From the Montrose Daily Press (Mike Easterling):
According to figures compiled by the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, unless the city gets significant precipitation over the final few days of 2012 — Thursday’s snowfall notwithstanding — this will be the driest year locally since at least 2000, and perhaps since 1989. In 2000, Montrose recorded 6.96 inches of precipitation. In 1989, it received 5.58 inches. Through the first 11 months of 2012, the city had drawn 6.34 inches of moisture, while December’s totals remained to be added. Unofficially, Montrose had recorded 0.27 inches of precipitation for the month through Wednesday, a total that was certain to grow with the arrival of Thursday’s storm.
From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
As if it hadn’t been bad enough that one of Colorado’s worst droughts led to nearly 14,000 acres burning in the Pine Ridge Fire this summer outside De Beque, that same drought has hampered efforts to encourage important regrowth there.
Seeding with a temporary cover crop intended to stabilize soil at the fire site, prior to distributing native vegetation seed, failed to result in nearly the kind of germination hoped for by the Bureau of Land Management’s Grand Junction Field Office. There just wasn’t enough rain this summer for the temporary vegetation, marketed under the name QuickGuard, to take root, “which is amazing, because it generally doesn’t take much,” said Wayne Werkmeister, the office’s associate field manager. “That goes to show how truly bad it is out there,” he said.
The drought has made matters even worse for the field office because there were so many other big fires in Colorado this year that competition for reclamation money through the BLM’s fire funding program has been fierce. That meant the local office asked for less originally than it would have otherwise for the Pine Ridge Fire work, and ended up getting even a smaller amount. Nevertheless, officials are buoyed by recent snow on the fire site, and hoping the snow cover will last into early next year, when they hope to carry out aerial ￼seeding of native plant mixes. “The more snow you have when you put it on up there, the better,” Werkmeister said. Beyond contributing to moisture, snow helps drive seed into the soil as it melts, and the seed also penetrates into the snow quickly, reducing consumption by birds and rodents, he said.
The Pine Ridge Fire, the biggest in history within the field office’s jurisdiction, burned in late June and early July. The danger presented by acreage denuded of vegetation was made almost immediately evident when a storm shortly after the fire deposited ash and debris into the Colorado River. That forced the Clifton Water District to shut down its river intake for a day and a half because it couldn’t remove the smoky color and odor from the water. A big flood coming off the burn area also could threaten the Union Pacific railroad tracks in De Beque Canyon. The BLM installed two gauges designed to help forewarn both Clifton Water and Union Pacific of further big storms, but the summer passed without further major incidents. “We dodged a bullet, so to speak,” said Dale Tooker, general manager of Clifton Water.
He said the utility supports the BLM’s revegetation efforts. Meanwhile, the fire helped revitalize the district’s planning for infrastructure upgrades that would include a membrane filtration system that would make problems such as ash runoff in the river a non-issue. Clifton Water is raising its rates starting next year as it prepares for such upgrades, which had been considered years ago but were put off by the recession.
Sagebrush and wildlife
Revegetation efforts at the fire site also are important to trying to minimize the spread of cheatgrass, an invasive, nonnative species that can dominate landscapes. It dries out early in the year, which can lead to even more fires and more cheatgrass. In addition, revegetation is important to wildlife, providing food and cover.
Fire can benefit wildlife habitat to some degree, leading to a more diverse landscape if it burns in mosaic patterns, as in the case of Pine Ridge Fire, which skipped over parts of the area within the burn perimeter. Still, there was loss of areas such as sagebrush parks that are important to deer and also have been eyed as potential habitat for the imperiled greater sage-grouse. Jim Dollerschell, a BLM rangeland management specialist, said sagebrush doesn’t resprout after a fire. This fall, crews tried to gather seeds from adjacent sagebrush parks and spread them in burned areas. “Unfortunately this year sagebrush seed was pretty sparse due to the drought,” he said.
The QuickGuard cover the agency spread consists of a sterile, annual plant, meaning it’s intended to immediately stabilize the soil but not reproduce and compete later with native plants. Its dead remnants also can provide cover from moisture-sucking wind and withering summer sun once native plants start to grow. It’s so receptive to a little moisture that some of it that spilled along the runway at the Garfield County Regional Airport, where it was raining lightly as crews took off to seed the fire site, germinated a few days later. But as of late in the year, many burn areas continued to look barren due to the meager growth of the plant. It could germinate this spring and still provide benefits. But Werkmeister said it also now will be growing along with the native perennials that will be planted by air this winter, and will likely outcompete them and hinder their growth if there’s not that much moisture. He’s hoping the spring will be wet enough for both the QuickGuard and native plants to thrive.
The seeds alone, consisting of species such as Indian ricegrass and bottlebrush squirreltail, cost the BLM almost $900,000. The BLM will apply three different mixes — one for areas of best growth potential, one for steeper, rockier slopes, and one for areas where there’s already a cheatgrass problem. That latter mix includes species that compete well with cheatgrass, including a nonnative species, tall wheatgrass.
Flooding concerns The field office had asked for $1.9 million for the fire rehabilitation work, but will end up with about $1.5 million. It had hoped to use some funds to build retention ponds designed to keep silt from reaching waterways in flooding, but wasn’t able to get that work started before Oct. 1, the start of the next federal fiscal year. Dollerschell said because there was so much fire activity going on around the West, funding wasn’t carried into the new fiscal year and the ponds won’t be built.
Existing ponds in the area did their job in catching sediment, though, without being breached or damaged, he said. “So it’ll be a focus for us in the next year or so to get those cleaned out so that their capacity is increased again,” he said. He said canyons in the area “have a lot of rock and armor in them, so if you do get some sediment runoff they’re going to capture a lot of that.”
Werkmeister said the field office didn’t get adequate funding to maintain the two storm warning gauges for the next two years, so it may be asking Clifton Water and Union Pacific for funding assistance.
Also, it was unable to get money to pay for seeding of forbs, plants particularly beneficial as browse for wildlife, because the BLM fire program had only enough funds to focus on seeds that primarily encourage watershed protection, Werkmeister said. However, Chevron and the National Wild Turkey Federation chipped in $10,000 apiece for forbs seeding. The High Lonesome Ranch, which had property burn in the fire and also is a grazing permittee in part of the fire area, has agreed to contribute the use of heavy equipment for some of the revegetation work.
The area of the fire continues to be closed to all but specially approved uses, meaning activities such as hunting and recreational access aren’t allowed. “When you get a fire like that … in some areas it creates like a moonscape and it’s very enticing to individuals to do cross-country travel because there’s nothing there to stop them,” Dollerschell said. That can add to erosion and creation of new trails. The closure will aid in the revegetation work and provide protection to sensitive resources, such as the federally threatened Colorado hookless cactus. Seventeen of the plants are known to have burned in the fire.
If the drought continues into next year and seeds don’t germinate, that would be bad in the short term as far as trying to stabilize erosive slopes. But the seeds still could grow in following years.
The 2011 Cosgrove Fire, which burned some 1,700 acres near the Pine Ridge Fire, was reseeded by air last March. “Because it was so dry we had no seed germination or very little seed germination, which was probably a positive thing because if it would have germinated, the fact that April, May and June were so dry, even July, those seedlings would have fried, would have died,” Dollerschell said. That seed may germinate this spring, however. “We’ve found that that seed can sit in the soil, on top of the soil for three-plus years and we still get some response,” he said.
From The Greeley Tribune (William Trujillo):
The current drought conditions have many similarities to the conditions during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. While soil management practices are better today, high temperatures and water shortages this past year created crop losses and poor environmental conditions that echoed the Dust Bowl.
The 2012 drought is the combination of a dry fall and high temperatures early in the spring. With the hotter than average temperatures in March, many plants began emerging earlier than usual. This premature start used up the little soil moisture that was available, setting the stage for severe water shortages later in the summer.
Even when rainfall might have been sufficient, evaporation and plant transpiration from the fields into the atmosphere were high due to the hot temperatures throughout the growing season.
Where crops failed or were damaged by drought, questions arise on how to manage similar conditions in the future. Variability associated with weather patterns makes crop management decisions difficult. With all of the soil water having been used this year to ward off drought conditions, it would take above normal precipitation to recharge the soils and get them ready for another growing season. What if the precipitation doesn’t come, are there management practices that will alleviate the conditions?
There are numerous options to manage soils, crops, animals, and water resources.
Conversion to notill combined with crop residue mulch and cover crops, is an important option. Under extreme conditions, crop losses were seen under notill. A positive environmental aspect is that even a small amount of standing biomass produced with notill will be an effective conservation practice in reducing wind erosion potential and preventing conditions that were seen in the 1930s Dust Bowl era. It is important that we prevent the negative effects of wind erosion with conservation practices. Crop residue with notill will reduce the evaporation rate, capture snow, and store precipitation in the coming months.
Another strategy is to conserve water in the root zone, minimize losses by runoff and evaporation, and transform blue (fresh surface and groundwater) and grey (urban wastewater) waters into green water (fraction of rainfall that is stored in the soil).
Integrated nutrient management, a judicious combination of chemical fertilizers with organic amendments (compost, biosolids), is needed to enhance soil organic matter content and maximize crop water use efficiency.
Ability of mineral soils to hold water increases with the increase in soil organic matter content. Thus, best management practices of land use and management should enhance soil and ecosystem resilience to drought and other abiotic and biotic stresses.
In addition, time of planting, seeding configuration and plant populations are appropriate agronomic considerations. Choice of crop species, depending on sitespecific considerations, is important to enhance crop diversity, including complex crop rotations, and integration of crops with livestock.
Vegetative barriers and terraces may enhance water storage, reduce the evapotranspirative stressor of wind, and minimize risks of wind erosion.
The drought has provided an opportunity to revisit agricultural systems of managing soils, crops, water, and animals. Are the current practices sustainable, especially under conditions of harsh, uncertain, and abruptly changing climate?
To avoid another “dust bowl” of the 1930s, it is the time to rethink how we use the natural resources. The drought of 2012 reminds us that soil and water resources must never be taken for granted.
From The Fort Morgan Times (Dan Barker):
Although many Morgan County farmers did OK despite the drought, cattle production is the foundation of the Morgan County economy — and it was hit hard last summer. The cost of hay jumped as high as $300 a ton, up from the usual $100 a ton. On top of that, since the drought hit just about every agricultural sector in every state, there was little alfalfa to ship in. Feed like corn and wheat had high costs, too. That meant some beef cattle producers had to sell off herds to avoid even more serious financial problems, and dairies’ production costs soared.
Dryland farmers were also hit hard. While dryland winter wheat growers seemed to dodge the bullet at the last minute with some rain in May, right after that was when the real drought hit. In addition, dryland corn growers had little success with their crops.
Nonetheless, irrigated farms did pretty well. The wheat crop was lower than last year, but not bad, and irrigated corn did well with all the sunshine it had. Crop prices held, which was a big help to crop producers, but not for cattle producers.
The federal government did offer emergency loans and allowed reserved conservation land to be used for pastures for cattle, but that only helped so much. A representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture came to town to talk about what the feds could do, but said that was limited due to the national budget issues.
Lower local production could mean the local economy could suffer some.
One bright spot is that rain in the fall allowed the coming year’s winter wheat crop to germinate, giving it a head start for the new year.