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Wet Mountain Valley isn’t so wet this summer

Brief by Hal Walter

Climate – July 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Wet Mountain Valley ain’t so wet this summer

This summer the Wet Mountain Valley and surrounding ranges just aren’t wet at all. In fact they’re drier than a Baptist wedding.

How dry? Well, dry enough that the U.S. Forest Service is considering closing off all forest land to all activities, and the USDA Farm Service Agency is in the process of seeking a Non-insured Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) to help area hay farmers.

District Ranger Cindy Rivera of the forest service’s Cañon City office says she’s hoping against the total closure of all forest land, but the decision will be made by those higher up after discussion with district rangers such as herself, and careful consideration of fuel-moisture readings and weather forecasts in various forests. She says if a closure is ordered, it could cover only land deemed more at risk.

Rivera says a full lockout of forest lands would be harder to police than the current fire ban that has been in effect since May.

So far the fire ban has worked well in Rivera’s district. In one mid-June weekend, rangers checked 70 people with no citations being issued. In addition to open fires and charcoal grills, the fire ban also applies to smoking, welding, fireworks, and explosives, and requires that chain-saw users have a chemical pressurized fire extinguisher and shovel on hand. Violators face a minimum fine of $25, or a maximum fine of $5,000 and six months in jail.

Hopefully, fines similar to those won’t soon be in order for people who decide to take up lesser potential crimes such as hiking or bird-watching.

“Nobody really wants to go into a closure but if it’s necessary based on the science then we may have to,” says Rivera, who warns that the most dangerous time of fire danger — Independence Day — is fast upon us, with illegal fireworks and the highest use of the year.

Dry forests mean dry farmlands, according to Chuck Hanagan of the Farm Service Agency. Hanagan is the county executive director for the agency, overseeing Custer, Frémont, Chaffee and Lake counties.

Farmers in Custer County are hardest hit. Hanagan says Sangre de Cristo snowpack averages in April were just a little over half the normal average, and that during the month of May, an abnormally high percentage of that snow melted off early.

“Throughout the Wet Mountain Valley from the south end to Hillside and Texas Creek, you’ll find very few farmers who have got water at all,” he says. “A large percentage have received no irrigation water for this year.”

As a result, Hanagan says less than half of the acreage normally producing hay will actually be harvested this year and he predicts the price per ton, usually about $95, could skyrocket to the $130 or $140 range.

Combine these high hay prices with the low price of beef cattle, and the drought-caused lack of available pasture, and you have a triple whammy for many ranchers. “You’re going to see some guys go out of business this year,” Hanagan says.

Hanagan says he is initiating the process of applying for the NAP funds since no federal crop insurance is available to hay farmers in Custer County. He says the Federal Crop Insurance Reform Act of 1994 did away with the traditional federal disaster programs for farmers.

“We’ll hopefully be able to reduce some of the financial losses some of these guys are having because of the catastrophic nature of this disaster,” Hanagan says. “I think we meet all the criteria. We’re having farmers come in to report their losses now.”

Both Hanagan and Rivera foresee dips in the local economies from to the drought.

Rivera points out that businesses serving tourists and campers who visit National Forest lands have already been hurt by the fire ban. “Fire bans tend to scare people, and part of camping to some people is to have a fire or at least a barbecue,” she says in acknowledging that camper numbers are already down this year. “A complete closure would have another cumulative effect on small businesses.”

And a good number of ranchers may be too busy eating their own cows to do any shopping locally. “If agriculture hurts, everybody hurts,” says Hanagan.

If it doesn’t start raining soon, some Central Colorado residents may learn this hard lesson the dry way.

–Hal Walter