Southwest Colorado’s exceptional drought hurts! Montezuma County irrigators and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe have suffered acute and devastating financial impacts from consecutive years of exceptional drought. The Dolores Water Conservancy District had to enact penalties for water overuse and exhaust most of their reserves to keep water costs reasonable for strapped farmers. Fish populations and the recreationists that follow them have suffered, with fishing bans in effect on the San Miguel and Dolores rivers. Colorado Parks and Wildlife reported the potential loss of a highly valued rainbow trout fishery on the lower Dolores River. The Town of Dove Creek had to act to ensure late summer municipal water supply was available when there wasn’t enough water to push deliveries through their canal.

The Southwestern Water Conservation District (SWCD) sees opportunities, too. The severity and duration of this recent drought has highlighted for SWCD the value of our reservoir storage in mitigating the impacts of variable snowpack. We can use this knowledge to look for opportunities to better manage our existing storage vessels in times of drought, as DWCD is now doing with dredging, and seek small scale reservoir opportunities like what the Town of Dove Creek has proposed. Local municipalities are also taking the lead in bringing awareness to drought. The Town of Bayfield, for example, adopted their first official drought management plan this summer, creating a system of conservation restrictions and fines that would take effect during drought periods.

We’ve had a reprieve (for now). Recent rains have lowered the short-term drought designation for southwest Colorado. But our area remains in a long-term drought, and will continue to, unless we see several years of above-average snowpack and plentiful monsoons.

State leaders can help. Thank you to Governor Polis for his emergency drought declaration, which enabled key federal agencies to take action to support local growers and water managers. The Colorado General Assembly’s HB21-1260, which provides an additional $20 million for water plan implementation, will support local projects that provide supply redundancy, improved infrastructure, robust water planning, and other tools that will help southwest Colorado build resiliency in the face of aridification. SWCD along with other entities across Colorado have come together to support the western water infrastructure package now being considered in Congress. Together, these and other programmatic and funding strategies can provide a framework that will help us to respond to the challenges faced in our district and across Colorado.

See reports from across our District on the acute impacts of drought in summer 2021: