Colorado seeks disaster status for Elbert and Douglas counties due to drought; USDA already approved primary disaster declarations for 17 southern Colorado counties; 39% of state under some form of drought, dry conditions

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colorado , August 25, 2011 () – Gov. John Hickenlooper is seeking a disaster declaration for two more Colorado counties because of drought.

Hickenlooper's request for Elbert and Douglas counties is awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Colorado Water Availability Task Force co-chair Veva Deheza told a state legislative committee Tuesday.

The USDA already has approved primary disaster declarations for 17 southern Colorado counties, making them eligible for aid and benefits. Those counties are: Baca, Otero, Crowley, Bent, Chaffee, Custer, Fremont, Huerfano, Kiowa, Las Animas, Prowers, Pueblo, Saguache, Alamosa, Rio Grande, Costilla and Conejos. Twelve more counties that are next to them also can receive help.

Heavy winter and spring snowstorms boosted snowpack in the northern Colorado mountains this year, leading to flooding along the Elk, Colorado and Cache La Poudre rivers as the snow melted. But southeast and south-central Colorado haven't received the same moisture, and 39 percent of the state is under some form of drought or dry conditions as defined by the U.S. Drought Monitor, Deheza said.

Some southern Colorado ranchers are choosing to sell livestock while cattle and hay prices are both high, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Emergency grazing has been approved in Lincoln, Otero, Las Animas, Bent, Kiowa, Prowers, Baca, and Crowley counties on land that was supposed to have been set aside for conservation under the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Federal officials have agreed to extend emergency grazing this year until Oct. 31 instead of Sept. 30.

"What we're hearing from ranchers is it's not making a difference," Deheza said. "These lands are equally as dry as the lands they are grazing."

The U.S. Drought Monitor is releasing its latest assessment of drought conditions Thursday.

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