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From Drought To Record Snows

Ranchers reel as extreme weather rocks the West.

One of the heaviest snowfalls in years blanketed Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska in late March, bringing relief from the drought which has withered vast sections of western range.

“It will be a tremendous amount of help for grasslands,” says Ivan Rush, University of Nebraska Extension beef specialist. “But we're not out of the woods. We're going to need more. Some of these ranches are extremely dry. But we'll see a lot of this grass get started if we get some timely rain.”

While the moisture was badly needed, ranchers initially feared that heavy snows, driven into drifts by high winds, might kill large numbers of newborn calves. Early reports suggest calf losses were light, in part because storm warnings allowed producers to move their herds to ravines, calving barns or other protected areas.

“I think losses were very minimal,” says Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “I've not heard any reports of major losses.”

The snows came just in time to boost spring grass growth and replenish soil moisture. In Wyoming, for instance, three years of drought had left soil bone-dry below eight inches. Then two feet of snow moistened soil down to 20 in., says Wyoming climatologist Jan Curtis.

The impact of the March storm varied from state to state. Colorado was hit hardest, recording the highest snowfall on record for March and the second highest snow total for any month in the state's history.

There was hope that the heavy snow would generate enough forage to head off another big sell-off of western cattle. In Wyoming, for instance, a third of the state's breeding stock has been sold because of insufficient forage or because ranchers couldn't afford supplemental hay to get livestock through the winter.

Many ranchers lost much of their hay production for lack of irrigation. When they could afford to buy replacement hay, they often paid exorbitant prices. One rancher reported paying $100/ton to replace lost production. With sufficient irrigation, he says he could have grown it himself for $25-30/ton.

The drought has also sharply reduced forage. For instance, a Wyoming range that normally produces 1,500 lbs. of forage/acre produced a third of that or less. Some areas yielded as little as 300 lbs./acre, says Phil Rosenlund, University of Wyoming Extension agent.

The drought has been so bad that sections of Colorado feared a repeat of the dust bowl of the 1930s. Sections of western Nebraska, which normally get 15 in. of moisture/year, got just 7 in. last year. “And a lot of that was useless,” Extension agent Rush says, because it came in increments of .2 in. or less.

While the big snows should help the range, it won't provide enough moisture to refill reservoirs used for irrigation. Nor is it likely to fully replenish dried-up creeks and springs, which reduces the number of range watering sites for cattle.

Reservoirs, rivers and streams all depend on runoff from melting mountain snow pack. This year, mountain soils are so dry that much of the snow from the big storm won't run off. Instead, it will go to recharge the ground as it melts. In effect, the mountains are like a sponge. They must be saturated before they shed much water.

That's one reason the impact of drought lingers long after normal rain and snowfall resume. Typically, Curtis says, it takes one year to recover for every year of drought.

Doug McInnis is a freelance writer based in Casper, WY.

Read The Reservoirs

One of the best measures of the western drought is the level of water in reservoirs operated by the federal Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). The BOR's North Platte River reservoir system, which serves eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, can store roughly 2.8 million acre-ft. of water. As of last September, the system held just 800,000 acre-ft. — a severe shortfall for the area's ranches and farms that use more than 80% of the system's water.

Each year, on average, 1.4 million acre-ft. of water — most of it from melting snow pack — flows into the North Platte reservoirs. Drought has slashed that figure. In 2000, the first year of drought, these reservoirs got only about half of the average inflow. In 2002, as drought pushed into a third year, the North Platte system got just one-eighth of normal inflow.