updated 6/15/2006 3:16:55 PM ET 2006-06-15T19:16:55

Four years ago, Ed Hiza took out a federal loan to get him through one of the worst droughts in Colorado history. But he fears this year the effects of drought may finally cost him the ranch that has been in the family for 90 years.

With sweltering temperatures in the 100s, Hiza and other farmers and ranchers from southeast Colorado gathered on a ranch east of Pueblo Wednesday to swap stories and curse the weather and thirsty communities that have taken their water and their livelihoods.

"This may be my last year in ranching. If misery loves company, I've got a lot of company," he said as fellow farmers and ranchers nodded in agreement.

Sen. Ken Kester, R-Las Animas, said people who believe the drought has ended are wrong, and there are hundreds of farmers and ranchers in southern Colorado who may be on their last legs.

"If they had one bad year, they could recover, but they had five bad years in a row," he said.

Troy Bredenkamp, executive vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said temperatures in triple digits have pushed many areas of the Front Range back into a drought crisis, compounding problems for some farmers and ranchers on the eastern plains who haven't recovered from the 2002 drought. He said 45 counties will be seeking drought relief soon from the federal government.

"Once you're in a drought for an extended duration, as we were, it doesn't take much to fall back into it," Bredenkamp said.

Jake Martinez said his cattle are suffering because he can't afford to feed them properly, and their weight is down.

"They're not eating right. We have to cut down on food, or we'll go broke," he said.

Ranchers on the plains have already begun selling livestock because of dire conditions, said Colorado State University extension specialist Roy Roath, who has traveled extensively through the area. "Everywhere is just grim."

Roath said ranchers will have to sell, feed and move their livestock. Feeding is very expensively and likely to be the third choice.

Martinez said the property he is leasing is nearly worthless without water and he had to move 60 head of cattle to avoid further damage to the pastureland. It's ironic, he said, because similar property that he owns 20 miles to the west near Pueblo is worth $50,000 an acre for houses.

Hiza and Martinez said many of their neighbors have taken the easy way out and sold their water to Front Range communities like Thornton, which recently bought water from the Fort Lyon Canal, a major source of agricultural water that stretches for 100 miles on the southwestern plains. He blames unrestricted growth along the Front Range, and he said it's not only taking a toll on farmers and ranchers, it's taking a toll on entire communities.

"The growth in northern Colorado is raping southern Colorado farmers and ranchers. They take the water out and they leave us hanging. Once these farms and ranches dry up, they'll never get the water back," he said.

LeRoy Brase, a former banker, said 25 school districts in southeastern Colorado are facing declining enrollment and cutbacks as more farms and ranches dry up and people leave.

"You can tie it to the drought and you can tie it to water leaving our area for good," he said.

Hiza said only two of his brothers out of an extended family of 50 still farm and ranch, and that may be coming to an end soon.

"Mother Nature has to help me out by the end of this year, or that's it," he said.

Jacob Martinez, 19, who is helping his father move the cattle, said he would some day like to take over his father's ranch, but he's uncertain about the future.

"We see a lot more lizards than we did previously," he said. "Pretty soon, we'll be in the Arizona desert."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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