Soils on Colorado’s high plains “continue to deteriorate” amid ongoing drought


Hotter, drier conditions on Colorado’s super-parched high plains this week drove state officials to order an emergency salvage operation to stop “catastrophic fish kill” as irrigators draw down a water supply reservoir.

Ranchers have been selling off cattle. Wells have run dry.

On the bright side, a notoriously resilient invasive weed called kochia, which germinates repeatedly and can poison cattle and sheep, began to die off.

“We’re definitely in the hole,” Colorado State University water resources specialist Joel Schneekloth said from his posting 115 miles northeast of Denver at Akron. “When you see kochia weeds dying, and it’s not from herbicide, you know it is bad.”

The cumulative effects of a 22-year drought and a looming heat wave forecast for eastern Colorado and the broader Great Plains have piqued state concerns about soil deterioration, state climatologist Russ Schumacher said. And, as farmers and ranchers wait for rain, climatologists project minimal precipitation in the coming weeks with storms confined to the western mountains, leaving Colorado’s high plains and much of the Great Plains east of Front Range cities at the mercy of rising temperatures that should top 98 degrees at least through Sunday.

Sally Jones-Diamond, left, and her husband ...

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Sally Jones-Diamond, left, and her husband Jim Diamond are pictured together during wheat harvesting season in Akron, Colorado, on Friday, July 15, 2022. Jim’s farm has been in the family for 129 years. He and Sally work to find new ways to combat drought and pests on their farm.

Farmers and ranchers lament that summer rain so far has been spotty and too scarce. While weather data shows mountainous western Colorado gained moisture in June, the rain that did fall in parts of eastern Colorado quickly disappeared into bone-dry terrain or evaporated.

“The outlook points to more hot and dry conditions over eastern Colorado in the next couple weeks, so conditions will likely continue to deteriorate there,” Schumacher said.

Multiple state agencies now are monitoring conditions in northeast Colorado, where “soils are very dry” and rapidly deteriorating, he said. It’s the latest hotspot as climate warming hits harder statewide from the Four Corners to the borders with Nebraska and Kansas.

“We know that warming has been increasing the atmosphere’s thirst for water, and this means that the water we get doesn’t go as far. This is leading to a range of impacts across the state affecting different areas in different ways,” Schumacher said.

Colorado’s high plains, nourished by dwindling creeks and the South Platte and Arkansas rivers, play a key role in the state’s $7 billion agricultural economy.

A cow crosses the Arkansas River ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

A cow crosses the Arkansas River east of John Martin Reservoir near Hasty on March 11, 2021.

Fish blitz

The draw-down of water-supply reservoirs by agricultural producers around the state reached a crisis point at Queens (aka Neeskah) Reservoir — east of Colorado Springs and north of Lamar in Kiowa County — forcing Colorado Parks and Wildlife crews to intervene to salvage stocked fish.

This reservoir sits within the 13,886-acre Queens State Wildlife Area and is part of the Great Plains Reservoir System that, according to a 2019 consultant’s memo to state officials, can store up to 265,552 acre-feet of water (up to 35,657 in Queens Reservoir) that irrigates 33,000 acres of crops — mostly water-intensive alfalfa.

The system also includes the Neenoshe, Neegrande and Neesopah reservoirs — fed by canals running 60 miles from the Arkansas River near La Junta.

Shortgrass prairie here traditionally sustained birds, including piping plovers, American avocets, royal tern and others, according to the Audubon Society. State creation of the recreation area encouraged camping, boating, fishing and hunting (deer, pheasant, quail, waterfowl).

“Queens is drying up. There’s nothing we can do about it. The irrigators decided they need the water,” CPW spokesman Bill Vogrin said. “We don’t want the fish to go to waste.”

This week, state crews captured as many of the stocked fish as possible for transfer to other water bodies. CPW officials on Monday had declared an emergency and appealed for Colorado residents with fishing licenses to help out — “rather than letting fish die,” Vogrin said.

On Thursday, all are invited to catch and carry away as many as possible for free.

Stocked species in the reservoir include catfish, crappie, saugeye, white bass and wipers.

“There’s a lot of fish in there,” Vogrin said. “We hope we’ve caught the bulk of them. We need the public’s help.”

Jim Diamond, left, and his wife ...

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Jim Diamond, left, and his wife Sally Jones-Diamond check the wheat during the harvest season at a farm in Akron, Colorado on Friday, July 15, 2022. They said drought has caused their current crop to grow only about half its usual size.

Food growers struggling

Meanwhile, ranchers have been selling off portions of their cattle herds, state officials said, as in other parts of the state. High plains farmers are struggling to make ends meet. Those who irrigate their fields in northeastern Colorado have increased their water withdrawals from reservoirs by 28% this past year, CSU resource specialist Schneekloth said.

Out on one of his fields northeast of Akron, wheat farmer Jim Diamond, 35, was sitting in the cab of a combine harvester cutting wheat that looked “very drought-stricken and short.” Diamond farms without irrigation on land where his family has grown crops since 1893.

After a dry fall, the land grew even drier this year and exceptionally high winds in May buffeted and blew away soil.

“Yeah, there’s been a lot of ground blowing around,” Diamond said this week as he drove. “And then you try and go out and re-seed it, just to get the ground covered up. You don’t want to let it all blow away. That’s pretty expensive. And it’s the right thing to do to try and not blow over onto your neighbors.”

Jim Diamond of Diamond Farms is ...

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Jim Diamond of Diamond Farms harvests wheat with a combine and tractor at his family’s farm in Akron, Colorado, on Friday, July 15, 2022.


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