Montezuma County: Four States Agricultural Forum recap

La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain
La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain

From The Durango Herald (Jacob Klopfenstein):

The Yellow Jacket project’s lead researcher, Abdel Berrada, spoke last week at the Four States Agricultural Expo at Montezuma County Fairgrounds.

The research center received almost $250,000 from a grant to fund the study, which examines how cover crops can improve soil quality for dryland farmers.

Although Berrada said he and other researchers have a long way to go before they find out what works in the region, he told a crowd of about 25 people that cover crops can increase organic matter in the soil, suppress weeds and prevent erosion.

“Cover crops make sense,” Berrada said. “We’re looking at factors to see what works best for the area.”

As part of the study, five farmers in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah are administering plots of cover crops such as yellow clover, winter peas and others.

After three years, researchers hope to quantify the effects of cover crops on ground moisture, soil health and weed control, Berrada said. Another goal of the project is to determine which cover crops are most profitable. Those goals will help determine if cover crops can enhance the sustainability of farming in Southwest Colorado and southeast Utah.

Colorado State University Dolores County Extension director Gus Westerman said researchers will collect a second round of data in the next year. They’ll use data collected at the end of the three years to compare the effects of cover crops in the region with results from other areas, he said.

Westerman said more people in the industry are becoming aware of water issues.

But the study runs for only three years, and Westerman said that’s a short time in terms of soil science. He said the project hopes to extend the grant to get more time for study.

CSU Extension West Region Specialist John Rizza said there hasn’t been much research on cover crops in the region to date. Few studies have been done to examine which cover crops are most successful for dryland farmers, he said.

Rizza and Westerman said the level of interest in cover crops is increasing regionally. More farmers are participating and it’s now easier to show people how they work, Rizza said.

“We’re getting good momentum,” he said.

Cortez: Solids from county jail causing back ups

Wastewater lift station
Wastewater lift station

From the Cortez Journal (Tobie Baker) via The Durango Herald:

Montezuma County inmates are under suspicion, but not for unlawful activity.

Cortez Sanitation District officials suspect that inmates at the 104-bed Montezuma County Jail are flushing items in their jail cells, plugging a pumping station or contaminating the wastewater-treatment facility.

“We get a ton of Ramen noodle packages,” CSD manager Tim Krebs told board members at a monthly meeting last week.

Krebs initially relayed his concerns to CSD board members in December, reporting that plastics and other debris from the detention center had been an ongoing problem.

Vici Pierce, detention captain at the Montezuma County jail, confirmed that inmates were allowed to purchase Ramon noodles from the commissary, but said she was unaware of any sanitation district complaints until notified by The Journal.

“Garbage bags are provided in each unit, and inmates are instructed to use them for the disposal of their trash items,” Pierce said.

Several years ago, a garbage grinder was installed in the jail’s sewer system to help alleviate improper trash disposal.

According to Krebs, that grinder pump on Driscoll Street failed, and after it was repaired recently, sanitation officials started to observe bits of plastic in the district’s treatment facility on South Broadway about four miles south.

Krebs said the grinder pump was recently taken offline at the district’s request to help staff determine whether the inflow of debris could be minimalized.

“The smaller plastics have disappeared in parts of the plant, but now larger plastics are filling up the bar screen at the lift station,” Krebs said.

Krebs said sanitation crews now make two trips per day to the district’s north pumping station to manually clear a screen that captures the plastics. Officials indicated the screen was routinely plugged when crews responded.

McElmo Flume restoration project update

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

“It could take a year or longer for construction to be completed,” once bids are approved, said county planner James Dietrich.

The roadside attraction will have an entrance and egress road, parking lot, sidewalks, information kiosk and a handicap-accessible trail to an overlook of the flume, built in 1890.

Two grants are helping to pay for the project.

A $253,000 grant from the Federal Highways Administration was awarded to the Trails of the Ancients Scenic Byway, a section of which includes U.S. 160 that goes by the flume.

The Colorado State Historic Fund provided a $123,840 grant to restore the flume foundation.

Several groups chipped in for a $41,280 match, including Montezuma County, Southwest Water Conservancy District, Ballantine Family Fund, Montezuma County Historical Society and Southwest Roundtable.

The flume is the last of 104 built in the area from 1890 to 1920. It delivered irrigation water south of Cortez and to the Ute Mountain Tribe.

McElmo Creek Flume via the Cortez Journal
McElmo Creek Flume via the Cortez Journal

Cortez plans to install 3,000 smart water meters this summer

Wireless meter reading explained
Wireless meter reading explained

From The Cortez Journal (Jessica Gonzalez):

Funding is in place for the City of Cortez to embark on a $1.2 million replacement of more than 3,000 manually read water meters with automated meters.

Mayor Karen Sheek and City Council approved loan and grant funds from the Colorado Water Conservation Board at the April 14 council meeting.

Through this project, the city intends to replace its current meters with automated meter readers, which use radios to collect data via a drive-by or a fixed-base receiver on every metered account in the city’s system.

The project is being funded through $250,000 in grants from the CWCB and the Department of Local Affairs, $350,000 from the city’s fund balance and $850,000 loan from the CWCB. Once bids are opened in mid-May, there will be a more precise picture of exactly how much the city will need to borrow via loan funding, said Phil Johnson, director of Public Works. It’s likely to be less than the $850,000 total…

The Public Works Department contends that the replacement project will bring the water meter system into the future with more streamlined billing and data management. It also says that it encourages conservation by providing users with more accurate water-consumption information…

After the bid period in mid-May, work is expected to begin early summer. The entire system is expected to be on automatic meters by October…

The Public Works Department will be providing regular updates on the project on the City of Cortez website, he noted, but stressed that it’s a necessary change in a time where water conservation is crucial.

“It’s a step into the future going to help us run our operation more effectively and it’s an efficient tool to help Cortez save water,” he said.

More infrastructure coverage here.

Lake Nighthorse: “This water would really help our future” — Manuel Heart

Lake Nighthorse via the USBR
Lake Nighthorse via the USBR

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

The Durango City Council signed a resolution Tuesday supporting the delivery of water from Lake Nighthorse to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

“This water would really help our future,” Chairman Manuel Heart said.

The resolution stemmed from a series of recent meetings between city officials and the tribe about the potential recreational use of Lake Nighthorse, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said.

The city likely will send the resolution to Colorado’s U.S. senators and House members to help support the tribe as it seeks funding for infrastructure to deliver water.

Lake Nighthorse was built to provide Native American tribes, including the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, with water they are entitled to receive, said Justyn Hoch, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has water rights to about 31 percent of the water stored in the lake, but Congress has not funded infrastructure to bring it to the reservation, she said.

Congress has funded a pipeline to the Navajo Nation, which is nearing completion. It will deliver water to the Shiprock area. In addition, the Southern Utes could access water from Lake Nighthorse by releasing it back into the Animas and taking it out of a river diversion, she said.

However, the infrastructure for the Ute Mountain Utes was dropped from federal legislation in 2000, Heart said.

The tribal leadership already has met with U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R.-Cortez, and has plans to meet with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R.-Colorado, this year to talk about the need to fund a delivery system.

The additional water would allow for greater economic development on the reservation, Heart said. The reservation covers about 600,000 acres southwest of Cortez and has one of the largest farms in Montezuma County.

Ute Mountain Ute Councilor Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk also voiced her appreciation of the resolution because the reservation currently has limited water resources. While securing water delivery is a priority for the tribe, she expects it to be years before the tribe receives an appropriation.

More Animas-La Plata Project coverage here.

Cortez rates going up

Cortez early 1900s via Crow Canyon Archaeological Center
Cortez early 1900s via Crow Canyon Archaeological Center

From the Cortez Journal (Tobie Baker):

Public works officials said a “slight” rate adjustment was needed next year to keep up with the rising cost of infrastructure repairs, treatment chemicals and capital expenditures. Water rates will increase 5 percent in 2015.

The measure means a resident with a ¾-inch water meter, which includes the first 1,000 gallons, would pay $16.30 per month in 2015, an increase of 80 cents per month over current rates.

Rates for water usage over 1,000 gallons will also rise next year, from $2.10 to $2.20, and so will fees for the commercial water dock, increasing in 2015 from $12 for 1,000 gallons to $12.50.

The city will also raise its current tap fee of $3,800 to $3,900, starting Jan. 1.

The city’s 2015 water enterprise fund will receive more than $4.1 million in appropriations, which includes nearly $730,000 for personnel services, $670,000 for commodities and $1.85 million for capital projects.

More infrastructure coverage here.

Localized climate change contributed to ancient depopulation — Washington State University

From Washington State University (Eric Sorensen):

Washington State University researchers have detailed the role of localized climate change in one of the great mysteries of North American archaeology: the depopulation of southwest Colorado by ancestral Pueblo people in the late 1200s.

In the process, they address one of the mysteries of modern-day climate change: How will humans react?

Writing in Nature Communications, WSU archaeologist Tim Kohler and post-doctoral researcher Kyle Bocinsky use tree-ring data, the growth requirements of traditional maize crops and a suite of computer programs to make a finely scaled map of ideal Southwest growing regions for the past 2,000 years.

Their data paint a narrative of some 40,000 people leaving the Mesa Verde area of southwest Colorado as drought plagued the niche in which they grew maize, their main food source. Meanwhile, the Pajarito Plateau of the northern Rio Grande saw a large population spike.

The plateau “also happens to be the place where you would want to move if you were doing rain-fed maize agriculture, the same type of agriculture that people practiced for centuries up in southwest Colorado,” said Bocinsky, who built the data-crunching programs while earning a WSU Ph.D. with support from a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship.

People try to ‘keep on keeping on’

The dramatic changes in the Southwest took place near the end of the Medieval Warm Period, the warmest in the Northern Hemisphere for the last 2,000 years. The period had a smaller temperature change than we’re seeing now, and its impact on the Southwest is unclear. But it is clear the Southwest went through a major change.

“At a very local scale, people have been dealing with climate fluctuations of several degrees centigrade throughout history,” said Bocinsky. “So we need to understand how people deal with these local changes to generate predictions and help guide us in dealing with more widespread changes of that nature.”

Bocinsky, the paper’s lead author, said the study is particularly significant for modern-day subsistence farmers of maize, or corn, the world’s largest food staple.

“People are generally going to try and find ways to keep on keeping on, to do what they’ve been doing before changing their technological strategy,” he said. “That was something extremely interesting to me out of this project.”

Tree rings yield precipitation, temperature info

To get a more granular look at the changing climate of the Southwest, Bocinsky and Kohler used more than 200 tree-ring chronologies, which use the annual rings of ancient trees to reconstruct the area’s climate patterns over time. Pines at lower elevations will have their growth limited by rainfall, making their rings good indicators of precipitation. High-elevation trees get good rain but are susceptible to cold, making them good indicators of temperature.

The shifting patterns of rainfall and temperature let Bocinsky and Kohler isolate to a few square kilometers the areas that would receive just under a foot of rainfall a year, the minimum needed for ancestral maize varieties still farmed by contemporary Pueblo people.

The area in what is now southwest Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park ended up being one of the best places to grow maize, with good conditions more than 90 percent of the time. The Pajarito Plateau ended up being highly suitable as well, with slopes that would shed cold air and precipitation levels suited to rain-fed agriculture.

Large disparities in small areas

Such big climate differences in such a small area illustrates how some areas could be hit harder than others by the extremes of global climate change, said Bocinsky. He said it is telling that, when the Pueblo people moved, they moved to where they could preserve their farming techniques. He said that could be important to keep in mind as farmers, particularly subsistence farmers on marginal lands, face localized climate impacts in the future.

“When we are looking for ways to alleviate human suffering, we should keep in mind that people are going to be looking for places to move where they can keep doing their type of maize agriculture, keep growing the same type of wheat or rice in the same ways,” he said. “It’s when those niches really start shrinking on the landscape that we start having a major problem, because you’ve got a lot of people who are used to doing something in one way and they can no longer do it that way.”