Accepting the exceptional

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We are living, gardening, cooking, and eat­ing through another period of exceptional drought. This is the second or third time this has happened in the past 20 years de­pending on how you measure drought. What defines an exceptional drought? The official determination of exceptional drought or the highest level of drought established by the U.S. Drought Monitor “corresponds to an area experiencing exceptional and wide­spread crop and pasture losses, fire risk, and water shortages that result in water emergen­cies.”

Focusing on our local water supply, the Dolores River, the current drought is de­fined more precisely by the Dolores Water Conservancy District (DWCD). In a May 24, 2021 press release, they defined cur­rent conditions as follows, “The Dolores River is once again headed toward record low runoff, on the heels of an abysmal 2020 water year.The Dolores Water Conservancy District and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, primary users of Dolores water flow, said this circumstance places the burden of two horrible years on the Dolores Project users, who will only see a 5 – 10% supply.” Sta­tistically, the Dolores River is “producing” exceptionally low levels of water as reported by DWCD in the press release, “That places 2021 dropping towards the 4th worst runoff after 1977, 2018 and 2002. With 2020 pro­viding the seventh worst recorded runoff, McPhee Reservoir carryover was only 4% of the active capacity.”

While I agree these conditions are abys­mal, I find it hard to call them “exceptional” given the frequency and intensity of the cur­rent drought conditions. I believe we need to recalibrate our drought measures and scales. We are living in a place that is getting hotter and drier. Perhaps it is time that we adjust how we live, garden, cook, and eat to this new reality. It may not be easy, but I believe if we accept this new reality together as a community with compassion and tolerance, we can even thrive during these exceptional conditions. The key to this path will be es­tablishing priorities for our water needs not based on past weather conditions but on an unbiased view of what a hotter, drier future will bring in terms of water resources. How would we allocate water if this year’s drought were not exceptional, but the new normal?

Like other gardeners, I have taken ad­vantage of the longer growing season to extend my garden and its water use earlier in the spring and later into the fall. I gen­erally select vegetable varieties that I like to eat or that have a special flavor rather than consider watering requirements or drought tolerance. I usually use drip or soaker-type irrigation and minimize watering during the hottest hours of the day. But if I am going to have any production from my garden, it is going to need water, especially during the hottest, driest times of the summer. If I were to look at this from a “greater good” perspective, maybe I am not the gardener that should be growing much during these dry times. Perhaps a more efficient, produc­tive gardener should receive my water al­location to grow “my vegetables” in a way that uses less of our precious water reserve. Although I would certainly miss the joy and frustration and writing material that my own garden offers. Jokes aside, market gardeners this year are facing difficult decisions with the forecast of severely limited water sup­plies. Can they meet the market demand profitably with less production or lower-quality produce? Some are deciding to skip the Farmers’ Market altogether rather than risking the time, effort, and investment in­volved in selling local produce.

Similarly, this scales up to agriculture such as alfalfa hay production, one of the larg­est consumers of the Dolores River. While these water users hold senior rights to this water, it might be time to consider if this is the best use for the greater good and com­munity. It is true that the approximately 30,000 acres of irrigated alfalfa hay fields in Montezuma County have a measurable eco­nomic impact on our community. Based on data available from the State of Colorado, ir­rigated alfalfa hay sales amounted to about $25 million, or about 2 percent of income in Montezuma County in 2019. This year, most local alfalfa hay producers are facing tough decisions about how to manage 1 inch of water in fields that were established to produce hay with at least 22 inches of water. Under a new normal, should our community be considering hay fields that can produce $25 million of income with only 10 inches of water annually?

Communities in Montezuma and Dolores counties have been living through exception­al droughts for thousands of years. Their success in surviving these droughts depend­ed, in part, on how the community joined together to allocate this limited resource. Today, we are exceptionally blessed by the foresight and investment made by previ­ous generations in water infrastructure and storage. Montezuma County looked quite different before the establishment of Mon­tezuma Valley Irrigation Company (MVIC) and DWCD to manage the water from the Dolores River for our community. But the time has come for our 21st century com­munity to face the reality that the Dolores River is no longer delivering the amount of water that it has in the past. We must learn to live, grow, cook, and eat with less water from this river. I challenge us to accept this drought as an opportunity to work together to create an exceptional community that will thrive despite drought and less water from the Dolores River.

Carolyn Dunmire gardens, cooks, and writes in Cahone, Colo.

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From Carolyn Dunmire.