Effects of drought could have long-term consequences

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by Marissa Lorenz
Grand County leaders discussed a Stage I Drought Preparation plan on Tuesday, as the County recognized “well below average precipitation, and region-wide fire bans indicating the need for local residents, businesses, agriculture, and visitors to use less water.” The summer’s low-water conditions mean ongoing environmental and economic impact for local ranchers and the local economy.

Grand County Planner Joanie Lyons presented to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) with a PowerPoint presentation explaining what the Stage I designation means. She supported the September 3 announcement of a Stage I drought designation by the Grand County Drought Preparedness Committee, a subgroup of community members from all local towns and jurisdictions, water providers, fire officials, and watershed experts.

After a review of drought indicators, the committee agreed unanimously that Grand County should move from the Drought Watch stage declared in late June to a Stage I drought

Declaration, stating that “2/3 of the county are in ‘extreme drought’ and the remaining third [west Grand County] is in ‘severe drought,’ according to the United States Drought Monitor.

“Precipitation was only 30% of average in August, and only slightly better in July. These conditions paired with region-wide fire bans indicate the need for local residents, businesses, agriculture, and visitors to use less water,” stated a recent Grand County press release. “With this in mind, the Committee encourages the Grand County community and its visitors to do the following during this stage of drought.”

Degrees of drought are dependent on several different factors and, in Grand County, weather and climate conditions can result in different designations. West Grand County, including Kemmling and Parshall, are currently designated as in a D3 classification, meaning an area “where major crop and pasture losses are common, fire risk is extreme, and widespread water shortages can be expected requiring restrictions. The highest category, exceptional drought, or D4, corresponds to an area experiencing exceptional and widespread crop and pasture losses, fire risk, and water shortages that result in water emergencies.”

But droughts mean more than dry hot weather.

“Drought seasons like the one we are experiencing now have significant impacts to Grand County’s ranchers, agricultural producers, and ultimately their crops,” informs Joanie Lyons, Grand County Planner and Drought specialist. “Low precipitation and dry climates, of course, are not the best conditions for the agriculture industry to operate in.”

“Our goal when we started the process of developing the Drought Preparedness Plan last summer was to make sure that all members of our community that are impacted by droughts economically, including the agriculture community, would be included in developing mitigations in drought seasons. We hope to continue to be a steward to the agriculture community throughout Grand County as we continue to evaluate our drought conditions this year, and in the future.”

And the impacts already being felt by area ranchers may continue into the near future, regardless of upcoming conditions.

Drought hits ranchers in the long term

Jodi Hill, fifth generation Grand County rancher and 2019 Middle Park Conservation District Conservationist-of-the-Year, describes his concern for himself and his family. “I’m a fifth generation rancher and my grandkids are 7th generation ranchers in Grand County,” he says. “But even if water conditions are back to normal next year, you can’t just jump back into 100% ideal soil conditions. There are big cracks in the ground. And even if we have a normal rain year next year, it will take a few years to get the meadows back to 100%” Kremmling area rancher Dave Sammons further details the economic concerns. He states that “pastures ended 20 to 25 days earlier than they should have. It means many ranchers are 50% back on hay production, compared to normal.”

Sammons continues to explain the longer-term impacts. “Cattle producers, if they’re going to keep the same number of cattle over the winter that they normally do, are going to have to buy hay. And the price of hay is going to be very expensive because we’re not the only ones who’ve had a bad year. Hay producers are selling at a premium.”
County Commissioner Merrit Linke from a pioneer ranching family also concurs. “Water is always an important issue in Grand County, as a headwaters county. A lot of our water goes east. There’s always a big demand for it going west also. It’s always a delicate balance between what’s an important use and what’s not.”

“As a rancher, people are reporting 50% to 70% lesser hay yield this year, compared to 2018 and 2002, both notoriously bad hay years. This year seems even worse,” Linke says. “While May and June seemed promising, with a higher-than-average snow pack, July and August have shown day after day of dry hot winds with almost no moisture. It means lots of producers are short for hay crops.”

“A lot of producers are shipping out cattle early who graze in Grand County over the summer. It’s probably going to hurt financially. I don’t know what the long-term effects will be for sure, but it’s certainly
of concern to lots of people.”

Katlin Miller, Executive Director of the Middle Park Conservation District echoes the economic and environmental concerns.

“Hay producers are 30% to 70% down this year,” Miller reports. “The drought has impacted even those ranchers with water and senior water rights. There’s nothing better than rain to clean and nourish your crop.”

“Drought can have an impact that isn’t yet realized,” she continues, “in sense that beef producers looking into this winter may have to look into purchasing hay, driving to pick it up, and even going out-of-state to purchase it. It may impact having to sell cattle earlier as well, and holding onto cattle for fall, in a time when cattle prices are already not that great.”

“There can be a trickle down effect with larger impacts. Much depends on how much ranchers have carry-over from hay production from the last year or not. If not, there can be a delayed impact and financial concerns can show up years down the road. Hopefully, this will not last into next year.”

Drought preparedness tips

The Grand County Information team suggests that residents follow drought-preparedness suggestions for the rest of the season. Recommendations include the following:

  • Use only what you need
  • Water lawn no more than two days per week from 6 p.m. – 10 a.m.
  • Encourage visitors in hotels and lodging to change linens only by request
  • Ask local restaurants to serve water only by request
  • Don’t refill pools, hot tubs, or water features

For more information or updated details about Grand County’s drought suggestions, visit Co.Grand.Co.US.