ORCHARD CITY, Colo. — On New Year’s Day in 2018, Paul Kehmeier and his father drove up Grand Mesa until they got to the county line, 10,000 feet above sea level. Instead of the three to five feet of snow that should have been on the ground, there wasn’t enough of a dusting to even cover the grass.
The men marveled at the sight, and Kehmeier snapped a photo of his dad, “standing on the bare pavement, next to bare ground.”
Here, on Colorado’s Western Slope, no snow means no snowpack. And no snowpack means no water in an area that’s so dry it’s lucky to get 10 inches of rain a year. A few months after taking the photo, Kehmeier stared across the land his family had tilled for four generations and made a harsh calculation: He could make more money selling his ranch’s water than working his land.
A 20-year drought is stealing the water that sustains this region, and climate change is making it worse.
“In all my years of farming in the area, going back to about 1950, 2018 was the toughest, driest year I can remember,” said Paul’s father, Norman, who still does a fair share of the farm’s tractor work at 94.
Click any temperature underlined in the story to convert between Celsius and Fahrenheit
This cluster of counties on Colorado’s Western Slope — along with three counties just across the border in eastern Utah — has warmed more than 2 degrees Celsius, double the global average. Spanning more than 30,000 square miles, it is the largest 2C hot spot in the Lower 48, a Washington Post analysis found.
The average flow of the Colorado River has declined nearly 20 percent over the past century, half of which is because of warming temperatures, scientists say. With the region’s snowpack shrinking and melting earlier, the ground absorbs more heat — and more of the precious water evaporates.
On the Kehmeiers’ farm, like the rest of the area, just under two inches of rain fell between Jan. 1 and July 19. Less than half an inch has fallen since the farming season began on April 1, just 25 percent of the long-term average.
“The seasons where you don’t want to see the warming are warming faster,” said Jeff Lukas, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Western Water Assessment.
In the 2015 Paris accord, international leaders agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the Earth’s overall warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius by 2100.
The world has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius since the industrial revolution, on average. But global warming doesn’t affect the planet uniformly, and 10 percent of it is already at 2C, The Post found. These hot spots offer a window into what will happen as more of the planet warms: In New Jersey and Rhode Island, a 2C world has weakened winter’s bite; in Siberia, 10,000-year-old mammoths are being exposed by melting permafrost; and from Japan to Angola to Uruguay and Tasmania, changing ocean currents and warming water have decimated fisheries and underwater kelp forests.
In Colorado, the rising temperature is forcing a reckoning in this conservative community. The Colorado River supplies water to 40 million people across the West and in Mexico. It nurtures everything from vineyards to cattle to peach trees on the Western Slope, and flows to Los Angeles’s water faucets and Arizona’s cotton fields.
Farming in America’s dry interior has always amounted to an act of defiance. Water has reinvented the landscape that Kehmeier’s ancestors began working on more than a century ago. A vast irrigation network of pipes, tunnels and dams steers melted snow into fields across the valley and has transformed this sagebrush terrain into a thriving agricultural hub.
“It would have to come about 16 miles from the top of that mountain down the creek,” he said, pointing toward Grand Mesa, “and the chance of getting it down the creek in a hot dry year when there’s not much water in the creek and a lot of thieves beside the creek, it was questionable. So, let somebody else deal with that.”
Kehmeier, who grows alfalfa and grass hay, didn’t agonize over his decision, but he didn’t like driving by his dried-up field every day. Call it a blessing or a curse, but farming is in his blood.
“And if it’s in your blood, you want to do it,” he said. “I want to go out kicking and scraping if I have to, but I don’t want to give up.”
He could always plant hay the following year, he thought. Surely, the snow would return.