What it Means for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Farm and Ranch
Low snowpack and soaring temperatures made 2020 the third-driest year on record in Colorado—severe drought is never easy, but coupled with a pandemic, it’s even harder. When similar conditions repeated in 2021, reservoirs were already drawn down and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s farm and ranch took a significant hit.
“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.
Overall, the tribe’s farm and ranch enterprises operate for economic empowerment and employment. And operations were 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 Weenuch-u’ Development Corporation President Mike Preston, about the need for more snow in Spring 2022. The corporation manages all the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s enterprises. The Dolores River watershed relies entirely on snowpack. But conditions aren’t looking great—100% of Montezuma county was in drought in late-March 2022, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Forecasts for the Dolores River Basin, as of March 1, project 60-70% of water supply availability this year.
“We’ve got to adapt,” Martinez says.
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.