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Parched West Faces Many Woes

Weather: There's no relief in sight from six years of drought. Meanwhile, a wildfire in Colorado has grown to 2,100 acres.

April 25, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALAMOSA, Colo. — A severe water shortage brought on by yet another dry winter--coupled with the premature onset of summer--threatens to devastate the Rocky Mountain states. Conditions are so bad so early in the year, that officials fear the extended drought will debilitate the region's economic powerhouses: agriculture, livestock and recreation.

And, forecasters warn, the tinder-dry forests could make this the worst wildfire season ever. This week, on the same day that Colorado Gov. Bill Owens announced a drought emergency and released $500,000 to fight fires, a major blaze broke out in the mountain town of Bailey, south of Denver. The fire grew to 2,100 acres Wednesday, forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate. About 1,000 homes and a dozen businesses were threatened.

Crews stood ready to defend downtown buildings as about 200 firefighters battled the blaze, with more fire crews being flown in today from the Northwest.

"We've got a serious situation here, and we're really working hard," fire information officer Terry McCann said. He said cooler weather and higher humidity Wednesday night had calmed the fire some, but said the situation remained dangerous. Some residents were allowed to return home late in the evening.

Colorado is not alone in its problems. This month governors in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona declared drought emergencies and requested a similar designation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The federal action would allow farmers and ranchers to receive low-interest loans to pay bills.

"It's about as dry as it can get here," said rancher George Whitten of the San Luis Valley, near the New Mexico line in the south-central part of the state. The area receives a mere 6 to 7 inches of moisture a year, including snowfall.

"People talk about how bad it is compared to the norm, but it seems to me like drought is the norm," Whitten said.

While a dry spring in the East has driven lake levels in some areas to record lows and brought national attention, most of the states in this region have endured worse conditions for as long as six years.

If dry conditions persist along the Eastern Seaboard's urban corridor, more households will likely be affected by water rationing than the sparsely populated West. But the economic implications of the Western drought are more far-reaching--it could result in higher food costs, the loss of tourism dollars and astronomical bills from fighting wildfires near housing subdivisions.

The Rocky Mountain snowpack has been at its lowest levels in decades, at 12% of normal in some areas. Now it's gone. Even at altitudes above 11,000 feet the snow has already melted, weeks ahead of schedule. And, instead of engorging streams and rivers, the water absorbed into the desiccated soil before reaching the waterways.

Water from melted snow is vital to fast-growing communities downstream. Water levels in rivers and streams support fish and wildlife, as well as recreational activities such as boating. Water flowing into reservoirs such as Roosevelt Dam in Arizona is a source of inexpensive hydroelectric power.

Snow melt is also essential to recharge the wells and springs used by farmers and cattle growers throughout the West.

Here in the San Luis Valley, producer of most of Colorado's meat and vegetables, flow in the Rio Grande River has been below normal for 10 of the last 14 years. The situation has led to dire predictions for the health of the valley's $500-million agricultural economy.

Somehow, in the face of it all, locals can indulge in gallows humor. Ask state water engineer Steve Vandiver what it will take to reverse the dry trend in southern Colorado and this is the answer: "There's a situation mentioned in the Bible that will take care of it: Rain for 40 days and 40 nights."

The problem can be clearly seen from the kitchen of Whitten's ranch house near Saguache Creek, north of Alamosa. The spectacular view is of the Sangre de Cristo range, source of the headwaters of the Rio Grande. The rugged peaks ought to be covered with snow to the tree line. Instead, the mountains are an unbroken gray down to brown flatland.

Whitten raises 400 head of cattle on 1,800 acres, helped by his wife, Julie Sullivan, and their border collie, Chico. To the Whittens, the drought is all about food for the cattle.

Rainfall is needed to bring up the native grasses that cattle feed on in the summer. Irrigation is necessary to grow the alfalfa or hay now that gets the cattle through the winter. Without water to grow his own food, a rancher like Whitten has to buy commercial hay or feed at high cost.

Range conditions this summer may also mean that Western ranchers won't be allowed to graze their cattle on public lands. Bureau of Land Management supervisors in several states have already warned that unless conditions improve, ranchers with grazing permits might be turned away.

"There are some people here who will spend their life savings buying feed for their cattle this summer," Vandiver said.

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