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Colorado drought expected to persist

Posted: Friday, Feb 15th, 2013

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Don’t be fooled by recent moisture, Colorado Water Conservation Board Drought & Climate Change Technical Specialist Taryn Finnessey told San Luis Valley water leaders this week.

Colorado is still under drought conditions.

“As of yesterday we have gotten beneficial moisture,” Finnessey said on Tuesday, “but we are still really dry in this area as well as the state.”

She added, “We are seeing really, really dry soil moisture.”

Finnessey said last year was the second worst drought year on record for Colorado since 1895, with the worst year only beating 2012 out by tenths of a degree, and that was at the height of the Dust Bowl.

The U.S. Drought Monitor currently shows the whole state under dry conditions with the eastern plains under extreme or exceptional drought conditions, Finnessey noted. In all of the San Luis Valley counties except Mineral the drought monitor indicates severe drought but not extreme or exceptional.

“Hopefully we will see some moisture materialize in the coming months,” Finnessey said.

Unfortunately, the drought is forecast to persist at least through the spring months, she added, with temperatures above average and precipitation below average.

“We are expecting to see the drought persist and continue at least through April.”

A drought task force is monitoring conditions, Finnessey said. Right now the task force is concentrating on agriculture, but if drought conditions persist, task forces will be activated to deal with impacts to tourism, municipalities, fire and other arenas.

“We are trying to be as prepared and proactive as we can,” she said.

Finnessey was involved in reviewing survey results regarding the effect of the 2011 drought year on the agricultural economy in the Rio Grande and Arkansas River basins, which CSU Agriculture and Resource Economics Professor James Pritchett addressed during the 2013 Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference in Monte Vista last week. Finnessey said 2012 drought impacts are now being sought from area farmers and ranchers to determine the impact of multiple years of drought, and she encouraged San Luis Valley residents to participate in the survey.

To fill out the survey online, which takes 10-15 minutes and is primarily multiple choice, go to: http://tinyurl.com/CSU-drought

Finnessey said some impacts will not show up in one year but will come into play in subsequent years.

For example, one year might see more cattle in the market, but the reason might be that people are selling off their stock, Finnessey said.

“That has long term detrimental impacts.”

She added that the drought impact model designed specifically for Colorado takes into consideration “forward and backward linkages.”

Economic losses due to drought conditions were not just evident in lost production, Finnessey said, but also in lost potential revenue related to that production that might have been realized because of higher commodity prices during that same drought period — “potential revenue, what would have been earned under typical growing conditions.”

Those combinations resulted in an estimated $4.7 million economic impact in the Rio Grande Basin due to drought in 2011, according to Finnessey. By comparison, the Arkansas Basin logged $104 million losses due to drought in 2011 and 1,300 jobs lost. That severity relates to the Arkansas Basin’s reliance on dry-land farming, Finnessey explained.

Rancher and retired CSU Extension Agent Robert Mathis said he did not think hay and potato production in 2011 was particularly different than usual. “It was just a change in commodity prices.”

Finnessey added that because of the higher commodity prices farmers could have produced half as much and still earned the same as they historically had.

She said drought conditions could lead to a lot of preventive planting this year.

It is important to track the economic impacts of drought, Finnessey said, in order to receive mitigation funds for the state.

Most of the state was declared either a primary or contiguous drought area last year, Finnessey said, and although those designations expired at the end of the year, they were renewed again this year. She said the eastern plains were hit the hardest, but the Rio Grande Basin received contiguous classification, which means some benefits. Unfortunately what those benefits will be to area producers is unclear because the Farm Bill is still in limbo, Finnessey said.

“It is not clear how that will impact entitlements,” she said.

Not only farmers and ranchers are worried about water conditions this year, Finnessey added. With reservoir storage less on February 1 of this year than last year at this time, municipalities are concerned about being able to provide enough water for their customers this year, Finnessey said. A web site is being set up that will help folks know about water restrictions in their areas, landscaping and agricultural information under drought conditions. It is not live yet but will be located at coloradodrought.com

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