Farmers have a taxing job growing crops due to water rights and, now, a multi-year drought, said Montrose County Commissioner Sue Hansen.
Those concerns were brought to the forefront during the Western Slope Water Summit — held Tuesday morning at the Montrose County Event Center. The group mostly discussed the water shortage and the drought crisis on the Western Slope.
Hansen said the county wanted farmers and producers to know about those challenges and about other potential obstacles under the new drought contingency plan.
“Obviously, … our water storage capabilities are very low,” she said. “The idea was they (ranchers) might know a little bit but they probably haven’t heard from all the powers that be what might happen in that situation.”
“One of the things that they have to take away from this is it’s (the drought) real and it’s serious, said State. Rep. Marc Catlin, a speaker at the summit and the former Montrose County Water Rights Development coordinator.
“Everybody in this room has a part to play. It’s not going to be your neighbor versus you. It’s going to be all of us. Because if we get curtailed — because of a recall on the river — it changes life as we know it.”
Hansen said the drought, which has lasted for more than 10 years, has come to a tipping point for farmers.
“It’s been going on for a long time,” Hansen said. “It’s gotten to a critical point that they want us to be aware.”
As far as the effects of the drought, residents need look no further than the Gunnison River.
According to the Colorado River District, the river is snared between climate change-driven drought and overuse by the Lower Basin states to which a sure quantity of water must be transported each year, under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
The compact divides Colorado River water between seven Upper Basin states, including Colorado, and three Lower Basin states. A portion also goes to Mexico.
The Upper Basin water is kept in Lake Powell and also feeds a major hydroelectric project. Too little water puts the Upper Basin states in jeopardy of breaching the compact by failing to deliver the right amount to the Lower Basin — where the population is steadily growing.
“The demand in the population of the Lower Basin is great,” Hansen said. “As they build out they’re demanding more and more water. And they have been getting more and more water over the years and it’s at our expanse. We need to be on the same page about what those risks are going forward in the future.”
Catlin, who has decades of experience in water issues, said due to an over-usage of water in the Lower Basin, Lake Mead, in Nevada, has felt that impact.
“We’ve done our part,” he said. “(But) now to be asked to do, even more, they have to start saying, ‘This is what we will do.’ Rather than, ‘We’re going to try.’”
The state representative also singled out Arizona’s water use — a subject brought up by a local grower during Tuesday’s event.
“Arizona continued to use more, but that’s not going to be good for the whole project,” Catlin said. “That’s not going to turn out well for somebody.”
Andy Mueller, Colorado River District general manager, added the state’s farmers “are battling urban areas for their livelihood.”
“I think we, as an Upper Basin, need to put the hammer down and need to call them out in terms of what they’re doing,” he said.
Hansen said she and her fellow commissioners will discuss whether the county can do anything on its end to help alleviate those concerns. She singled out the community’s increasing population, new farmers’ ignorance of how irrigation works and how that affects other nearby ranchers as a few things the county commissioners “can take a lead on.”
“We’ve got to figure out how to manage that,” she said.
Andrew Kiser is the Montrose Daily Press’ sports/business writer. Follow him on Twitter @andrew_kpress.