Local ranchers are hoping a soil health experiment will reveal clues about how they can better manage their land under dry conditions as the Colorado River basin continues to struggle under the effects of climate change and historic drought. 

Four sites are participating in the project, which is being administered by the Roaring Fork Conservancy. Each of the participating grass and alfalfa fields will have six test plots: Two are controls that get no special soil treatments; two will be mechanically aerated, which involves perforating the soil with small holes so that plant roots can better receive water and nutrients; and two will receive aeration plus a layer of carbon-rich organic matter known as biochar. 

Then, one plot from each treatment category will receive a normal amount of irrigation water and the other three will be watered only in the beginning of the irrigation season to mimic drought conditions. 

The goal is to see if the soil treatments can maintain crop yield even when fields receive less water. Scientists and engineers from the conservancy and Carbondale-based engineering firm Lotic Hydrological took grass and soil baseline samples this season and will do so again next season after the treatments and compare them. If the soil treatment techniques work and are able to be scaled up, they could be part of the solution for drought-stressed crops and ranchers throughout the state. 

Carbondale’s Turnabout Ranch, which gets its water from Prince Creek via the Mount Sopris Ditch, is participating in the project. Owner Brendan Doran, a ski pro at Aspen Skiing Co., says that bad snowpack conditions carry over from the winter.

“Being in skiing in the wintertime and having hard snow years, we have the same thing in agriculture,” he said. “And there’s a way to prepare ourselves for it. … Moving forward, we can have a better idea of how to manage things and keep the yield the same.”

Mike Spayd — another skier-turned-first-generation-rancher who works at Aspen Highlands — is participating in the project on ground he leases near his home in Missouri Heights. Junior water rights from the Spring Park Reservoir and Mountain Meadow Ditch irrigate the 90 acres of grass and alfalfa that gets a single cutting a year. 

“We are dependent on a good runoff every year to fill that water right, and drought resiliency is an important part of farming no matter what your water rights are,” Spayd said. “Being able to make the most out of any water we have and develop drought resiliency is pretty important to me.”

Doran and Spayd use sprinkler systems to irrigate and say they want to improve the soil health of their land. The other two projects are on a Pitkin County-owned, 36-acre parcel in Emma known as the Shippee Open Space and a ranch near Basalt. 

Mike Spayd points out the soil health project area on ground he leases in Missouri Heights. The project is aimed at exploring ways ranchers can maintain crop yields with less water. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

More state funding scales up program

Conservancy staff are overseeing the project, which is one of 31 drought-resiliency projects across the state under the umbrella of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance (CAWA) and partially funded with a grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). In addition to soil health, other projects around the state focus on growing more drought-resistant forage crops, irrigation efficiency and  livestock. 

The CWCB granted $183,700 in funding for the initial statewide program in 2022. The Pitkin County soil treatments project received $18,862, plus additional funding from The Nature Conservancy and Atlantic Aviation. The state grant money is funneled through CAWA to the conservancy and other local entities around the state that carry out the projects. 

The Roaring Fork Conservancy is a Basalt-based nonprofit that focuses on watershed science and education programs, policy, stream management and restoration. Heather Lewin, conservancy director of watershed science and policy, said water is inextricably tied to agriculture — and that’s why the conservancy decided to do this project. 

“We think agriculture brings value to our community,” she said. “There’s local food production, economic value, open space, wildlife passage, migration corridors, stewardship. … As you look at the future with less water available, are there ways for a water organization like ours to partner with people on the ground to see if agriculture can stay productive and continue to provide the benefits to the community.”

CAWA is expanding the drought-resiliency projects for next year and is accepting applications for the 2024 season. In September, the CWCB awarded nearly $1 million in funding to scale up the program. CAWA Executive Director Greg Peterson said next year’s program funding is also coming from Front Range water providers Denver Water, Aurora Water, Northern Water, Colorado Springs Utilities and the Walton Family Foundation. 

The program is intended for projects that are small, innovative and unproven. Projects that can be scaled up and could have relevant findings for a lot of agricultural producers will be given top priority, Peterson said. 

“There’s a lot of need to experiment and try out new ideas,” Peterson said. “You have to be able to make sure it’s not as risky financially for a farmer or rancher to try one of these projects.”

Doran and his wife, Sarah Willeman Doran, bought the Turnabout Ranch (formerly the Tybar Ranch) in 2021. The land needs a lot of love, he said, after years of drought and cattle grazing. His family’s vision for the 450 acres doesn’t include herds of cows, but they do plan on an equestrian facility for healing work with horses, in addition to growing hay. 

“Once we get the test results back, we will be able to take the fields and make them more productive, more sustainable,” Doran said. “I think we’re just excited to participate and keep evolving the way that our environment is evolving.” 

This story ran in the Oct. 8 edition of the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and The Aspen Times, and the Oct. 9 edition of the Vail Daily.

Heather Sackett is the managing editor at Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Water Desk. She has also reported for The Denver Post and the Telluride Daily Planet. Heather has a master’s...