Drought has made the red sandstone walls of the Dolores River Canyon in southwestern Colorado towered over roaring rapids that teemed with native fish largely empty.

Drought compounded by climate change has left the once robust river a ribbon of cobblestones, a trickle of water, and small, shallow pools.

Reacting to the situation in an interview with NPR, Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. describes the situation as “unfortunate and tragic, an incredible canyon with sort of a meek river that was once really a giant, wonderful symbol of the Wild West,”

White further said low water levels in the river leave fish like bluehead sucker and roundtail chub with nowhere to go.

“Fish have been around and on the river for over a million years, up to two 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.”

The drought is also hitting farmers in Colorado and all across the West. Now, there was so little water that farmers who use water from the Dolores River to irrigate their fields got a fraction of what they usually get. Those farmers are forced to gamble on a future that’s becoming less and less likely to predict.

For instance, the McPhee Reservoir in Dolores moves water through canals to farms dozens of miles away. The water levels at the reservoir are down more than 50 feet in parts. It’s so low that entire islands in the reservoir that should be underwater are visible.

As it stands, dry ground and higher rates of evaporation make it harder for water from snowmelt and rainfall to reach its destination — whether it’s a Dolores River fish pool or the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise, a nearly 8,000 acre farm 40 miles downstream from the reservoir. Owned by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, it’s one of the region’s biggest water users.

The farm relies on the water from the reservoir to grow fields of alfalfa and corn. This year, the farm wasn’t able to grow much given their water allotment.

This also made them lay off 50 percent of their staff, who are mostly members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

farm used only 8 of their 110 fields in 2021. By contrast, in 2020 it used 109 of 110.

“This is the effect of the drought,” says farm manager Simon Martinez, who revealed that their bill to get water from the McPhee is more than half a million dollars a year — that’s whether they get all of their allocation or just a sliver, like they did this 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.”

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