Wed December 26, 2012

The Drought’s Impact on the Arkansas River Valley

For many in Southern Colorado, the Arkansas River is the lifeblood of healthy communities.  But the region suffered during this year’s extreme and exceptional drought conditions.

KRCC's Andrea Chalfin reports on the drought's impact on the Arkansas River Valley.

That’s why many, like Rob White, are waiting to see what this winter will bring. White is a park manager at the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in Salida. A good snow year is critical for the river he says, and those who depend on water.

The scene from the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in Salida.
Credit Anrea Chalfin / KRCC

“In an extremely dry year like we had in 2012, there wasn’t enough water to go around.  Obviously, there wasn’t enough water for the farmers; there wasn’t enough water for the irrigators, so we also had to make do with a smaller amount of water.”

Typically the snow to water equivalency in the Arkansas River basin approaches around 5 inches by mid-December. It’s only 57% of average with the month almost over.

Mike Bartolo says the numbers are disturbing for farmers downstream who depend on the river for irrigation. Bartolo works as a Colorado State University Research Manager in Rocky Ford.

“So you try to know how much fertilizer you need to order, or how much seed you need to order, but you really don’t know because it’s so tentative.”

2012 got off to a promising start along the Arkansas River – but things gradually got worse. A lack of rainfall didn’t help the alfalfa and corn crops that are predominant here—one gauge in Rocky Ford shows less than 5 inches of total precipitation.

Credit USDA.gov

“It might [rain]. And it could.  But you don’t know that.”

78-year old John Schweizer and his family farm hay near Rocky Ford.

“And if we go through the winter like it is now, I doubt if there will be much activity at all.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

“We got all winter yet,” Schweizer says.  “This is early.  So, we’re not panicking yet because it can change overnight.  We’ve seen it do it many times, and so we just have to go along with it and have faith enough to think that it’s gonna get better.”

And in the Upper Arkansas River Valley in Salida, park manager Rob White has a similar outlook.

“A lot can happen between now and May 15th when we start to experience runoff.  I think what’s really important is that we get those snowstorms that we typically get in the spring months,” says White.

Despite the optimism, a recent seasonal outlook from the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service says drought conditions are likely to persist or even intensify through next March.