Low snowpack and soaring temperatures made 2020 the third-driest year on record in Colorado. When similar conditions repeated in 2021, tribal farmers in southwest Colorado had to scramble, fallowing thousands of acres of land and laying off workers at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s farm and ranch outside of Cortez.
“It made me very aware that our farm is in the desert. We have to look at it that way,” says Simon Martinez, general manager for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch Enterprise and the Bow and Arrow Brand non-GMO cornmeal business. The 7,700-acre farm is located on the tribe’s 553,008-acre reservation in southwest Colorado, less than 20 miles from the Four Corners.
When Dolores River flows below McPhee Reservoir were reduced to just 10% of normal in 2021, the tribe was able to operate only eight center pivot sprinklers, compared to its usual capacity of 110 sprinklers. A single center pivot sprinkler system irrigates circles of crops ranging from 32 to 141 acres in area. Lack of water meant fallowed acres, leaving the tribe to use only 500 acres in 2021, compared to 4,500 acres of alfalfa alone grown in 2020.
Without irrigation water, the farm’s ability to grow its mainstay crops of alfalfa and corn was majorly reduced, and without crops to harvest, employment, too, was cut to 50%. Twenty farm workers lost their jobs.
This year the tribe is expecting slightly more water, 20% to 25% of its normal allocation, or roughly 6,000 acre-feet of water, according to Mike Preston, president of the Weenuch-u’ Development Corporation, which oversees the farm’s operations. But some 6,000 acres of its 7,700-acre farm remain fallowed, a situation that requires the tribe to spend millions of dollars to keep weeds in check.
There is also hope in rising wheat prices, which are expected to reach $11.16 a bushel by December, according to Wall Street Journal crop pricing data. Preston said the tribe hopes to plant a late wheat crop this year to capitalize on the world-wide wheat shortages triggered by the war in Ukraine.
Overall, the tribe’s farm and ranch enterprises operate for economic empowerment and employment. And operations are largely successful—before the drought, the farm had been productive and profitable since it began operating in the late 1980s.
For Bow and Arrow Brand, operations didn’t slow, even last year. The cornmeal operation was launched years ago in order to stretch the shelf life of the tribe’s corn. Fresh sweet corn can last about two weeks, but by creating cornmeal, the produce remains profitable for around 18 months. Even during the drought and pandemic, sales continue. Full staff employment has been maintained.
Sustaining everything has been a challenge, but Martinez is up for the challenge, as he must be, he says. “We’re going to do our best to keep employment.”
Some help and funding is available to make up for losses, such as drought impact funding. And Martinez is working to help the farm adapt. He’s spreading the limited amount of water as far as possible through work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to upgrade sprinkler nozzle packages and continued consultations with agronomists on crop selection for increased drought tolerance. But those efforts can only go so far.
Martinez is hopeful that McPhee, the third-largest reservoir in Colorado, which serves the tribe, will see its water levels restored to meet tribal needs.
“We’re kind of teetering on the brink,” says Preston. The Dolores River watershed relies entirely on snowpack. But conditions aren’t looking great—100% of Montezuma county remains in severe or extreme drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Forecasts for the Dolores River Basin, as of June 1, project 45% to 60% of water supply availability this year, according to the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.
What seems clear to many in the region is that desert-like conditions are likely to continue and that means the Ute Mountain Utes must shift their operating plans to accommodate drier conditions.
“We’ve got to adapt,” Martinez says.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of Headwaters magazine. Additional reporting was contributed by Fresh Water News Editor Jerd Smith.
Rachelle Todea is Diné and a citizen of the Navajo Nation. She is a freelance reporter based in Westminster, Colo., who reports on climate change and Indigenous peoples.
Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.