San Juan County Commission declares drought disaster

Emergency manager Mike Mestas: 'Pray for rain'

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
San Juan County emergency manager Mike Mestas says federal help is available to farmers and ranchers who are having trouble because of the drought.
  • The San Juan County Commission voted unanimously on June 15 to declare a disaster because of the drought.
  • A county official said this is not the worst year for drought in the last 10 years, but it's getting close.
  • A coordinated public messaging campaign about the need to conserve water will begin soon.

FARMINGTON — The drought situation in San Juan County may not be unprecedented when compared to the challenges of the last 10 years, but it's plenty bad, county commissioners were told during their June 15 meeting in Aztec.

Commissioners heard from a variety of county employees, led by emergency manager Mike Mestas, about the severity of the situation and how much worse it could get if significant moisture doesn't fall from the sky soon. Mestas was on hand to seek a disaster declaration from commissioners because of the drought, a measure that passed unanimously when Mestas and his associates had completed their presentation.

Mestas said the declaration will allow government organizations to seek funding from state and federal sources, if and when it becomes available, to help offset some of the issues that are expected to arise because of the drought. According to drought.gov, most of San Juan County is designated as being in exceptional drought, the worst category, while the rest of the county is either in exceptional drought or extreme drought, the second- and third-worst categories.

Mestas noted that two of San Juan County's neighbors — Montezuma County in Colorado and McKinley County in New Mexico — also had made disaster declarations because of the drought. The state of New Mexico filed a drought declaration in December 2020, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture already has declared a disaster declaration in 14 counties in the state, he said, with San Juan County being one of those. That designation will allow farmers, ranchers and some other residents who qualify for financial assistance to receive it, he said.

When Commissioner John Beckstead asked how the situation this year compares to years past, Michele Truby-Tillen, the county's floodplain manager and community development director, offered a sobering assessment.

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"We are not as bad off as our worst year in the last 10 years, but we are getting there," she said. "We're only in June. We are looking at significant (irrigation) ditch issues some of our reservoirs and our local water users."

Truby-Tillen recalled the issues Animas Valley Water users experienced in 2016 when their system became largely inoperative and water filling stations had to be established for Crouch Mesa residents in Aztec and at McGee Park.

"That's what this is going to be similar to, in my mind," Truby-Tillen said.

She explained that San Juan County is not just in a drought, it's in what she termed a snow drought.

"We get our water from the mountains," she said. "If there's no rain here, yeah, it's dry, we have problems. But as long as there's snow in the mountains, we're good to go. The big problem comes when there's no snow. We've been in a snow drought this year comparable to several years ago when there was no snow at all on the mountains."

In practical terms, the mountain snowpack in southwest Colorado was gone by April of this year, she said, and the ramifications of that are likely to be felt for quite some time.

"You're looking at some significant issues coming if we don't get rain, if the mountains don't continue to get rain," Truby-Tillen said. "There's a lot of ifs there. The National Weather Service is not giving us a lot of positive feedback as far as what's going to happen (with the monsoon)."

Mestas said the commission's declaration of a disaster would help create awareness of the severity of the situation among members of the public, and he said a coordinated messaging campaign about the need to conserve water would begin soon.

He also said those who already are feeling the impact of the drought have help available to them.

"There's funding assistance available today, primarily via loans. There may even be a few grants," he said. "But they definitely need to reach out and find out more how the USDA can assist them today."

Commissioner GloJean Todacheene said she was deeply concerned by what she was hearing and expressed the hope that county residents would take the warnings to heart.

"I hope citizens realize we're going to have to start conserving," she said.

Mestas suggested county residents appeal to a higher authority for relief.

"We truly do need to pray for rain," he said. "We need to see a healthy monsoon season to help us, no pun intended, weather this storm."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.