Blizzard dumps snow on Montana ranches

Since extremely low temperatures disrupt the grazing patterns of cattle, it is important to provide spring calving herds with supplementary, high-energy forages.

Although it’s still a little early to predict for certain what kind of winter is in store for the Intermountain Region, hopes are for a wet one to make up for a dry and hot year. Of utmost concern right now is how low reservoir levels are for many states in the region.

Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center and Colorado state climatologist, told WLJ reservoirs in the West are very low, some at record low levels. 

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“What we need is a big snow winter, probably more than one, and that’s not really what the outlooks are pointing to at this point. So it doesn’t look favorable that we’re going to reverse these long-term dry conditions anytime soon.”

In terms of the state’s snowpack level for the 2020-21 water year (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30), Schumacher said most of Colorado’s basins ended up below average in the winter, except for the South Platte Basin. There were a few big spring storms for the Plains, but not so much in the mountains.

The summer was a little more favorable, with an active monsoon season throughout the Southwest. Arizona experienced one of its wettest summers on record, and Colorado and Utah had incidences of flash flooding.

“While it certainly helped the water situation, it didn’t really put much of a dent in the long-term dryness,” Schumacher said.

He noted areas such as eastern Colorado and some of the Great Plains experienced an extremely wet spring but an extremely dry summer, which really dried things out.

“In terms of soil moisture and things like that, I think most places are going into the winter in maybe a bit of a better situation than we were last winter, but it’s still not great,” he said. “Most places are still quite dry in terms of soil moisture.” 

Far West dry conditions not likely to let up

Schumacher said soil moisture had a huge impact last winter into the spring. Although the snowpack levels were only slightly below average, the dry soil caused the snowpack to turn into below-average streamflows, leading to why the reservoirs are in such low conditions, he said.

“Throughout the Colorado River Basin—so much of the Western U.S.—we’ve seen pretty steady declines in streamflows and reservoir levels over the last 20 years or so. This is partly due to lack of precipitation and partly due to overall warming,” Schumacher said.

He added this begins to put a lot of stress on anybody that relies on water—certainly agriculture—and there are going to be continued challenges with water availability going into next spring. Reservoirs are meant to provide a buffer for a year or two of dryness, he explained, but when dryness persists, the buffer doesn’t go very far anymore.

Forage planning during drought for the next year

Schumacher said this summer, producers in Colorado struggled with having to haul water and irrigators not getting their full usual allocations. However, the wildfire season was not as bad as last summer, due to well-timed monsoon rains.

“At this time of year, we’re always hopeful that we’re going to see a good snow winter and build up a good snowpack. And we certainly all hope for that this winter, but we need to have people prepared that that may not be what happens this winter, too,” he concluded.

Erin Whorton, water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Idaho Snow Survey, told WLJ that Idaho had the second driest spring on record and the hottest summer on record this year.

“We came in optimistic thinking that we were going to have a good growing season, but then such dry weather—such hot weather—really impacted crop production, especially dryland farming in northern Idaho,” Whorton said.

Typically, northern Idaho has enough moisture throughout the summer to get them through the growing season, she said, so it was surprising there was such a bad drought. The central part of Idaho is also in their second year of drought, so producers are struggling because not only is their surface water depleted, but reservoir levels were lower than average, Whorton said.

The entire state is experiencing some form of drought right now, with 63 percent of the state in severe to extreme drought conditions—a drastic change from the same time last year, when less than 1 percent of the state was in that category.

Expectations are that drought is going to persist through the end of the year but improve in the northern swath of the state. Temperatures are also likely to be a bit higher.

Whorton and Schumacher both spoke on the possibilities of having another La Niña this season. Expectations are for there to be La Niña conditions, although this past year was expected to have a strong La Niña, and it was more neutral than expected. Colorado, for example, experienced dry conditions in the mountains but a wet spring on the Eastern Plains, which is typically not what happens during La Niña.

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In Idaho, last year’s water year saw a below-normal snowpack everywhere, mostly due to the dry spring and summer, Whorton said. With low reservoir storage right now, the state is relying on fall rains and increased snowpack to get an adequate water supply for the next year.

The upper sinks of the state are about 1 million acre-feet short of average levels, she said. Typically, the average is about 4 million acre-feet, so there is a lot of water to gain between now and when the irrigation season begins.

Whorton said producers in the state struggled with the amount of hay cuttings they were able to get this summer, not having enough water for more than one or two cuttings. Feed was the top production expense this last year—$1.4 billion—close to twice as much as the next cost, which was labor. Water scarcity in addition to the high cost of feed also forced ranchers to sell off more cattle than anticipated. Crop farmers were unable to produce the quality and output that they typically would.

“What we’re really hoping for is a rainy fall season to lock in a lot of that soil moisture before the soils freeze up for the winter,” Whorton said.

When asked if she had anything else to add, Whorton replied simply with: “Pray for rain.” Anna Miller, WLJ managing editor


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