A Conversation with Don Shawcroft on Snow and Agriculture

We spoke with Don Shawcroft for the spring 2024 issue of Headwaters magazine “The Snow Issue” about the impacts of snowpack, snowmelt, and runoff on farming and the agriculture community. Don is the former Colorado Farm Bureau president and current member of the Water Education Colorado Board of Trustees.

Can you share with us a little background on your work and career and how it’s led to your involvement in the water conversation?

I’ve been the vice president, president, and on the board of directors for the Colorado Farm Bureau with over 30 years of collective experience. Water involvement was heavily involved in those roles and in that sector in general. We were very concerned about water and about five to seven years before the first Colorado Water Plan came out, we made considerable efforts to try and generate excitement about the issue of water in the state and generate investment in water from the general public. Unfortunately, our efforts didn’t have a lot of traction at that time but eventually when the Colorado Water Plan was instituted there seemed to be much better engagement. Beyond that, I am a rancher in the San Luis Valley. A popular statement we use is If you don’t irrigate it, it isn’t going to grow and dry land is going to be native vegetation which primarily is brush which can happen in areas that don’t receive water either through irrigation or being connected to streams. With all that in mind, I have a long-time history of recognizing our dependence on snow and snowmelt.

You mentioned your dependence on snowmelt, how do you plan for snowmelt and assess what water may be available each year?

[snowmelt] is really very unpredictable but one of the key things a lot of people use in our area and across the state to keep an eye on this is the SNOTEL Report, where sites across the state report on snowfall and the moisture that’s in that snow. That system has been heavily relied on in years past but as the system ages there’s concern if it will continue to be reliable and an accurate prediction of possible snowmelt in those areas. SNOTEL sites are location-specific and don’t always indicate the true average snowpack for the area as snow can either blow off the reporting site or pile up causing inaccurate reporting. Not having enough sites to inform the averages can also be of concern. It appears that the state is working hard to try and predict snowmelt too and determine what methods are most accurate. For me, we rely 100% on snowmelt water, we don’t have any storage, so we have to rely not only on snowpack but on the day-to-day snowmelt as it comes. Looking back over the years, those years where there’s an early spring and the snow melt happens early, that means you may have water early but that can also almost guarantee you won’t have any water later in the summer. So that really plays into what we have to plan on and that type of planning in locations like mine, where you are so reliant on that water, you have to make adjustments for the year and consider how you’ll manage your livestock. Considerations may look like determining to harvest early, or considering how much cattle head to maintain and if the hay production isn’t good purchasing hay from producing crops. Considering other options such as harvesting crops earlier or taking the failure and having to rely on crop insurance to get through to the next year are also options.

With aging assessment methods such as SNOTEL, do you still reference them for accurate information or how has your time in the agricultural industry shaped how you assess this? 

There are some things that we watch and look for on the mountain to see if a certain area of the mountain is covered with snow but we also, quite frankly, keep an eye on snowfall at the Wolf Creek Ski Resort. They report every day on new snowfall amounts but then also report on accumulated amounts for the year. So I like to watch that carefully and because it’s a quick and easy thing to find I really enjoy getting that report. For my use, it’s not 100% accurate but it’s a good indication of possibility and range. They may get more snow there than will actually reach my water source but it gives me a sense of what to expect. For example, right now they reported about 250 inches accumulated for the year, but we tend to be a lot better off when 400 inches or more is accumulated in the year. So I’m concerned about not having had enough snowfall yet this year.

Can you tell me more about what you do when snowfall isn’t predictable and what ways you pivot when there isn’t enough snow?

Historically when there’s not enough water leading to not producing enough crops, we have to purchase feed to keep the livestock. Back in 2002 which was the most intense drought we ever experienced and such a widespread drought in the West, our ranch decided to ship a number of our cattle back to Missouri where there was more water to preserve the herd. I’d hesitate to ever do that again because the environment out there was so different with there being more bugs and different types of grass it was hard on the cattle but it was a creative pivot. More recent than that, 2012 was a bad year for hay production so we purchased hay from a producing ranch and we were grateful to have not suffered extreme loss due to the price of cattle being good. Nowadays inputs are so much more expensive, hay is much more expensive, and the price of equipment has skyrocketed which creates challenges in our community. There is a low rate of return when the cost is high. For example, when there is a high cost of fuel it affects everything, it affects how we produce, how we move our products and the products we receive. Agriculture makes this country move and really impacts the economy so when costs are high it’s a real challenge.

What’s one thing you wish more Coloradans knew when it comes to Colorado snowpack, snowmelt, and runoff?

The greatest understanding they need is that the snow as it melts benefits everyone along that route but that water is critical for agriculture to be efficient and able to continue. There are generations that are dependent on that source of water, both in Colorado and downflow to other states. There are only two states in the US where all the water falling on it is promised outside the state and Colorado is one of them. We have a long-standing commitment to honoring river compacts downstream. Understanding that 80% of the population lives on the Front Range, but 80% of the water that falls is west of the [Continental] Divide. People need to recognize that this is part of what Colorado has been. We enjoy the snow, it’s there to play in but it’s also a part of a commitment to other people. 

What led you to be a board for Water Education Colorado and anything to say about your time on the board or our work?

My time on the board hasn’t been real long, but I’ve been impressed with the efforts that [WEco] has made to educate Colorado citizens about the importance of water, and the need for planning for the future; not just future uses but also future conservation of water. I think that it’s been a really good thing involving partnerships across the state, working to promote that education and recognize Colorado Water’s value economically, culturally, socially, and environmentally. Part of what brought me to WEco was seeing general publications that had an inaccurate reflection of what agriculture is in the state, and due to the fact that I was no longer president of the Farm Bureau, I had time available and thought that this was something I could to give back to the community and try and lend the right kind of support to the organization.


Stay tuned for more about snow in Colorado in the spring 2024 issue of Headwaters magazine “The Snow Issue.”

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