Farmers and ranchers tend to be optimists. They have to be. But not this winter.
On the high plains east of the Rocky Mountains, barren fields reveal the reason. Only a dusting of snow coats the ground as the interior West heads into its fifth straight year of drought.
"From what I've seen, this is the driest we've ever been," said Curtis Lewton, a wheat farmer near Brighton, Colo. "It's the driest conditions my father's seen and he can compare it to the '30s and '50s which typically we think were horrible years."
Lewton planted his winter wheat crop last autumn. Moisture from winter snow is critical for the crop to germinate. A tour down row after row revealed sprouts that were at the most one-inch long. "They should be four to five inches by now," Lewton said.
Down the road, Kent Acetic wondered whether he'd be able to hold onto his farm. His family has been farming for 100 years and he worried that he could be the one to lose it all. "I'm not working on farming, I'm not working on planting, or fertilizing," he said. "I'm working on what in the world are we going to do?"
He, too, complained that there has not been enough sub-soil moisture to establish a crop. "If something doesn't change in a hurry, the game is over," he said.
Farmers and ranchers are the biggest consumers of water in the West. They use more than 85 percent and in Colorado more than two-thirds of it comes from snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains.
That, too, is in short supply this winter.
Snowpack Not Enough to Alleviate Drought
Mike Gillespie is a snow surveyor with the National Resources Conservation Service. On a recent field trip to measure the snow pack, his aluminum measuring rod recorded 56 inches, one-third less than normal.
"Unfortunately, the snow pack right now is not enough to significantly alleviate our water supply situation," he said. "Last summer's drought really left our soils in dry condition across the state and a lot of this water that we are measuring here now is going to just run right into the soils before it runs off into the streams this spring."
Colorado and other Western states built huge reservoirs in the 1950s to capture and store water for urban and agricultural use. Most of those reservoirs are about 45 percent full.
The Denver Water Board estimates it would have to snow 8 inches, three times a week, for the next six to eight weeks to make up the shortfall. No one believes that will happen.
Klaus Wolter, a climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said while he is optimistic Colorado will get more moisture this spring, it will likely be too little, too late.
He pointed to a map in his Boulder, Colo., office that revealed the reason. The El Niño weather system, which was supposed to provide abundant precipitation this winter, appeared stuck in the Western Pacific Ocean.
"I don't have high hopes that we will bust the drought," he said. "I just don't think we're going to get enough precipitation to make up for years of drought. It's very unlikely."
Wolter said it would take "the spring of the century" to even get close to filling the reservoirs.
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