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Western watershed group, ranchers work to improve soil health amid drought

An aerial view of a dirt road running through a valley with alfalfa fields in Northern Nevada.
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In the Mountain West, alfalfa fields like this one in Northern Nevada are increasingly vulnerable to drought and water shortages.

Despite recent snowstorms, the Mountain West region continues to be affected by historic drought. That’s why ranchers are looking for ways to cope with dry conditions.

In western Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, researchers from Lotic Hydrological will test the drought resilience of grass and alfalfa fields. The team will use different treatments to reduce soil compaction on six different half-acre plots of land.

One treatment they will use is aeration, which is the process of puncturing holes in the ground with machinery so air, nutrients, and water can get into the soil. Another soil treatment will be the application of biochar, a carbon-rich solid made from crop residues and wood.

Some test fields will be irrigated with a full amount of water, while others will be irrigated with a volume of water that simulates drought conditions.

Heather Lewin, director of watershed science and policy at the Roaring Fork Conservancy, spoke about the importance of the study during a Jan. 5 webinar hosted by the Western Landowners Alliance.

“As we've seen so far this winter with the abundance of brown outside – even here in the high mountains – rather than snow, the common ground that was pretty easily found between the ranching community and a watershed group is concerns over persistent drought and lack of water resources,” said Lewin, adding that agriculture is crucial to Roaring Fork Valley’s economy and culture.

Researchers plan to collect soil and crop samples this summer. By early 2025, they hope to have results of the study, which is being supported by the Colorado Ag Water Alliance, Colorado River Water Conservation District, and Colorado Water Conservation Board.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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