July 30, 2008

Heat Edges Toward Disaster on Plains

By Bill Scanlon

For the farmers and ranchers who make a living off of Colorado's arid land, there's more at stake this drought year than browning lawns or serial sunburns.

Gov. Bill Ritter has asked the federal government for disaster assistance to help farmers and ranchers in three counties that suffered late-spring freezes and in 20 counties where pastures and crops are withering in drought.

The designation would make farmers and ranchers eligible for low- interest loans to help recover from their losses.

"This is the driest we've ever been up here," Chad Hart, Farm Services Agency executive director for Prowers and Bent counties in southeastern Colorado, said Wednesday.

"Our drought monitors say we are at severe or exceptional drought, just about the worst you can get," Hart said. "We just aren't getting any rain. It's spreading like a virus."

It's not much better in Holly near the Kansas border, where a tiny spot on the map can get a half-inch of rain in an hour, but six miles away, farmers won't get a drop and instead will spend all day fighting lightning fires.

"We have a lot of folks feeling it's just about as dry as in 2002," said Michael Daskam, district conservationist for the Northeast Colorado Soil Conservation District in Holly.

"The range is really suffering," Daskam said. "We just haven't grown the forage that we need to. That's why most of the ranchers here are looking toward either selling off some of their herd or going onto the Conservation Reserve areas" to feed their cattle.

There are 21,000 acres in eastern Prowers County in the federal government's Conservation Reserve Program.

Ranchers will move their herds in and out of the reserve area where the grass has had time to lie fallow, not letting them graze there long enough to lower grass levels to less than two inches on average.

By some measures, Colorado has been in a drought since 1999, because a drought doesn't end until the water supply is back to normal levels.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two big bodies of water along the Colorado River, never have gotten back to normal levels, said Marty Hoerling, meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The farmers with water rights can draw water from the reservoirs that collected their share of the snowpack.

"Mother Nature needs to help us all out," Hart said.

Originally published by Bill Scanlon, Rocky Mountain News.

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