As hotter, drier climate transforms Southwest, Ute Mountain Ute tribe survives on 25% of water allotment
TOWAOC — Ute Mountain Ute irrigation manager Michael Vicenti looked out from his reservation — toward the Navajos’ sacred “winged rock” and across the arid Southwest — then focused in front of his feet on three-foot-high stalks of blue corn.
They stood straight. But these growing stalks, established on one inch of water per week, now would require twice that much. And Vicenti winced, confiding doubts about whether Ute farming can endure in a hotter, drier world.
Each evening he calls operators of McPhee Reservoir to set the flow into a 39-mile clay canal — the Utes’ only source of water — and makes a difficult choice. Either he saves scarce water or he saves corn.
The Utes are surviving, for now, by relying on a unique asset: a mill built in 2014 where tribal crews de-husk, grind and package all the corn they can harvest: “Native American Grown whole grain Non-GMO.” Sales nationwide to whiskey distilleries, health-oriented grocery stores and others help make ends meet — even as less water is available. Dry times led reservoir operators to cut the Utes’ water to 10% of their allotment last year and 25% this year. Only 13 of the tribe’s 110 center pivot irrigation sprinklers can run.
“It is heartbreaking, terrible, scary. What we need is no longer there,” Vicenti, 41, said, calculating how many cubic feet per second the corn will require this summer as temperatures top 90 degrees.
“I feel a very high responsibility if the corn shrivels up,” he said. “I don’t want to fail.”
The Ute Mountain Utes (Nu`chi`u`), hunter-gatherers who roamed most of Colorado before U.S. treaties confined them to marginal land, face some of the toughest water challenges in a region where farmers widely are rethinking whether they can continue as climate warming hits the area harder.
Across the southwestern United States, agriculture essential to feed the nation requires 80% of water supplies that rapidly are shrinking as temperatures rise. Farmers and ranchers around southwestern Colorado this summer are struggling — selling off cattle, cutting back on planting. Many lack options for adapting like the Utes’ mill that maximizes revenue from whatever can be grown. Some have taken second jobs in retail stores and serving tourists.
The agricultural economy of far southwestern Colorado once encompassed more than 75,000 irrigated acres, including 7,700 acres on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. It relies on the huge McPhee Reservoir completed in 1986, one of the largest and last that the federal government built to enable settlement in the arid Southwest. The reservoir is less than half full. Snowpack in the high San Juan Mountains has been shrinking — recent federal research has found these mountains will be dry before 2080 — and the cumulative impacts are such that runoff toward the reservoir disappears more quickly into parched terrain. The snow melts earlier, complicating planting, and unusually high winds and heavy dust accelerate water depletion.
Federal stream flow monitors around southwestern Colorado showed near-record low water for this time of year.
It means radically reduced water for irrigating food crops.
Over the past 20 years, climate warming in southwestern Colorado faster than the global average led to increasingly difficult conditions, and McPhee water releases had to be curtailed in 2002, 2003, 2013, 2014, 2018, 2020, 2021 and 2022, said Ken Curtis, general manager of the reservoir and the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
“What should we plan for? Is the next 20 years going to be like the last 20? Traditionally when you had drought you tightened your belts, dipped into reserves. But, unfortunately, droughts have been coming fast and furious,” Curtis said. “We’re trying to determine how this is going to go long-term. If it stays this way, we cannot support this many acres.”
Farmers and ranchers “are really questioning more than they ever have in the past” whether they can keep producing, he said. “There’s a lot of reckoning going on.” If climate warming intensifies as climatologists anticipate, some producers “will probably sell.”
A nation once celebrated as a “bread basket” cannot step up as strongly just as war in Ukraine creates needs and potential opportunities. Ultimately, Americans in cities “will see it in the grocery store, both in the prices and the lack of variety,” Curtis said.
The dry conditions here stand out as especially severe in a broader water squeeze that in recent years led to shortages along the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado, the Rio Grande River as it flows through the San Luis Valley, and the Colorado River that starts in the high Rocky Mountains and is tapped using dams and reservoirs across seven states to serve 40 million people and multi-billion-dollar agriculture. Heat-driven depletion of the Colorado River has brought the driest conditions in 1,200 years and data show average reservoir levels across the seven states at 35%, down from 42% last year.
“We’re seeing the implications of climate change” and, beyond agriculture, cities including Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles also must make curtailment decisions, Denver Water manager Jim Lochhead said at a recent forum. “We’re going to need to make them quickly,” Lochhead said, and pointed to water-intensive farming in California and Arizona as a likely first target for cuts.
Colorado’s latest draft water plan projects a statewide 750,000 acre-feet annual shortage to be able to meet demands driven by an expanded urban population in 2050. While maintaining “robust agriculture” remains a state goal, Colorado in the past has allowed shutting down farms as a main way to accommodate more people.
House-building development typically requires less water than agriculture. Converting irrigated agricultural land to housing looms as a possibility in southwestern Colorado if farmers and ranchers sell out. Community conservation groups are mobilizing to try to keep farmland open through dry times.
Hotter, drier conditions intensify pressures on producers that could lead to widely transformed landscapes in southwestern Colorado, said Travis Custer, director of the Montezuma Land Conservancy, who has worked with farmers and ranchers for the past 12 years.
“If your water allocation is an order of magnitude less than it usually is, you cannot do the cropping systems you usually do. A lot of farmers are facing some pretty stark realities: having to combine water sources, let fields go fallow, lower yields if they have any yield at all,” Custer said.
“Ranchers are selling parts of their herds – a huge impact. This is not about having a bad winter anymore. It is about a multi-decade pattern that is increasing in severity,” he said.
“What we’re really talking about is potential permanent change, long-term, to a whole region. It is really stressful. Already, farmers and ranchers have to have second jobs to help float agricultural operations. They might be hunting guides in the fall or winter. I worked with farmers and ranchers who are bus drivers with the school district, part-time, trying to pick up more money. ….. We are going to see really massive change to everything people think the West is.”
Utes, dealt with bad hand, adapt
The Ute Mountain Utes nevertheless are enduring and adapting.
By tribal leaders’ own reckoning and multiple historical assessments, the Utes have been dealt repeated bad hands, forced in the 19th Century onto some of North America’s harshest land – high desert southwest of Cortez — with limited access to water.
For thousands of years, Utes migrated in sync with nature’s seasons across valleys and deserts that became Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. A tribal website video celebrates Utes’ role as stewards of the mountains. European settlers displaced them and disrupted nomadic lifestyles.
A 1908 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said water on reservations had to fulfill the purpose of the reservations, which included agriculture.
Yet, access to sufficient water remains difficult.
Ute Mountain Utes lacked domestic drinking water in Towaoc, the tribal capital, until the late 1980s. Tribal members had been hauling snow down from Sleeping Ute Mountain on their backs and melting it.
Tribal leaders played a key role when farmers and ranchers across the region needed help securing congressional approval for the $500 million McPhee reservoir project, which entailed damming the Dolores River. Federal authorities under President Jimmy Carter had been poised to kill the project. Ute leaders made trips to Washington D.C., and testified about tribal water needs.
Non-tribal project supporters leveraged the Utes’ plight and Congress approved the project.
Today, the Ute annual allocation of reservoir water (24,517 acre-feet) remains relatively low in the region. Tribal negotiators had to give up senior water rights on rivers, and they weren’t able to gain priority for reservoir water during dry times.
Now under the current Dolores Water Conservancy District curtailments, Ute farming operations that once spanned 7,700 acres are sharply reduced with fewer than 1,000 acres planted.
The tribe still must pay an annual fee of $500,000 to the district for running and maintaining the canal.
Less than 60 miles away, the Ute Mountain Ute tribal share of water southwest of Durango in Lake Nighthorse, the other major reservoir in the region, could supply another 16,000 acre-feet. But, like other tribes in the Southwest, the Utes have been unable to take advantage of that water for lack of a delivery system to reach tribal land. The most direct pipeline route would cross protected Anasazi ruins, and routes to the south have been deemed far too costly.
Even with limited water, the Utes are navigating record dry times. A combination of alfalfa hay sales, far less than in the past, and mill production has proved economically sustainable, said Simon Martinez, general manager of Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprises, who oversees the $4 million mill and also serves as deputy director of the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
Tribal leaders wanted to generate jobs in Towaoc, where most of the 2,200 registered Ute Mountain Utes reside. Mill workers earn $20,000 a year. The average per-person income in Towaoc remains $12,330, census data show, with 25% of households in poverty.
Staying solvent, however, may become more difficult, Martinez said, citing the scarce water. A marketing consultant whose strategy depended on increased volume was dismissed, he said, saving $20,000 a month. Being able to sell corn meal products (offered online under the Bow & Arrow brand at $51.99 for three 24-ounce bags) at low volumes when possible in Sprouts and Trader Joe’s markets could make a big difference, he said.
Water scarcity likely will force higher prices, Martinez said. “We need to reassess. Can we double our pricing? We will need to grow as much corn as we can.”
Tribal climate action to survive
Ute leaders also are seeking new water and mulling strategies as part of a 2020 climate action plan.
Shifting to a broader range of crops that can grow using less water, and harnessing better technology for efficient irrigation are primary objectives, requiring outside guidance, said spiritual leader Terry Knight, 73, a former Ute Mountain Ute chairman who advises council members on education and cultural matters.
“We need to find out what we can grow with half the amount of water. After all this time, we cannot just let this go. We have to see what we can grow,” Knight said in a recent interview at the mill.
Four decades ago, Knight was one of the Ute leaders who “took our turns going to Congress” to try to ensure adequate water. His testimony to senators, records show, conveyed a priority of “maintaining tribal integrity” and a skepticism toward “economic development” due to “one hundred years of paternalism and enforced dependency.”
Now treaties and water deals around the reservoir project ought to be reviewed for fairness, Knight said.
“People who signed those maybe could not read the fine print. We need to go back. We need to renegotiate this system. The white man said Utes were not an agrarian people. He said ‘You are hunters and gatherers and you don’t need that water.’ But now we need it. Here we are, right in the game. How can we establish our water rights? We’re going to have to look at how much water there is. How much should be ours? We don’t want to take everything. We want to take what we need for the future.”
Hotter temperatures and droughts take a toll, beyond farming, on cultural practices, too.
Ute traditions include ceremonies at springs on the Sleeping Ute Mountain which, at 9,984 feet elevation, towers over Towaoc. Two decades of drought have dried up the springs.
“I live on the mesa and I’ve been looking at the mountain. It had been raining and snowing this year. But I go up there and see that the springs have been drying. Where did all that moisture go? The mountain took it,” said Knight, one of a handful of Utes fluent in the tribal language.
“That’s been going on for the past 10 years, the mountain going dry. The springs are not there the way they used to be. I used to walk up there, ride a horse. The side of the mountain was my playground. I know where all the springs were. I’d play up there in the summer, me and my dog Rexie. I’d say: ‘You need a drink of water? Find a spring, get a drink and come back.’ But they are gone.”
Tribal elders years ago warned that settlers’ ways would lead to climate disruption. “They said, ‘One of the things you will notice is that it will be getting dry. So be careful. Whatever you do, don’t rely on the water.’ ”
Now increasingly the landscape is suffering, he said. “And we think we got it bad? The animals got it worse.”
Around the Southwest, archeological evidence indicates humans migrated when dry times led to conditions where corn and beans couldn’t be grown. Ute irrigation manager Vicenti considers that possibility as he makes difficult decisions each day. “Without the water, you’ve got to migrate someplace else – to stay alive,” he said. “I hope for snow every winter.”
But inside the mill, tribal crews remained optimistic, pressing to fulfill orders as soon as they came in using all the corn that’s available.
They wore boots, jeans, protective glasses and ear muffs against the roar of their state-of-the-art grinders. These can be adjusted, using 16 different settings, providing corn meal at the fineness that customers specify.
They hoisted 50-pound sacks onto pallets, able to fill as many as two semi-tractor trucks in a day. Mill operator Lamar Fields, 35, who lived for years in metro Denver with its seemingly endless diversions, said he feels the difference of agricultural life here, where he’s the father of two children.
“It gets really hot. You can feel the sun beating down on you,” Fields said.
Dry times mean more of the reservation land looks brown as previously-irrigated fields sit fallow. Utes tend not to talk much about the harsh climate. “Maybe they are scared?”
He focuses on the quality of the corn, making sure crew members wear hair nets, ensuring the purity as bags are stuffed full and loaded.
“We have to figure out a solution,” he said. “You cannot run from your own land. It is home.”