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Colorado drought hits farms, forests and fish

This Utah farm, which usually produces up to 100 tons of alfalfa, produced nothing this year.
This Utah farm, which usually produces up to 100 tons of alfalfa, produced nothing this year.  

By Matt Smith

(CNN) -- From his farmhouse in Longmont, Colorado, Bill Bohn can see the impact of four years of drought in the shriveled corn in his fields and the fires burning in the mountains behind them.

Bohn grows corn and hay on a 113-acre farm in Longmont, about 30 miles north of Denver. Now in his 41st year of farming, he has planted only 18 acres of corn this year. And "right now, I would say it's 100 percent gone," he said.

So far, 2002 is shaping up as the driest year since record-keeping began in Colorado more than a century ago, and the longstanding dry spell has hit hard at two of the state's biggest industries -- agriculture and tourism.

Huge swaths of tinder-dry Rocky Mountain woodlands have burned this year. The massive Hayman fire, south of Denver, burned more than 100,000 acres before being brought under control. Seven large fires continued to burn over the weekend, and a two-man crew of a tanker plane died in a crash Thursday while fighting a fire north of Denver.

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In Denver, with a metro area of about 2.5 million people, city officials allow homeowners to water their lawns just every third day. The restrictions, originally voluntary, were made mandatory in July. Voluntary cutbacks reduced water use by 10 percent, but the measure wasn't enough.

Wildlife officials are closing some lakes and streams to fishermen, draining them to help supply larger reservoirs. In addition, the drought is forcing wild animals to seek food, forage and water in the city's increasingly suburbanized outskirts, said Jeff Butler, a spokesman for the Colorado Division Of Wildlife.

"The easiest thing they can do is use their nose and smell people food," Butler said.

Agriculture is a $4.4 billion business in Colorado, said Jeff Tranel, an agricultural economist with Colorado State University's cooperative extension service. Tranel said the impact of the drought will be felt for another year or two.

"It's going to take significant rain so that the farmers can plant wheat," Tranel said. "Secondly, there's probably going to be limited forage available for grazing livestock next year. Even with good snow, it would be limited."

Though no hard figures are available yet, anecdotal evidence suggests the state's farmers and ranchers are reeling. Large numbers of ranchers have sold their herds because there's no adequate pasture on which to graze them. And many farmers have given up on their crops for the year.

"I had one county president ask me what the Farm Bureau could do because he wasn't going to have much crops or grass hay," said Bohn, a member of the Colorado Farm Bureau's board of directors. "I told him the only thing I can tell you is to pray for rain."

-- CNN Correspondent Kimberly Osias contributed to this report.


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