USDA declares 7 Colorado counties disaster areas because of drought


by Marianne Goodland
Colorado Politics

The lack of snow and snowpack to feed Colorado rivers and irrigate farms has prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare a natural disaster declaration for Colorado.

The USDA issued that declaration Tuesday for seven Colorado counties, primarily in the San Luis Valley, among the hardest hit by the lack of snowmelt. According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Upper Rio Grande River, which serves six of those seven counties, is at 2 percent of snowmelt equivalent.

The USDA categorizes snowmelt equivalent as the amount of water that is contained within the snowpack. It’s the depth of water that would result if the entire snowpack was melted instantly.

The disaster declaration covers Alamosa, Archuleta, Conejos, Gunnison Hinsdale, Mineral and Rio Grande counties. All but Gunnison County are served by the Upper Rio Grande River. Gunnison County is served by the Gunnison River.

But the NRCS map shows pretty much all of southern Colorado is in bad shape because of drought.

The USDA is also making disaster assistance available to farmers and ranchers in 11 counties contiguous to those in the declaration area: Chaffee, Costilla, Delta, Huerfano, La Plata (Durango), Mesa (Grand Junction), Montrose, Ouray, Pitkin (Aspen), Saguache and San Juan.

The declaration means farmers and ranchers are eligible for emergency loans and other disaster assistance from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Those applying for emergency assistance have eight months from May 25, the date of the declaration, to apply for loans to cover actual losses.

The USDA has other financial assistance available that does not require a disaster declaration, including emergency loans for livestock, honeybees and farm-raised fish; operating loans for farm ownership; and a tree assistance program. More information on those programs is available from the USDA.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, more than 40 percent of Colorado, primarily the south and southwest, is in extreme or exceptional drought. Only the northern part of the state, served by the North Platte River, and northeastern Colorado, served by the South Platte, have so far been spared from drought. It’s a dramatic turn-around from a year ago at this time when only 6 percent of the state was in drought.

It’s unusual to have a drought declaration this early in the year, according to Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown. “Typically we will have enough moisture to get into growing season,” but that’s not happening this year, he told Colorado Politics. In those drought areas, winter wheat didn’t even come up this season. “It’s been bone-dry,”

Brown said. Brown also pointed out that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue heard first-hand about Colorado’s drought problems when he toured the state two weeks ago.