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Colorado's Dolores River should be raging through canyons — instead it's nearly dry

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You do not have to go to a United Nations conference in Scotland to see the effects of climate change.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. Many parts of the United States have been experiencing it for years. As fires, droughts and floods get worse, it gets easier for scientists to link those events to a warming planet.

INSKEEP: So as world leaders talk this week of what they might do, we are exploring what is in two parts of the United States. Yesterday, Rachel took us to South Carolina's much-too-low country, which has too much water. A Martinez visited southwestern Colorado, which doesn't have enough.

JIM WHITE: We should not be standing where we are right now. We're standing in the riverbed.

A MARTINEZ, BYLINE: This is Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks & Wildlife. We met up with him in the Dolores River. We're in a canyon surrounded by tall red cliffs carved out by centuries and centuries of flowing water.

WHITE: We should be hearing a river flowing through the cobble. The Dolores River is characterized by lots of large bouldery (ph), sharp sandstone rocks, and it's steep. And it has some of the most infamous rapids in the country, and you would hear the rushing water running through these stones. And right now, it's a gorgeous afternoon. We can hear the birds. But we're standing in the river, and we can't hear the river.

A MARTINEZ: The river should be teeming with trout and other animals. The area we're in has been reduced to several small pools.

WHITE: Fish have been around and on the landscape and in these rivers for over a million years - we know that - up to 2 million years. These fish have evolved with low and high flows. So they can handle a certain amount of that. But what they can't handle is essentially a dry channel.

A MARTINEZ: So for you, is there that direct line, that direct link, climate change to what's going on?

WHITE: You know, I think there is. We're seeing shortages in terms of the amount of water being delivered downstream. And this is by far the lowest we've ever seen the Dolores River. So we are seeing this increased frequency in drought.

A MARTINEZ: The water from the river is used to irrigate thousands of acres of farmland downstream.

WHITE: The Dolores River is emblematic of water management across the West. Flows have been diverted out of this basin for 130 years. In 1890, the water community punched a hole through the divide and started sending water to the Montezuma Valley area. And as a result, what you see - and especially downstream - is just this river channel that is messed up (laughter). I can't say on radio what I really think of it, but it is messed up. It's really unfortunate and sort of tragic.

A MARTINEZ: Some of that tragedy is playing out about 40 miles south of the river at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm & Ranch Enterprise.

SIMON MARTINEZ: The water comes off the Dolores River into McPhee Reservoir, second-largest manmade reservoir in the state of Colorado. And it goes up, and you can see right up here is the edge of the canal, and that canal comes 39 miles to us from Dolores, Colo., down to the reservation.

A MARTINEZ: Simon Martinez is the manager of this massive farm of nearly 8,000 acres of land. During good times, they grow alfalfa, corn and graze 700 head of cattle while employing members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. But looking at a map in his office, things are much different this year.

S MARTINEZ: This map consists of 110 pivot circles - gives you the acreage, 46, location.

A MARTINEZ: And a pivot circle is where the crop is grown.

S MARTINEZ: Yes.

A MARTINEZ: Think of those lush, green circles you see when you look out of an airplane's window while flying over farmland, each of those crop circles full of food being grown. We're looking at two maps of the farm, one for 2020 and one for 2021. And they're color coded. A colored circle means a planted field. A gray circle means a field is fallow, and there is nothing planted.

Simon, this first map you showed us from 2020, it's like a rainbow. There are so many different colors. It's...

S MARTINEZ: Everything is under water.

A MARTINEZ: Yeah. So I'm comparing them to the map from 2021, and that - I mean, it's all gray. It's almost all gray.

S MARTINEZ: Yes, sir. This year, there's eight pivots running out of 110. This one, there's 109 running out of 110. This is the effect of the drought.

A MARTINEZ: And regardless of how many pivots are running, the farm still needs to pay for the same amount of water that they're allotted by the state of Colorado whether they actually get it or not.

S MARTINEZ: The Ute Mountain Farm & Ranch Enterprise bill is over a half-a-million dollars a year. We have been able to pay that through the years, the last 17 years, regularly. It's an issue now because of what we're dealing with. Not that we've had to go this direction any time before - this is new ground for everybody because there was no crop. There was no income. There was no revenue.

A MARTINEZ: Simon had to lay off about half of his workers this year. The farm is only able to stay afloat because it's also the home of Bow & Arrow Foods, where Simon and his team mill corn for use in pasta, tortillas and other food. That income is currently paying the bills. Back upstream, we get another picture of the dire water levels at the McPhee Reservoir. It's a manmade lake near the city of Cortez surrounded by hills and trees. From a high overlook, you get a clear picture of the lines along the shore indicating where the water level used to be.

KEN CURTIS: We're only about 40% full.

A MARTINEZ: Ken Curtis is the manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which sends water from the river for use downstream.

So normally, how high would the water be from where I would be looking at right now?

CURTIS: So you can see the tree line over there. All these islands out here would be under water.

A MARTINEZ: Wow.

CURTIS: And that canal out there should be under 67 feet of water.

A MARTINEZ: Ken makes no bones about why he thinks the water has been more scarce than usual lately, why it feels more troubling now than in years past.

CURTIS: We've always understood that there have been historic droughts. Having said that, we appear to be in a drought compounded by climate change. And so we don't know where the light at the end of the tunnel is. We can do one year. We can maybe struggle through a couple of years. But this isn't how it was built to operate under these hydrologic conditions. And we don't know how long that extends. So...

A MARTINEZ: So it's the unknown kind of the - part of it. You mentioned how there is drought. There - you know, that's just how this place operates. But compounded by climate change, it puts everyone kind of wondering - OK, what's next? What's going to happen next?

CURTIS: You worry that much more about next year. Normally, this lake could be about 40 foot higher. We'd know we have some supply in the bank for next year, and that's what we would build on with the natural snowpack and runoff. We have zero in the bank right now. Everything we're going to use next year is yet to fall from the sky. And so the risks are that much higher, and another year of drought will just compound the economic hardship of our farmers.

A MARTINEZ: Farmers like father and son Brian and Landon Wilson. Their family has farmed in the area since the early 1900s. And Brian can't deny what he has not been seeing - an abundance of water.

BRIAN WILSON: It's not looking real good for next year. We had 1.7 inches of water available to us as farmers when we normally - a full allocation is 23. So we consolidated all of our water safe from eight pivots down to one pivot for two weeks. We got two weeks of water to put on that 1.7 inches. So when I look at this, it's not looking much better for 2022 than it did for '21.

A MARTINEZ: Brian's son Landon bought his first piece of farmland four years ago.

LANDON WILSON: It's scary. I mean, you know, I'm hoping to continue to farm as long as I can. But, you know, with the current water situation, it does have me worried and concerned. You know, it's definitely not ideal. And I knew that farming would never be easy to begin with. I just never knew that it would be this severe.

A MARTINEZ: So what kind of plans are you making?

B WILSON: I'm hopeful that we get a good winter, and we see lots of snow in the mountains. And we - you know, we'll wait to make a lot of the major decisions as far as seed purchase, fertilizer purchase, until the spring, till that March, April, see how the winter comes and how much snowfall there is and how much potential runoff there is.

A MARTINEZ: But are you drawing up worst-case scenarios? Or are you thinking about that?

B WILSON: (Laughter) No, I'm hopeful (laughter). I'm a gambler. A farmer's always a gambler.

(LAUGHTER)

A MARTINEZ: But there's a saying in gambling that the house always wins. In this case, the house is nature, and it sets the odds that fish and farmers will wager their lives and livelihoods on.

How close are we to a tipping point where we got to really decide what we want out of this?

WHITE: One more dry year.

A MARTINEZ: Once again, biologist Jim White.

WHITE: You can't go out and just make fish habitat anymore. So we really need to take care of what we have. And so how that happens is difficult because there are, obviously, water rights which are complex in Colorado, from community water needs to agricultural needs to fish needs to environmental needs. So you have all of these sort of dynamic pressures on the water. And it's a bowl of spaghetti. It's difficult to untangle. It's difficult to meet the needs of these fish and to meet everybody's needs.

A MARTINEZ: So what happens now? Well, a lot of rain would be ideal. But can state or federal lawmakers offer some help that nature may not be capable of because of climate change? Either way, back at Ute Mountain Ute Farm, Simon Martinez is trying to hold it together and stay hopeful.

S MARTINEZ: You have to maintain your sanity because of everything you've seen done in the past doesn't give you any less hope than what you might see in the future. My optimism is that assistance will come. If it doesn't - excuse my language - darn it because why wouldn't it? Why shouldn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "THIRTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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