Not long after Paul Bruchez’s family bought a ranch along the Colorado River near Kremmling, his father became ill amid a crippling drought in 2002 that left them without irrigation water.
“The family conversation was we either need to be involved and create some positive change or we need to go,” Bruchez recalled. “Dad said we’re going to fight for what we have. I’ve been doing it ever since then.”
The 40-year-old Bruchez is a fifth-generation Colorado farmer and rancher and is vice chairman of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. He works with area ranchers, environmentalists, scientists and local and state officials on conserving water and restoring stretches of the Colorado River for irrigators and wildlife.
“From my perspective, if we don’t fight for it, no one will,” said Bruchez.
Bruchez acknowledges the fight farmers and ranchers are in could determine not just the future of his family’s ranch, but the future of agriculture in Colorado and beyond. Whether it’s called climate change or long-term drought, the hotter, drier weather is threatening water supplies and crop yields, and is driving ranchers to cut herd sizes or find greener pastures elsewhere for the animals.
Agriculture is one of Colorado’s major industries, contributing $47 billion annually and supporting nearly 200,000 jobs, according to state data. A state task force projects that drought could cost the state an additional $830 million in annual damages by 2050, with $511 million of that occurring agriculture alone.
An analysis by The Washington Post highlights the climate change challenge facing the region. Based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data between 1895 and 2019, the analysis found that a group of counties in northwest Colorado and eastern Utah warmed more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s double the global average.
According to the Colorado Climate Center, this summer has been the second-warmest on record for western Colorado.
“We’ve seen some of the most significant warming in the country showing up over parts of western Colorado. That’s really consistent with what climate change reports were predicting,” said Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist.
But the rest of Colorado has not been spared. Statewide, this August was the 14th-warmest August in 127 years. In 2020, all of Colorado was declared in drought or abnormally dry for the first time in eight years.
Lamar farmer and rancher John Stulp said a former state climatologist told him that Colorado is so large, there’s rarely a part of the state that isn’t in drought.
“But it just seems like they’re getting bigger and lasting longer. And they’re also getting shorter, closer together,” said Stulp, a former state agriculture commissioner. He was a special water policy adviser to former Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Southeast Colorado, where his family has farmed dryland wheat for about 50 years, is always on the edge of a drought, Stulp said. This year, the fields started turning brown when the moisture didn’t come in March and April.
“It was starting to die and then in the first of May we started getting some rains. We had over 4 inches of rain here in three, four, five significant rains in May,” Stulp said.
And while he ended up with a good crop, Stulp called the warming trend “a slow moving train coming down the track,” straining water supplies and producing less snowpack in the mountains to feed the rivers. Agriculture will face pressure to use less.
“We’re already seeing the cutbacks,” said Stulp.
The first-ever declared shortages on the Colorado River have prompted voluntary and mandatory cutbacks. In Arizona, one of seven states that divvy up the water under a 1922 compact, farmers are expected to bear the brunt.
The Colorado River compact will be renegotiated by 2026. The states covered by the agreement are Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.
More efficient irrigation methods return more water to the system, said Stulp, who believes people are contributing to the warming weather and has co-written a paper on how agriculture can respond. “It’s estimated that some water is used and reused six or seven times before it leaves the state.”
Stulp said the move toward not plowing a field after harvest, leaving the stubble of plants as cover to retain moisture and nutrients and prevent soil from blowing away, has increased farmers’ yields.
Growing food for the world
As in other Western states, the lion’s share of the water in Colorado goes to agriculture. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources figures put the percentage at 85.2%, while 6.6% goes to commercial and municipal uses.
Bruchez was on a panel discussion three years ago when a reporter asked if there are problems with water quality and supply and if agriculture uses most of the water, why not just cut the flows to farmers and ranchers? He said he asked the reporter if he enjoyed his lunch that day. The reporter did.
“And I’m like, ‘When you say ag water, that’s what we do, grow food to feed the world,’” Bruchez recounted.
The Colorado River, which runs through the family’s ranch, is key to being able to keep producing food, Bruchez said. The lifelong fly fisherman who oversees the family’s fishing guide business worked with the conservation group Trout Unlimited and area ranchers to raise money and obtain grants to build riffles in the river. The structures mimic natural features where rocks break the water surface, improving fish habitat by increasing oxygen and the presence of insects that feed fish.
Riffles also help to raise the water table, which greatly aided Bruchez’s neighbors, Bill and Wendy Thompson. The structures raised the water levels at their irrigation intakes on the river.
“The water was so low I couldn’t get my water out of the river. The intakes were sticking out in the air,” said Bill Thompson, a former area water commissioner for the state.
Bruchez has rallied area ranchers to participate in a study to figure out how much water hay grown at high altitudes consumes and how long it takes a field to recover after a period of no irrigation. Results will provide information the Colorado Water Conservation Board needs as it determines the feasibility of voluntary reductions in irrigation.
“I’m not afraid to say the words ‘climate change, but when I meet with ranchers don’t say climate change. I say ‘ongoing drought’ because climate change stirs up politics,” Bruchez said. “If they prefer to say ongoing drought, it’s the same thing that’s happening.”
Access to water looms large for Harrison Topp. He raises peaches, cherries, apples and “sundry other fruit” in a family-owned business in Hotchkiss and Paonia. He said the last year has been a roller coaster: drought, a fruit-killing freeze in 2020, the closures of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon because of mudslides from heavy rains on slopes left bare by last year’s wildfires.
The I-70 closures have cost farmers time and money, according to a report by the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and the Colorado State University Extension. At the time of the closures, one farmer estimated he would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if reliable transportation wasn’t restored.
“We do our own deliveries to the Front Range, so the cost associated with it was time and mileage,” Topp said.
What is really wearing on Topp is the existential threat of a warming climate.
“In the darkest moments, I’m on the verge of panic about the state of water and climatic volatility and climate change overall,” the 35-year-old Topp said.
Topp said everyone has a stake in figuring out if agriculture is sustainable in certain parts of the state. He said farmers and ranchers can stay in business with access to adequate water and support from state and federal governments to recover from extreme weather and natural disasters.
“The ultimate end user of that water is the person who eats that food, whether it’s a steak or a peach or a cantaloupe or an ear of corn,” Topp said.
Mesa County rancher Janie VanWinkle makes the same point by referring to food production rather than agriculture. She believes the public, most of whom live in cities, doesn’t see the connections between her family’s work and the food on their plates.
VanWinkle’s son, Dean, who graduated from college in May and returned to Colorado to work with his parents, was emphatic when asked how viable agriculture is in a warming climate.
“With the most respect, I don’t think that’s a real question because without agriculture, what are people going to eat?” the younger VanWinkle asked.
“A lifestyle we love”
Roberta Dalton worked 31 years for the U.S. Postal Service and seven years in the airline industry. She was in the Army and lived in Kentucky. But she has always returned to the Grand Valley and to the way of life she loves: ranching.
This year, though, Dalton feared her ranch was on the brink. She and her former husband, Pat, who’s still her business partner, took most of their cattle to Wyoming where the forage is better. At their place in Whitewater, just south of Grand Junction, there wasn’t enough water to harvest hay.
“The field is alive, but beyond that there was no production,” Dalton said.
Thirty of her cow-calf pairs are in a nearby pasture at her son-in-law’s place and 70 will stay in Jeffrey City, Wyo., until around the first of November. The Daltons signed a contract after looking around for a while.
“It was tough. We were getting down to the wire where we were going to load them on a truck and take them to a sale,” Dalton said. “That would’ve been the end of our cattle ranching.
“But it’s a lifestyle we love so we’ll hold out while we can,” she said.
Ranchers in other parts of Colorado and in other states are facing the same plight. Extreme drought in parts of North Dakota have dried up feed crops for cattle, leading to earlier-than-planned trips to the auction barns.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture doesn’t track cattle sales driven by drought, spokeswoman Olga Robak said, but the department shared stories from farmers and ranchers during a recent tour of drought-stricken areas. Northwest Coloradans reported drastically reducing their herds, selling their haying equipment because there is no hay, battling insect infestations and getting only 0.35 of an inch of rain in two and half months.
“The dual challenge in agriculture is struggling to survive at the industry level, but more importantly at the individual level, especially this year when folks are going out of business. We’re doing a lot of work on mental health because of the impacts,” said Kate Greenberg, state agriculture commissioner.
Monsoon rains, absent three of the last four summers, showed up this year, providing relief for the southwest part of the state and pulling the Eastern Plains out of drought. However, Bolinger, assistant state climatologist, said short-term dryness is returning after several hot days and spotty rainfall.
And much of northwest and southwest Colorado remain in exceptional, extreme or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Colorado experienced three of its largest wildfires on record in 2020. This year, people from the West Slope to the Front Range have struggled with layers of smoke blowing in from huge wildfires on the West Coast.
In July, Gov. Jared Polis declared a drought emergency in 21 western Colorado counties and he joined nine other Western governors in August to ask President Joe Biden to declare a drought disaster so the states can tap additional funds through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
State support includes bills approved in the 2021 legislative session that create a drought and climate resilience office in the state agriculture department and allocate money for soil-health and renewable energy projects.
“Governor Polis hopes to continue a dialogue with the Biden administration about the severity of the drought conditions in western states,” Conor Cahill, the governor’s spokesman, said in an email.
Resiliency, name of the game
From their early days of marriage, Janie VanWinkle and her husband, Howard, have worked diligently toward being full-time ranchers. They come from ranching backgrounds and worked for several years in other businesses while they built their cattle herd and their ranching operation.
Now, VanWinkle said, she and her family are just as diligent about using water more efficiently through updated irrigation systems and managing their animals to prevent overgrazing.
The VanWinkles lease a total of 12,000 acres on three ranches from the city of Grand Junction. When the city bought the land for the water rights, it committed to keeping it in agriculture for as long as possible.
“Our goal is to leave the landscapes looking better than we found them,” VanWinkle, the former president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.
Another goal is to show that ranching can be part of the solution to a warming climate by keeping range land intact to help store carbon dioxide. John Sanderson at Colorado State University is one of the authors of a paper that says range land stores up to 20% of the world’s organic carbon and that not enough attention is paid to the drawbacks of converting it to other uses.
Activities like oil and gas production and transportation generate atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide. But methane is even more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the short term and cow belches and manure are big sources.
The agriculture industry is looking at whether food additives, such as seaweed, could significantly reduce methane emissions from cows.
Another way to reduce methane emissions from cattle is to reduce the number of cattle, said Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, an animal science professor and director of CSU’s AgNext.
“There are definitely ways to adapt. I don’t have any illusion that it’s going to be easy,” Greenberg said. “But I think what’s exciting about this is that (agriculture) can be such an important part of the solution when it comes to making sure we have the resilience and the natural reserves, not to mention the food production capacity, we’re going to need moving into this more volatile, more uncertain future.”