Anyone who has lived in the valley for very long knows that nothing much changes from year to year around here. Even with something of a real estate boom happening there isn’t a home building frenzy like you might expect to see, no big-box stores being proposed, or chain restaurants and I think that’s just fine with most folks. To my eye, however, there is something on the landscape that stands out as different this year – hemp. Over the past couple years we saw cannabis growers flow into the area, buying land, and setting up some impressively sized grow operations under the guise of medical marijuana “caregiver” status. With the state and county cracking down on that by limiting properties to just a dozen plants we’re seeing some of those growers moving out, or switching to hemp. But it’s not just former weed growers who are jumping on the hemp bandwagon. Some farmers who have traditionally grown hay are planting acres of the stuff and more are on the way judging by the number of inquiries we received this spring from would-be growers looking to purchase land. It was about three years ago that I got my first call from a hemp grower looking for a place to plant their crop. What, to make rope or blue jeans? That was when I heard the term “CBD” for the first time. I also learned that, like their psychoactive cousin, the plants mature and are harvested in the early fall and need to be irrigated into October – so not just any ‘hay ground’ will do. Finding the right place to grow hemp starts with following the water and in a drought year like this one, it can be an elusive search.
To find out just how bad the irrigation situation is this year I called our local water commissioner, Luke Reschke, a fellow who has a lot of responsibility administering decrees and some big shoes to fill following the long tenure of his predecessor Steve Tuck. It looks like this year is going to be a little worse than 2002, which was the worst drought since 1977’s uber-dry summer. Here’s the rundown: Around Paonia, the Minnesota ditch, which typically runs 30-40 cfs carried 35 cfs for only two weeks and currently is flowing at just 6 cfs for stock water but it’s expected to go dry by the time this is published. The North Fork river went on call June 14th, about a month earlier than usual and decrees junior to 1937 have been curtailed. With the call, water from the Paonia Dam started being released to maintain flows to the head-gate of the Fire Mountain Canal at Somerset. The early release means that the Fire Mountain will likely go dry in mid-August instead of the typical mid-September date. Even the super-reliable Stewart Ditch will see a cut in its typical 60 cfs flow while the “A grade” ditches like the North Fork Farmers ditch, Short ditch, Paonia and Monitor ditches will benefit from their seniority and keep flowing.
The situation in Crawford is even worse according to Greg Powers who administers the water. For example, the Saddle Mountain Canal was essentially never in priority for water from the Smith Fork this spring and users only received their allocation of “reservoir water” which didn’t get them very far at all. Fruitland went dry June 12th with whatever hay there was already cut, bailed and in the barn. Mr. Powers said he believes that the Clipper ditch will carry some water through the end of the season but advises farmers who want to have late water to delay calling for their project water for as long as possible because the Crawford reservoir only filled to 70% and allocations are delivered on a pro-rata basis – meaning everyone will receive only 70% of what is typically delivered. I’ve heard that the monsoon season that usually starts in mid-July is predicted to start early this year so perhaps some relief is on the way. Meanwhile, pray for rain.