Thriving in drought

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Well, it’s official. We are in a severe drought. Just a month ago there was hope that this year’s low snowpack could fill McPhee Reservoir. But with a dry April, it looks like the reservoir won’t fill completely and we are all faced with a water shortage.

After last year’s water bounty and months-long boating season on the lower Dolores River, it’s tough to face a dry spring. But we are resilient folk and we have developed many strategies to thrive when the water supplies are low. Everyone can do their part to conserve water for the “best and highest use” this growing season.

Whether you are a flower and vegetable gardener, rancher, or just tending a lawn with a semi-wild area, this is the year to invest in good irrigation equipment. It will be important to put water exactly where it is needed – the roots of our vegetables, flowers, and grasses. Not on the weeds. I am considering upgrading from soaker hoses to drip irrigation to reduce my water use and focus those drips exactly where I want them. There may be additional outdoor watering restrictions, but best practices recommend avoiding watering during the heat of the day. And don’t forget to fix those leaks; fix those leaks; fix those leaks!

In addition, good soil care and mulching will be well rewarded this year. After watering, keeping the soil cool and covered will help to minimize water loss to evaporation. It only seems logical after you carefully placed the water at the plant roots to make sure it gets absorbed by the plant, not the dry air. There’s a wide range of soil water-retention and mulching strategies. Everything from dryland farming that uses the dry topsoil as mulch, planting the seeds deep enough to reach the ground moisture, to no-till methods that retain the previous year’s plant matter as soil cover, to colored bark and straw raked carefully around the plants into colorful patterns and textures. Whichever soil cover strategy you choose, make sure to track water absorption and use the plants as an indicator of watering needs rather than “the dirt looks dry.” This is not the year to lose any plants to over-watering.

Since we all share water, each of us can help conserve it. This year every drop counts! Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Repair any leaks in faucets, toilets, showers, and hoses.
  • Collect and reuse gray water – it can be as simple as washing veggies in a bowl and saving the water for houseplants, or as complex as diverting the outflow from your washing machine to an outdoor location.
  • If it ever does rain, consider collecting or diverting water from your roof gutters into a rain barrel or garden plot.
  • This is the year to get a good return on investment in xeriscape or droughttolerant plantings. Consider swapping out the usual plot of pansies and petunias with sage, sedum, and sunflowers.
  • Support local food growers by purchasing drought-tolerant varieties of vegetables. They may be new and look weird but giving them a try will help the local growers survive what could be a lean year.
  • Let the farmers know that you are doing your part to conserve water and support locally grown food, even when the barrel runs dry. My local food support strategy is to dig up some new salsa recipes to take advantage of the inevitable bounty of hot chilis that will thrive in the hot, dry weather. Finally, it never hurts to pray for rain!

Carolyn Dunmire writes from Cahone, Colo. Her Four Corners Foodie column took a second-place award at the regional Top of the Rockies competition in April.

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From Carolyn Dunmire.