ORCHARD CITY – On New Year’s Day in 2018, Paul Kehmeier and his father drove up Grand Mesa until they got to the county line, 10,000 feet above sea level. Instead of the 3 to 5 feet of snow that should have been on the ground, there wasn’t enough of a dusting to even cover the grass.
The men marveled at the sight, and Kehmeier snapped a photo of his dad, “standing on the bare pavement, next to bare ground.”
On the Western Slope, no snow means no snowpack. And no snowpack means no water in an area that’s so dry it’s lucky to get 10 inches of rain a year. A few months after taking the photo, Kehmeier stared across the land his family had tilled for four generations and made a harsh calculation: He could make more money selling his ranch’s water than working his land.
A 20-year drought is stealing the water that sustains this region, and climate change is making it worse.
“In all my years of farming in the area, going back to about 1950, 2018 was the toughest, driest year I can remember,” said Paul’s father, Norman, who still does a fair share of the farm’s tractor work at 94.
This cluster of counties on Colorado’s Western Slope – along with three counties just across the border in eastern Utah – has warmed more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), double the global average. Spanning more than 30,000 square miles, it is the largest 2C hot spot in the Lower 48, a Washington Post analysis found.
The average flow of the Colorado River has declined nearly 20% over the past century, half of which is because of warming temperatures, scientists say. With the region’s snowpack shrinking and melting earlier, the ground absorbs more heat – and more of the precious water evaporates.
On the Kehmeiers’ farm, like the rest of the area, just under 2 inches of rain fell between Jan. 1 and July 19. Less than half an inch has fallen since the farming season began April 1, just 25% of the long-term average.
“The seasons where you don’t want to see the warming are warming faster,” said Jeff Lukas, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Western Water Assessment.
In the 2015 Paris accord, international leaders agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the Earth’s overall warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius by 2100.
The world has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the industrial revolution, on average. But global warming doesn’t affect the planet uniformly, and 10% of it is already at 2C, the Post found.
These hot spots offer a window into what will happen as more of the planet warms: In New Jersey and Rhode Island, a 2C world has weakened winter’s bite; in Siberia, 10,000-year-old mammoths are being exposed by melting permafrost; and from Japan to Angola to Uruguay and Tasmania, changing ocean currents and warming water have decimated fisheries and underwater kelp forests.
In Colorado, the rising temperature is forcing a reckoning in this conservative community. The Colorado River supplies water to 40 million people across the West and in Mexico. It nurtures everything from vineyards to cattle to peach trees on the Western Slope, and flows to Los Angeles’ water faucets and Arizona’s cotton fields.
Farming in America’s dry interior has always amounted to an act of defiance. Water has reinvented the landscape that Kehmeier’s ancestors began working on more than a century ago. A vast irrigation network of pipes, tunnels and dams steers melted snow into fields across the valley and has transformed this sagebrush terrain into a thriving agricultural hub.
With his family’s century-old water rights, Kehmeier stores water in a reservoir atop Grand Mesa. Facing long odds on the farm in 2018, he sold it for $100 an acre-foot – quadruple the normal price – to a nearby fruit grower and Orchard City. (An acre foot is what it takes to cover an acre of land in a foot of water, about 325,000 gallons.)
“It would have to come about 16 miles from the top of that mountain down the creek,” he said, pointing toward Grand Mesa, “and the chance of getting it down the creek in a hot, dry year when there’s not much water in the creek and a lot of thieves beside the creek, it was questionable. So, let somebody else deal with that.”
Kehmeier, who grows alfalfa and grass hay, didn’t agonize over his decision, but he didn’t like driving by his dried-up field every day. Call it a blessing or a curse, but farming is in his blood.
“And if it’s in your blood, you want to do it,” he said. “I want to go out kicking and scraping if I have to, but I don’t want to give up.”
He could always plant hay the next year, he thought. Surely, the snow would return.
Establishing agricultureColorado’s Grand Valley, marked by towering mesas, red sandstone spires and two intersecting rivers, didn’t used to be farm country. Until 1881, it was the home of the Utes – hunters and gatherers. But after white settlers arrived and sought to impose an agrarian lifestyle on them, the Utes fought back and killed the federal agent assigned to the valley. In retaliation, Congress passed a law expelling them to a reservation in neighboring Utah, giving the white settlers free rein to claim the Utes’ land. Between 1,000 and 1,500 men, women and children were forced to leave, according to tribal history.
By 1884, William E. Pabor had established the Fruita Town and Land Co. to sell lots, touting the area’s farming potential to would-be settlers.
“They saw fields of green grain waving, they saw harvest days at hand. And the blessings of abundance in the homestead on the land,” he wrote.
An agricultural paradise, complete with the kind of orchards and vineyards Pabor rhapsodized about, took root.
In 1894, Paul Kehmeier’s great-grandfather William and his wife, Leota, arrived on Surface Creek Mesa, southeast of the valley, with three young children in a covered wagon. They ordered apple trees to plant a year or two afterward.
“They were following the trend of pioneers constantly moving towards the West,” said Norman Kehmeier, sitting on his porch as he pointed to the buff-colored house that his grandfather built.
As the pioneers moved in, they started collecting data on the temperature. Five miles north of the family farm, a cattle rancher with a chemistry background began submitting daily weather observations to the Department of Agriculture’s Weather Bureau, the predecessor of the National Weather Service.
Starting in 1898, Henry Kohler recorded the monthly mean temperature, the total precipitation and other details. He and other observers sent their reports to be compiled in Denver.
These early records, written in cursive, form the foundation of NOAA’s official temperature records, which show that around the close of the 19th century, Delta County’s climate was more than 2 degrees Celsius cooler than it is today.
Even as they eyed the weather, these settlers dug ditches and open canals to maximize their access to water. That early engineering feat has morphed into a vast network that now irrigates 919,017 acres of crops on the Western Slope, according to the state’s water plan. Thousands of miles of ditches crisscross the landscape, a small portion of which have been lined with concrete or transformed into buried pipe.
But that network only functions if there’s snowpack.
Last year, Paul Kehmeier adapted to the new reality: He installed even more irrigation equipment and took a job in town.
“You know the saying you see around here on billboards?” he quipped. “‘Behind every successful farmer is a wife with a job in town.’”
For the most part, the lanky 64-year-old farmer is soft-spoken. He believes human activity is helping warm the planet and seeks to reduce his carbon footprint by raising perennial crops and often using an electric motorcycle to get around on the farm instead of a pickup truck.
But he takes umbrage at the idea that he’s a victim of climate change: “I’m not in crisis, and global warming is not going to be the death of me in the next few years.”
Scientists are still working to decipher why some parts of the world are warming so much faster than others. It is clear why high latitude regions like the Arctic are melting, but the reasons behind some other hot spots are more elusive. Shifting ocean currents off the coasts of Angola, Tasmania and Uruguay have formed visible warming hot spots, upending marine life.
Winters in the Northeast are less cold, but experts cannot say yet whether a warmer Atlantic Ocean is driving it. Western Colorado is experiencing a feedback loop, according to Colorado State University senior scientist Brad Udall, because there is less soil moisture to absorb the solar energy and transfer it to the air through evaporation.
“Heating begets drying, and then drying further begets heating,” he said.
Dry areas warm faster for lack of moisture to cool things down, said Chris Milly, a senior resource scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey. Land use, irrigation and natural variability could also help explain part of the disparity.
Milly and another colleague recently found that much of the Colorado River’s climate-induced decline – amounting to 1.5 billion tons of missing water – comes from the fact that the region’s snowpack is shrinking and melting earlier. That’s as much water as 14 million Americans use in a year.
The reservoirs in Lake Mead and Lake Powell are about half full. They supply water for millions of people in the river’s Lower Basin: Arizona, California and Nevada.
The area around Grand Junction, a city named for the intersection of two rivers, helped nurture the growth of the West. Now, local residents are trying to cope with a present that looks very different from this region’s past.
“What we’re seeing is changes in real time,” said Mark Harris, who directs the Grand Valley Water Users Association. “As water managers, regardless of our personal beliefs, we can’t totally disregard these worst-case scenarios. The trends are leading in one direction.”
In a normal year, the Kehmeiers grow between 350 and 400 tons of hay; in 2018, they raised 30 or 40.
To squeeze more snow from the heavens, Grand Junction’s water managers have turned to an increasingly popular strategy out West: cloud seeding. When a storm approaches, silver iodide particles are shot into the sky so they can stick to freezing water vapor and form snowflakes.
Not only are Colorado taxpayers funding this effort: Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico residents are spending $450,000 a year to boost the flow of the ever-shrinking Colorado River.
Will there be enough?With so many people eager to tap into the Colorado River, selling your water carries some risks. Eventually, you might not be farming at all.
The lesson is 308 miles away, in a town called Sugar City, east of Pueblo, Colo. Farmers there sold off all their water rights to surrounding municipalities.
“It used to be a sugar beet growing area,” Kehmeier said. “And that’s about the saddest, dust-blown little nothing town that you ever saw.”
Under a 1922 compact, Upper Basin states – Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico – must deliver an average of 8.25 million acre-feet of water over the course of 10 consecutive years to the Lower Basin states and Mexico.
But as the Colorado River’s annual flow since 2000 is 2.3 million acre-feet below its 20th-century average, it is becoming harder to deliver on its commitment.
The city of Grand Junction recently analyzed whether it has enough water to supply its 30,000 customers even if the drought persists. In the near term, according to its utilities director Randi Kim, the city is fine.
But it also looked over the next 50 years – and came up as much as 3,300 acre-feet short, which would force it to tap water directly from the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. And that was without calculating the full impacts of climate change.
“Our pristine mountain water supply would not be able to meet those projections,” Kim said. “I mean, it’s basically just melted snow. It’s beautiful water.”
An hour to the southeast, David Harold is also trying to cope.
“I grow just about anything that I can get my hands on. I do hops. I do hemp. I do squash. I do sweet corn, and I do dried beans,” Harold said as he steered his truck around his property, papers spilling off his dashboard. “We have cattle.”
Hemp was a new addition to Harold’s rotation. There is a hemp gold rush underway in the valley, fueled by the ever-burgeoning consumer demand for CBD oil products.
“You smell that?” said Steve Anderson, manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, wrinkling his nose as he stepped out of his SUV right next to an enormous hemp field.
Hemp uses less than half the water compared with corn, hay or alfalfa. Last year, people rushed to plant about 14,000 acres on the area he manages.
“It’s not gonna work out. We have a bunch of people, some with limited farming practice getting into it,” said Anderson, a bespectacled man in overalls whose drawl stretches out his words. “So I wish ’em all the best of luck. But what we’re seeing now is not sustainable.”
Harold, for his part, knows he’s taking a gamble. When it comes to hemp, he said, “We don’t know what we’re doing. You know, mine is not the worst, but it’s definitely not great. You know, it’s mediocre.”
Colorado accounted for almost a quarter of the nation’s hemp acreage last year, according to Colorado State University agribusiness professor Dawn Thilmany, but it was a gamble that did not pay off. Because of a glut, the price dropped 66%. In the end, Harold couldn’t find a buyer.
Harold is determined to keep growing other crops, like the Olathe Sweet sweet corn his father trademarked. The two of them, and a few other farmers, formed a group dubbed No Chico Brush to keep farming alive here.
That name alludes to the native scrubs that would replace the green swaths of the valley that exist because of irrigation. Harold and other farmers are now consulting with environmentalists and local officials, trying to balance competing water uses in the valley.
“We don’t want our water to disappear, and the irrigated agriculture to disappear,” Harold said, as he collected compost from his field. “And then this place turns back into, you know, just a valley of chico brush.”
This past winter, it looked like the snowpack would deliver. The Upper Basin’s snowpack was right at 100%. But hotter temperatures robbed the mesa of this bounty, by evaporating water as it ran down the mountain. The Colorado River’s current runoff is just 54% compared with average, according to federal data.
Paul Kehmeier is used to dealing with evaporation: “We have to, as we call it, ‘suffer the shrink.’” But several factors compounded his problems this year. Someone opened the head gate at his main reservoir, so water flowed downhill for two months when it should have been stored.
“Our little site is not much better than 2018,” he said.
Everyone can see the problem, but in a swing state like Colorado, politicians remain divided about the solution.
In Denver, a climate task force has just proposed putting a carbon sales tax on the ballot to help fund a transition away from fossil fuels – a move that would be a first for any U.S. city. But around Grand Junction, where the oil and gas industry still dominates, the politics are more complicated.
The Democrat running for the Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, Diane Mitsch Bush, identifies dwindling snowpack and prolonged drought as major threats to the region. “Climate change is the defining issue of our time,” she declares on her website.
But her GOP rival Lauren Boebert – a gun rights activist whose husband has spent his entire career working in oil and gas – has mocked Democratic calls for climate action.
After presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden tweeted in May, “Climate change poses an existential threat to our future,” Boebert was quick to shoot back. “What’s your climate change solution that doesn’t include taxation and socialism? Oh wait ...” she replied.
This area’s economy is so intertwined with fossil fuels that when teenagers across the globe skipped school in a climate strike last September, student activists took a different tack.
Seventeen-year-old Liliana Flanigan, who just graduated from Palisade High School, remembers when she heard kids elsewhere planned to cut class. “And I remember feeling like” – her voice dropped to a whisper – “‘I can’t drop out of class.’ I mean, it would honestly cause more harm than good.” Instead, the kids protested after school.
The Kehmeiers used to consider themselves Republicans, and still call themselves conservatives. But under President Donald Trump, Norman said, “I have very much left the party, or as I’ve said, the party has left me.”
Last fall, he offered that “maybe” some of the warming he’d observed over his lifetime came from natural causes rather than fossil fuel burning.
“I’m not a climate denier, but I’m not sure how much of it is human caused,” he said. “I reserve judgment on that.”
But in recent months, he’d come to reflect on the tipping points that may no longer be avoidable: warming oceans and melting permafrost. “I’m quite concerned about climate change,” he said in a phone call earlier this year.
Still, with his 95th birthday approaching, he holds fast to a bit of the optimism that has sustained his family on this improbable farming mecca for more than a century.
“I have faith the species will solve the problem after I’m gone.”