An ominous graphic on the U.S. Drought Monitor website reveals worsening drought conditions overtaking the region.
The 12-week map animation begins March 19 and ends June 4. Red hues representing high levels of drought creep closer and closer to the Four Corners, and then engulf Montezuma and San Juan counties and parts of Dolores and La Plata counties.
Southwest Colorado started at a moderate (D1) drought category in March. It was upgraded to severe (D2) April 23, and then to extreme (D3) on June 4.
Southeastern Colorado is suffering from an exceptional (D4) drought, the most severe on the scale. Dry, windy conditions are creating massive dust storms around Lamar and La Junta, stripping farms of topsoil.
Most of central New Mexico is categorized as exceptional (D4) as well.
"We're already in full-blown disaster mode," said Paul White, director of the local Farm Services Agency. "Right now the soil moisture levels are fast depleting and that affects all aspects of farming and ranching."
White reports an increase in insurance claims for crop losses. He is bracing for more as farmers run short of water, and are forced to abandon or plow under crops.
Payments from claims are only available for agricultural producers who signed up for 2013 crop insurance. All the deadlines have passed.
No relief yet
Mike Rich, of the Natural Resources Conservation Services in Cortez, said the upgrade in drought category does not free up additional relief programs for area farmers.
"The assistance is being used for southeast Colorado where they are experiencing a category D4 drought," he said. "They are getting a lot of wind erosion."
The federal Environmental Quality Incentive Program provides funding for soil fencing and cover crops in the worst hit areas, Rich said. The funding would become available locally if the region were designated as D4.
"The dryland farmers around Pleasant View are the most vulnerable to soil erosion from drought, but there has not been a whole lot of blowing out there," he said. "They have their crops in and depend on soil moisture from the winter and a good monsoon season."
The seven- to 10-day outlook does not look promising, said Chris Cuoco, senior forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. A persistent high pressure ridge and a jet stream positioned far to the north is preventing any moisture from entering the Four Corners area, he said.
The El Niño/La Niña phenomenon in the southern Pacific Ocean is neutral right now, Cuoco said. If the waters off the coast of South America warm up (El Niño), the chance for precipitation in the Southwest increases.
Monsoon rains pushing in from the south in late summer and fall are also heavily relied on for farmers and ranchers.
"The good news there is that there has not been a year without a monsoon in 30 years, it is just that some are wetter than others," Cuoco said.
'Five feet down'
Tom Hooten, CSU ag extension director for Montezuma County, said the drought has been an ongoing issue.
"It is really a long-term drought that started more than 10 years ago, but it is never too late to prepare," he said.
Using soil moisture probes to determine efficient use of water is critical.
"It is a real eye-opener for people when they find out they have not been watering enough or too much," Hooten said.
The Dolores Conservation District is offering an ag water management assessment course in late June, said board member Steve Miles. Sign up at the NRCS office, 628 W. 5th St. in Cortez.
The class is $20 and includes a soil moisture probe. Information is available on a cost share program for replacement of side-roll nozzles.
"It is about efficient use of water: application rates, distribution rates and if it is the right amount for the crop," Miles said. "People are surprised when they push the moisture probe in and it goes down five feet. It shows they are wasting water."
Drought impacts will hit all areas of the economy, not just agriculture.
"If we don't get moisture there is no rafting, Purgatory can't open and the risk of wildfire could shut down the Durango train," White said. "The community is going to feel it, all the towns are going to be impacted. It is all connected, and it could mean a spike in food prices."
Webinars and information on managing drought risk for ranchers and farmers are available at www.ext.colostate.edu/drought/index.html