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Daniel Fullmer inspects crops at his regenerative farm outside Durango. Photo by Jeremy Wade Shockley

A Megadrought Is Hurting Colorado Farmers

Southwestern Colorado’s Mancos Valley had long been thought of as an agricultural promised land, seemingly resistant to the ravages of climate change. There had been dry years, of course. But, along with acres and acres of crops, the blissful notion of relative immunity perished in 2021.

When Mike Nolan started farming in southwestern Colorado a little more than a decade ago, the region’s agricultural community considered the Mancos Valley a utopia of sorts. It was, they believed, one of the last best places to farm in an era of rising temperatures, crippling drought, and devastating pestilence. The gentle terrain, nestled among high mesas in the shadow of the La Plata Mountains’ 13,000-foot peaks, had endured a few drier-than-normal years, but it typically avoided the scorching summers and associated pests that plagued lower-elevation ag land in the Montezuma Valley to the west or the La Plata River drainage to the east. Even at 7,000 feet in elevation, an adequate number of frost-free days brought tomatoes and eggplants to fruition, with a little springtime help from a greenhouse. Best of all, and most important in the arid West, the Mancos Valley had long enjoyed relatively secure water, making this valley a sweet spot for growing myriad crops that ended up on Centennial State dinner tables.

In healthy snowpack years, water, climate, soil, and farmers work together to stitch the summertime Mancos Valley into a verdant quilt, replete with apple orchards scattered among alfalfa fields and hay-bale-lined pastures bordering rows of cabbage, broccoli, and squash. It can make for a positively idyllic scene.

That’s not how most folks would describe the valley in 2021. Over the past few years, worrisome trends that had been building in previous decades began colliding, resulting in what appears to be a critical inflection point. After 22 years of meager winters, increasingly monsoon-free summers, higher and higher temperatures, and swarms of crop-hungry grasshoppers, the valley’s lush blanket finally began to fray under the strain. While the patchwork still includes a square of green here and there, it is interspersed with dusty beige, burnt umber, and the brilliant purple of thistle blooms, the unmistakable symbol of a fallowed field.

So dire was the situation this year that Nolan, 40, and his life and business partner, Mindy Perkovich, 36, who moved Mountain Roots Produce to the Mancos Valley eight years ago, decided to end their season early. They shut down operations shortly after Labor Day and then jumped into off-site jobs to pay the bills. They aren’t the only ones: With the entire Western Slope experiencing some form of drought, ditch-feeding streams running at about half of average flows, and irrigators receiving as little as five percent of their normal allotments, hundreds of farmers are in similar situations. Some observers of agriculture see the warming, drying climate—here and elsewhere—as an existential threat to the entire industry, one that has been an integral part of the region since long before white people colonized it in the late 1800s.

 

That may be the case, but right now Nolan is simply trying to save his small vegetable farm. “Everything is compounding,” Nolan says. “Years ago I would say, ‘Hopefully it doesn’t hail’ or ‘I hope we don’t get an early frost.’ But the last few years—with the droughts, the heat, the fires, the grasshoppers—have felt downright apocalyptic at times.”

Drought, even on a Biblical scale, is not a new phenomenon in southwestern Colorado. The dendrochronological record—the ecological story told by the rings of trees—reveals a string of exceptionally dry years during the mid-1100s. The lack of rainfall wreaked havoc among the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, adjacent to the Mancos Valley, and relied on direct precipitation to water their crops. A subsequent multidecade megadrought a century after that may have, in part, prompted the ancient Pueblo people to pack up and migrate southward to the banks of the Rio Grande in New Mexico and the mesas in northeastern Arizona.

More than 750 years later, during the dramatically arid winter of 2001-02, modern-day farmers in the Four Corners region began to comprehend the situation the Ancestral Puebloans faced. A cold season devoid of storms had left the area’s highest peaks bereft of snow. Spring runoff failed to materialize. Megafires broke out months before fire season normally arrived.

As the forests burned, fields withered. Junior water rights holders were forced to shut off their ditches so senior holders could get their full shares, as water law decrees. Ranchers sold off thousands of head of cattle, and many crops simply died before the harvest. It was a devastating year, yet few longtime farmers gave up, because, historically, dry years tend to be followed by abundantly wet years.

A very low McPhee Reservoir. Photo by Jeremy Wade Shockley

This time, however, history did not repeat. Drought conditions lingered for years. The dearth of precipitation wasn’t the only problem, though. Temperatures also had been increasing. Warmth, combined with other factors like wind, can alter runoff, causing snow to dissolve early or even sublimate before it has a chance to melt, robbing the rivers and soil of valuable moisture. The effects were accumulating and manifesting, but often in ways people tended to overlook or explain away. Overall soil moisture declined, beetles turned the forests brown, larger and more intense fires burned at higher elevations, radical temperature swings—due to extremely low humidity—killed fruit trees, and Lake Powell, which serves as a barometer of the region’s hydrologic health, continued to shrink.

Still, most southwestern Colorado summers since 2002 had felt fairly normal. Farmers generally had enough water, townsfolk were able to run their sprinklers, and rafters could float local rivers without scraping bottom until early August. When Mike Nolan bought 13 acres of land in the Mancos Valley in 2013, he didn’t envision a future in which the ditches would run dry.

Maybe he should have. “We’re in a long, drawn-out drought period,” says Darrin Parmenter, the La Plata County director for the Colorado State University Extension Office, which advises and educates farmers and gardeners. In scientific terms, it’s actually a megadrought—a dry spell lasting at least two decades—much like the one that plagued the ancient Pueblo people nearly a millennium ago. Those historical droughts eventually subsided. Most climate models suggest our current situation will only worsen, since it is a result of, at least in part, ever-increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

In fact, some climate scientists believe the term megadrought doesn’t adequately describe what’s happening in the West, because the definition implies an eventual course correction. These experts prefer the term “aridification,” which suggests the gradual change of a region from a wetter to a drier climate. If they are right, it appears that 2002 was really a harbinger of the new normal.

Nolan likes to joke that he attended one of the nation’s premier agricultural universities—the University of California, Davis—yet majored in English literature. After graduating, the California native ended up working on a friend’s small, organic farm. He enjoyed it but knew nothing about the technical aspects of soil health or plant nutrition, so he enrolled in what was then known as the Farm & Garden Apprenticeship program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After working on farms in California, New Mexico, North Carolina, and southwestern Colorado, Nolan started Mountain Roots Produce on leased land near Hesperus in 2010. Three seasons later, he moved his operation to land he purchased just south of Mancos.

Meanwhile, Perkovich was working an office job in Telluride in 2010 when she tried to sign up for a community-supported agriculture program and ended up interning on the farm instead. She fell in love with ag life, quit her job, and started her own farm outside of Ridgway. It was just a short drive away, at an agriculture conference in Montrose in 2015, that she met Nolan. Two years later, they moved in together, merged their businesses, and eased into a well-choreographed division of labor. Their farm was profitable, allowing the two to earn a living from selling their crops.

Hana Fullmer at Tierra Vida Farm. Photo by Jeremy Wade Shockley

Although they were relative newcomers to farming in the Mancos Valley, Nolan and Perkovich swiftly learned about the natural rhythms of the area. During normal winters, more than a foot of snow can blanket the fields at Mountain Roots Produce and surrounding farms, replenishing the soil moisture and turning the earth into boot-stealing muck. When the ground thaws, the couple plants potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and another couple of dozen varieties of vegetables by hand. In adjoining plastic-covered greenhouses they raise leafy greens and starters for heat-loving crops, such as tomatoes and peppers.

When the spring runoff gushes down from the mountains, Nolan uses water from ditches fed by the small but reliably robust Mancos River until the stream dwindles later in the season. At that point, water stored in Jackson Gulch Reservoir is piped to the property. Typically, the monsoon pattern arrives just as the water runs low, dumping air-cooling, crop-sustaining, and reservoir-replenishing rain nearly every afternoon.

In the height of the growing season, Nolan’s lanky frame can be found atop a 60-year-old, faded red Farmall tractor, his face protected from the sun by a thick black beard and the tattered bill of a trucker’s cap. Perkovich, who has an easy smile and long brown hair that often spills out from under a straw hat, prunes and harvests tomatoes and makes the trip to Telluride once a week to deliver boxes to their community-supported agriculture subscribers and produce to a farm stand. After the couple merged their farms, they began hiring full-time employees; in 2020, they had two. They had been planning to bring on an additional farmhand and an intern for summer 2021. By mid-May, though, it was clear that wasn’t going to be possible—or necessary.

Although this past winter didn’t deliver much snow, it certainly didn’t foretell a devastating summer, says Parmenter, who has been advising area farmers from the CSU extension office for 14 years. Snow levels were slightly below average, a sign that streams would likely run at near-normal levels. But that simply didn’t happen. Melting snow was pilfered—evaporated by warm temperatures and wind or sucked up by soil depleted by two decades of dryness—before reaching reservoirs. “The snowmelt just didn’t run off,” Parmenter says. “Instead of going into the river, it was all used up recharging soil moisture. It has to go through that sponge before it gets to the water table.”

With no spring runoff to speak of and sustained low streamflow levels along the Western Slope, many reservoirs were already half empty at the beginning of the irrigating season. Ditch companies—founded to create efficient delivery systems of H2O in ag communities, they often own senior water rights and sell shares of those rights to farmers and ranchers—warned their shareholders to prepare for the worst. Ming and Garry Adams, who have a working farm on their Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch in McElmo Canyon southwest of Cortez, did just that. After 2018, the last really dry year, they cut back their cattle herd by two-thirds and otherwise scaled down production. This past spring, the situation at their ranch looked similarly grim. “This year was a little bit unnerving, considering the stock ponds were empty come spring,” Garry says. “It was the worst drought we’ve seen in 16 years.”

Driving around Mancos or Cortez or McElmo Canyon in late May and early June, you couldn’t miss the signs. Scrawled on cardboard or painted on pieces of plywood and affixed to fences were the words “No Hay.” Alfalfa for hay is by far the biggest crop in Montezuma County and dominates irrigated acreage across the Interior West. It also needs an ample supply of water all summer. With about 90 percent of the Western United States in drought, the “No Hay” signs began to proliferate, showing up from Steamboat Springs to southern Arizona. The situation may have been most dire in Montezuma County, though.

The Mancos River had been reduced to a trickle by June, and Jackson Gulch Reservoir was at about 40 percent capacity, according to Nolan, who is president of the Mancos Conservation District. While irrigators could have drained the reservoir to keep their ditches flowing, the Mancos Water Conservancy District’s elected board members were forced to make a difficult decision: to forsake their portions to keep water flowing from taps in the town of Mancos and in Mesa Verde National Park, both of which also rely on the reservoir.

The decision meant irrigators lost water in early to mid-June. This kind of transfer of water from farms to towns—sometimes voluntary, other times not—occurs across the West on varying scales. On Colorado’s Front Range, municipal water companies temporarily lease water from farmers during dry years and sometimes purchase water rights altogether, a practice called “buy and dry” that leads to permanently fallowed fields. Because of an official shortage declaration on the Colorado River made in August by the federal government, Arizona farmers who rely on the river’s water will mostly be cut off next year to allow Phoenix residents to continue to take showers.

The water rights attached to Nolan’s land date to the 1880s, but he knew the privileges afforded him by water law’s “first in time, first in right” credo wouldn’t be enough. After Nolan and Perkovich estimated the deleterious effect the lack of water would have on cash crops and calculated the grasshopper effect, they laid off their employees. “It was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” Nolan says, “but it was smart as far as the financial preservation of the business goes.” They planted just one acre of crops instead of the usual six or seven.

Farmers in other parts of Montezuma County and in adjacent Dolores County—where the largest town is known as the Pinto Bean Capital of the World—rarely fared better. Those who irrigate get their water from the McPhee Reservoir on the Dolores River. Thanks to consistently paltry flows in the Dolores, though, McPhee’s surface level has fallen by some 15 feet over the past year. To keep the lake from drying out altogether, water managers have released virtually no water from the dam this year, leaving the river downstream an unboatable, stagnant, warm dribble that’s eviscerating fish populations.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s 7,700-acre agricultural operation in the southern part of Montezuma County is McPhee’s largest single irrigator. The Ute people, likely some of Colorado’s first residents, technically have the most senior water rights in the region, dating to 1868. Yet because those rights are for the Dolores River and the river outlet is 39 miles from its land, the tribe couldn’t put the water to beneficial use until McPhee and its canals were built in the 1980s—essentially giving the Utes a priority date more than 100 years later than it should be. As such, the tribe’s three-decade-old farm operation received little more than a spritz this past summer.

Michael Vicenti, irrigation manager at the Ute Mountain Ute farm. Photo by Jeremy Wade Shockley

The operation normally runs 110 center-pivot sprinklers; this year, just eight showered the fields. While alfalfa farmers in the region typically get at least three cuttings of hay per year, the farm only got one from its top revenue-earning crop and had to lay off half of its employees. “We’ve had a few drought years since we got started in 1990,” says Simon Martinez, general manager of the Ute Mountain Ute Farm & Ranch Enterprise, “but nothing as drastic as this in terms of water cutbacks.”

Every farmer in the region is grappling with the drought and the heat, but the pain isn’t distributed equally. Farmers around Cortez who own shares of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company, which along with its predecessor has been diverting Dolores River water into hundreds of miles of canals and ditches since the 1890s, received about half of their allotted water. Their ditches were still flowing as of early August—a feat made possible by dredging the bottom of McPhee Reservoir to get the measly remains of water through the outtake—long after others had been shut off. Even the Adamses, in McElmo Canyon, were able to escape the worst of the drought because they were able to lease water stored in a small reservoir near Cortez, which tided them over until an arroyo-filling monsoon arrived in mid-July.

Geography plays favorites, too. To the east of Montezuma County, La Plata County irrigators on the aptly dubbed Dryside of the county got even less water than they’re used to, which isn’t much, leaving nearly all the farmland brown. Those on the Florida River—such as Tierra Vida Farm, owned by Hana and Daniel Fullmer—had only a few weeks of irrigation water. Meanwhile, farmers who draw from the Animas River, which runs through Durango, had sufficient H2O. “Your location, the size of the reservoir, the size of the catch basin, and the seniority of the water rights,” Hana says, “can all play a big role in how much water you get.”

In mid-June, Mountain Roots Produce’s fields are alive—with grasshoppers. One step into the straight rows and thousands of leggy, herbivorous insects leap at the vibration. Mike Nolan sighs, knowing the crop-chewers, which have reproduced in droves thanks to a spate of mostly rain-free summers and relatively warm winters, are just another facet of aridification. Obviously worn down by circumstance, Nolan explains that the timing of the current crisis is especially cruel.

Last year, in the wake of the pandemic’s initial wave, desire for locally grown produce skyrocketed, making small-scale vegetable farming just a little more financially viable. “It was insane,” Nolan says. “It didn’t matter what you had, you could sell it.” Since then, new Colorado residents, many of them with disposable cash, have left Texas and California and flocked to towns like Mancos, Durango, and Telluride as part of the so-called Zoom Boom, driving up demand even further.

But the climatic conditions have made it almost impossible for farmers without secure water supplies to feed hungry customers and capitalize on the growing market. Meanwhile, the same Zoom Boom that’s fueling demand is significantly boosting already high property prices, making it virtually impossible for farmers—both novices and veterans—to purchase or even lease land, particularly in the most water-secure areas. The same phenomenon is also putting pressure on financially strapped farmers to sell out for a hefty profit. “That is the problem,” says Hana, whose Tierra Vida community-supported agriculture waitlist has quadrupled in the era of COVID-19. “Drought is hard to deal with, but more and more producers are saying the elephant in the room is land access. The next generation of farmers is getting priced out of the game.”

Nolan and Perkovich aren’t ready to cash out yet, but the prospect of another dry year is forcing them to reconsider their business model. They may not farm at all next year and get off-the-farm jobs instead. They’re also considering building a house on their property to rent long-term for extra income.

While it’s too early to tell what kinds of losses the region’s ranchers and farmers will tally this year, they are likely to be substantial. The 2002 drought resulted in a 75 percent drop in Montezuma County alfalfa production from the previous year, and dry bean production was cut in half. This year promises to be as bad or worse. The Ute Mountain Ute farm will sell less than a tenth of its usual amount of alfalfa hay, most of which goes to dairy farms in Texas. Other hay farmers are forecasting similar losses.

Scarcity also begets high prices. Livestock operators have to pay more for the hay they feed their cattle, forcing them to cull their herds. (Southwest Colorado’s cow population plummeted from 270,000 to 190,000 during the 2002 drought.) It’s more difficult to track the hit to small-scale vegetable producers and how that ripples through the economy, but it’s fair to say it’s been disruptive.

Parmenter laments the fact that it’s become challenging to rationalize dispensing the same advice he’s doled out for many years. His job, after all, has been to promote farming, growing produce, and the purchase of local food. He’s simply not sure what to say these days. “We’re going to have to grow food in places that have more water and are less extreme,” he says. “That has been the Mancos Valley for a long time.” The region’s most water-secure place these days is the fertile Animas Valley north of Durango, where exorbitant property values have made the land far more economical for growing houses than any sort of crop.

Mike Nolan with his trusty Farmall tractor. Photo by Jeremy Wade Shockley

With many nearby fields reduced to dust, the chocolate-cake-like texture of the Fullmers’ soil feels like a small, moist miracle. Thanks to years spent enriching the dirt through regenerative farming, Hana says Tierra Vida Farm was able to make it through the rest of the summer with only the water they stored in a small pond (for which they have historical storage rights), a remarkable feat considering their ditches fed by the Florida River and Lemon Reservoir stopped flowing in early summer. They use no synthetic soil additives, practice minimal till, do crop rotation to build up nutrients, and, most important, have 300 chickens that they rotate through their cover-crop beds to eat insects, break up the soil, and add nitrogen in the form of poop as they go. “That’s been a real game changer,” she says.

The result is soil with unusually high percentages of organic material, which better holds the limited amount of irrigation water and makes a more suitable environment for microbes and fungi. Fungi can reach out into the soil, find water, and “bring it back in and trade it with the plant in exchange for sugars the plant is getting from photosynthesis,” Hana says. “It’s a really beautiful relationship.”

The Fullmers’ experience suggests the situation in southwestern Colorado isn’t hopeless. Under the right conditions, some degree of adaptation is possible—but only if a farm receives some water. Parmenter advises small vegetable producers to shift high-value crops to drip-irrigation greenhouses and to focus more on growing during shoulder seasons, when it’s not so hot. He also says consumers can do their part by subscribing to community-supported agriculture programs before the season begins, “so if there is a drought or plague of grasshoppers you incur some of the risk with the farmer.”

By making the irrigation networks more efficient—piping ditches to stem the loss of billions of gallons each summer via evaporation and leakage—farmers could wring more out of the increasingly scarce water supply, says Jay Loschert, the education and outreach coordinator for the Montezuma Land Conservancy and its 83-acre Fozzie’s Farm north of Cortez. But converting the hundreds of miles of ditches just in Montezuma County would cost millions of dollars, most of which would be borne by cash-strapped farmers. (A helping hand could come from the federal infrastructure bill, which was being debated by Congress at press time.) “There needs to be that political will,” Loschert says. “Farmers aren’t going to make those investments.”

The operators of Fozzie’s Farm have been trying another solution: embracing a biodiversity model. Fozzie’s Farm planted more than 30 woody plant species to improve biodiversity. Still, Fozzie’s has had decreased yields this year. Next year Loschert hopes to partner with a Navajo sheep producer who would pasture lambs on the farm, bringing in income and helping the land produce better.

In 2013, the Pacific Institute, a California nonprofit that focuses on water issues, published a report on agricultural water use in the Colorado River Basin. The authors found that by switching from alfalfa to, say, sorghum, farmers could keep their lands in agriculture while also saving water. And by practicing regulated deficiency irrigation—which amounts to putting crops on a water diet and irrigating at optimal times—alfalfa farmers across the Colorado River Basin could save 970,000 acre-feet of water per year (more than three times Nevada’s allotment from the river) while still getting healthy yields. Of course, none of that helps if there’s no water in the ditches at all.

These fixes are all fine, Loschert says, but in order to really tackle the problem, the entire system for managing Western water, along with the collective mindset—which has us “reliant on a fragile and over-appropriated resource,” he says—needs an overhaul. In other words, everyone needs to stop dwelling on this season’s impacts and think more long-term to try to mitigate the state’s new reality. “The impacts we’re feeling now are just the beginning,” Loschert says.

Even if that’s true and conditions get worse, Nolan says he plans to stick around the Mancos Valley, not because it’s safe from climate change—nowhere is—but because he knows the community will work together to get through the hard times. “The people of the Mancos Valley do a really damned good job of taking care of one another,” he says. He pauses and then, with an upbeat lilt to his voice, adds, “It’s a great place to live.

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