Harry Strohauer, owner of Strohauer Farms in LaSalle, Colo., shows off fingerling potatoes.
Harry Strohauer, owner of Strohauer Farms in LaSalle, Colo., shows off fingerling potatoes.

By Jim Offner

Special to The Packer

It’s been too dry in Colorado for too long, fruit and vegetable growers say.

Grower estimates of how long the dry conditions have persisted vary. However, they all share the same concerns about lack of moisture.

“We’re basically in a 10-year drought. We’ve had two years of normal snowpack in the last 10 years,” said Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Monte Vista-based Colorado Potato Administrative Committee.

The association is currently working to cull acreage in order to “get the aquifer in balance,” Ehrlich said. “It’s going to be a long, drawn-out process until we get that done, I’m afraid.”

Parts of Colorado, particularly the southeastern part of the state, have been languishing in exceptional drought conditions for several years, according to the National Weather Service.

From July 16, 2012, through, July 17, 2013, Pueblo had received only 4.35 inches of precipitation, or 8.22 inches below normal, according to unofficial NWS figures.

“We’ve been a drought for quite a while, and especially the eastern plains have been in extreme to exceptional drought,” said Treste Huse, hydrologist with the Denver/Boulder office of the NWS.

She said some areas in the southeastern region had been getting as little as 25% of normal rainfall.

“Much of the western quarter and all the southwest is running pretty much the same,” she said.

Parts of north-central Colorado have fared a bit better, she said. Greeley, for example, had totaled 12.04 inches of precipitation, or about 2.65 inches below average, from July 2012 to this July, the NWS reported.

According to the weather bureau, precipitation in southeastern Colorado is about 10-20 inches below the norm.

“It’s a very big challenge,” said Bob Sakata, owner of Brighton, Colo.-based Sakata Farms, which has cut back acreage in recent years because of state-imposed water restrictions that have reduced well usage to 35% of capacity.

“It should be 100%. It’s a free country and we found the water and the water is there,” he said.

Acreage cutbacks are not uncommon under the ongoing drought conditions, said Chuck Bird, owner/manager of Greeley-based Martin Produce Co.

Bird said the drought has affected his operation since about 2002.

“We’ve lost probably about half of the acres we used to market,” he said.

Bird said Martin grows on or represents about 500 acres of potatoes and onions, compared to 1,000 in years past.

Restrictions on pumping out of the South Platte River likely won’t change for the better, Bird said.

“It’s been to the Supreme Court of Colorado, and the restrictions will remain in place,” he said.

Everyone using well water has to have an “augmentation plan” on file with the Colorado Division of Water Resources. Such a plan is designed to protect existing water rights by replacing water used in a new project, the department said.

The bureau notes that 91% of Coloradans get their domestic water from surface supplies, while the other 9% rely on groundwater tapped by wells.

Avondale, Colo.-based Rusler Produce, which had more than 110 acres of onions in 2012, opted out of the deal this year, said Tommy Rusler, manager.

It was all due to lack of water.

“We knew the situation we were coming into when it was time to plant, and we didn’t have enough water to plant an onion crop,” he said.

The company, instead, will rely on its long-running pinto bean program, which is more amenable to dry conditions, Rusler said.

“We keep that going strong, so that will stay the same,” he said, adding that the current drought is “as bad as anybody can remember.”

Rusler said his company hopes the drought breaks by next April, when it’s time to decide whether to plant another onion crop.