Conservation Board also has moved to put drought mitigation measures into effect with 40 of the state's counties in extreme drought conditions.

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association has put out a call to cut water use to 80% of normal after Gov. Jared Polis requested activation of the state’s drought mitigation plan. With 40 of the state’s counties in extreme drought, the State Drought Mitigation Task Force will activate Phase 2 of the Drought Mitigation and Response Plan.

The call by Polis did not surprise Steve Anderson of the UVWUA.

“It is typical to see the governor activate the plan this time of year,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t really do much, except perhaps allow some low-interest rates for agriculture loans.”

Anderson said that there could be calls for deeper cuts in the future if needed. “But, we are in good shape storage-wise with Ridgway and Blue Mesa basically full at this point,” he said.

There is more runoff expected from the remaining snowpack.

There is a bit more snow in the mountains than expected, given the relatively light snow fall this year. The area experienced something that Anderson calls the April hole.

“That happens when the temperature stays below freezing in April in the higher elevations and the runoff slows down,” Anderson said. With more snow staying on the ground, the runoff is delayed, which slowed the filling of the reservoirs and streams.

In a letter to all state departments, Polis said: “Under these circumstances, and based on a recommendation from the Water Availability Task Force and Directors from the Departments of Natural Resources, Agriculture, Public Safety and Local Affairs, I have decided to activate the State's Drought Mitigation and Response Plan so that specific impacts may be identified and expeditious and effective remedial action may be taken.”

Montrose, Delta, Mesa and the rest of the Western Slope counties are included in those that have been declared in extreme drought.

Colorado’s Drought Task Force — which includes leadership from the Departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Local Affairs, Public Safety, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board — determined the need to activate Phase 2 of the Drought Plan on June 18, after a third of the state reached extreme drought conditions.

Phase 2 officially directs the Drought Task Force to assess initial damages and impacts of drought in areas experiencing severe or extreme drought and to recommend mitigation measures.

This phase also activates the Agricultural Impact Task Force, which will conduct an initial assessment on physical and economic impacts and recommend opportunities for incident mitigation.

Water Conservation Board member and state Rep. Marc Catlin’s initial response was similar to Anderson’s. Catlin recalled that when he was appointed manager of the UVWUA two decades ago, the drought call came on his second day of the job.

“For the next month we will be going through our biggest draw on the system,” Catlin said. “This is when we are watering corn, beans, and everything else. The hay growers have just taken their first cut and they have to water now to get the second cut growing.”

Catlin said most of our farmers and ranchers have been here before and all have plans to cover their needs when a call to cut comes out. The call to cut use will have little effect on domestic water usage.

“You know we only get about 9 inches of rain a year and a little snow here in the valley,” Catlin said. “We’ve learned to manage it pretty well.”

The lack of rain in the higher country is a big concern to the livestock producers who now have cows and calves in the summer range, which got precious little rain this spring. Some of the ranches are starting to think about hauling water to the stock. A lot of that water will come from their share of the UVWUA pool.

No one is talking yet about things being as difficult as 2018 and other dry years.

The state Drought Mitigation Plan is about 170 pages long, with appendices. Like the overall water plan, it too takes up a lot of words, time, and space with planning, drought history, and strategy to identify drought conditions, funding, maintenance of the plan and finally about 25 pages of actual how-to, when it comes to what needs to be done when it does not rain for a long time.

According to the boots-on-the-ground folks like Catlin and Anderson, the best mitigation comes through the efforts of the users who depend on the water. The experienced farmers know exactly what they are going to do when calls to cut usage come out.

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