Topsoil blew into a dark cloud that swept across the flat landscape of southeast Colorado once again Monday afternoon. Footsteps leave dust in loose pockets and grit in the teeth of those who speak. The land pays a bigger price. After nearly four years of deep drought, wind-churned dust has become a slow-moving natural disaster. Comparisons to the Dust Bowl are no longer hyperbole — they’re accurate.
“The dust storms we had here a week or so ago are just about as bad as I’ve ever seen,” Joe Rosengrants said. The 79-year-old farmer and rancher is part of a family that has worked the land in Baca County since 1910.
His son Mike and others in the family here still tend thousands of acres of farm and ranchland and thousands of head of cattle. They also mind the skies for any glint of rain. “We can go a long way on just a little bit of rain down here,” Mike Rosengrants, 56, said as he delivered hay to cattle spread across 8 arid miles. “But we haven’t even been getting that.”
The devastation of this drought comes in three forms: pastures that have dried up or are choked by drifts of sand; tumbleweeds that blow into tall hills against fences, homes and barns; and massive dust storms that steal topsoil and could make it harder to grow grain, wheat and sunflowers for years.
The region hasn’t seen normal amounts of rain since the blizzards of 2007. Southeast Colorado averages 12 to 16 inches of rain annually, but many areas have gotten fewer than 8 inches each year since 2010, according to National Weather Service data.
Since the latest drought officially set in late in the summer of 2010, the Arkansas Valley has been drier for a longer sustained period of time than during the Dust Bowl, said Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist at Colorado State University.
“We have not seen consecutive years this dry,” he said.
As goes the rain, so go the people. The county’s ties to cows and crops have inextricably linked its upswings and downturns to the weather.
Between 1930 and 1940, the southwestern Great Plains, home to thousands of settlers, suffered a severe drought. Dry-land farming led to the systematic destruction of prairie grasses, and overgrazing destroyed large areas of grassland. Gradually, the land was laid bare, and environmental damage began to occur. Strong winds in the region were devastating. The overfarmed land began to blow away.
From 1935 to 1938, Baca County accounted for some of the worst soil erosion of the Dust Bowl era. The railroad’s arrival here in 1926, along with homesteaders who spilled over from Oklahoma, swelled the county’s population to its peak of 10,570 residents in 1930. By 1940, after a decade of crop failures, the population had dwindled by almost 42 percent.
Last year, the census showed 3,682 county residents, down 2.8 percent since 2010, while the rest of the state grew by 4.8 percent.
Only a quarter of that population loss occurred between 2010 and 2012, and three-quarters of it took place just last year.
Ward Williams, 65, is leasing out his 200 acres north of Springfield so cattle can chew off the stubble of his last grain-sorghum harvest in 2012. He had hoped to leave it to his children to farm, something he has done for more than 30 years.
“It’s just too much of a cycle of booms and busts,” he said, his foot on the bumper of his old Ford pickup outside the Alco store in Springfield. “Kids that grow up here, if they have anywhere else to go, they aren’t staying here.
“If it doesn’t get over soon, this (drought) might leave the land to the big corporate operations that can ride it out, and not for the people who grew up down here.”
Drier than the Dust Bowl
Most of Colorado has made it out of the deep drought. The regions hardest hit by September’s floods are now drought-free, although a swath of western Colorado is “abnormally dry,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Southeast Colorado, however, shows only variations of bad news — severe, extreme and exceptional stages of drought, according to the drought analysis.
And the hardest-hit areas are along the agriculturally vital Arkansas River.
The decade-long Dust Bowl had periodic wet years. This drought in many areas of southeast Colorado has had an unyielding presence since 2010, Doesken said.
“It’s really been back to back to back — and, now, it appears — to back years of drought,” he said. “Normally, they get just enough precipitation to grow something down there, but they haven’t had that in a full 3½ years now.”
Crop data indicate that about 15 percent of the farmland in Baca County is irrigated, fed by high-country reservoirs. That leaves 85 percent of the naturally sandy soil turning to dust — “more blowable ground,” Doesken called it.
Years to recover
Displaced topsoil means it could take years for the land to bounce back.
“They’re so far in the hole right now that even if they do get a few (rain) storms, … it’s not going to immediately solve the problems,” Doesken said.
PHOTOS: Southeast Colorado drought conditions akin to Dust Bowl
The cattle herd in this corner of the state has dwindled, but not entirely because of drought. Cattle prices and hay prices have been up since 2011, coaxing some to sell off parts of their herds. Big ranchers, like the Rosengrants family, had the luxury of moving cattle to rented fields elsewhere in Colorado or other states to take advantage of rain and grazing there, said Ron Carleton, the state’s deputy commissioner of agriculture.
Because the worst of the drought has been in the last year and a half, the depths of the crop losses haven’t yet been plumbed, at least not on paper, he said, so the data isn’t yet reflecting the worst effects.
Eugene Backhaus, the state resource conservationist, said the end might not be in sight when the rain eventually starts to fall.
“If you consider recovery getting things back to what they were before, with the amount of degradation and the depth of the drought, my best guess is three to five years,” he said. “The grasses down there are so damaged. When you’ve lost all the seeds and the root system is destroyed, then there’s nothing to grow back. The only way you’re going to get grass back in there is to put it in mechanically.
“And that takes time and money.”
Taxpayers already have posted a big financial stake in southeast Colorado’s productivity.
Baca County farmers and ranchers received $413 million in government aid between 1995 and 2012, including $85.9 million in crop-insurance subsidies and $50 million in disaster grants, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that monitors such federal programs.
Farmers in Baca County received government checks to seed grass on 269,249 acres of cropland to try to hold down the soil, according to the county’s U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.
Kevin Larson — a researcher at the Plainsman Research Center in Walsh, Colorado State University’s agricultural experiment station for southeastern Colorado — said the current drought isn’t a measure of the investment in such programs.
“Just can’t grow anything if there’s not any precipitation on it,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The research center’s work these days focuses on making the best use of sparse precipitation, urging farmers to plant varieties that mature faster and use less water, or weighing the trade-offs of no-till farming, which keeps the ground covered but also makes weeds harder to fight.
The Western Kansas Weather Modification Program — the seeding of clouds with silver iodide crystals — began just across the border from Colorado’s struggling counties in 1975.
When the effort spread into southeast Colorado about a decade ago, with the aim of suppressing crop-destroying hail storms in southwest Kansas, leaders in southeast Colorado protested, afraid it would cause more hail on their crops instead, Larson said. The program in Colorado soon fizzled out.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board offers grants to water providers and local governments to help pay for cloud-seeding programs. In the parched southeast corner of the state, however, there have been no takers.
But the solutions and practices that researchers have worked out, that government officials have promoted and that landowners have adopted since the Dust Bowl have kept this bad drought from turning into a catastrophe, Larson said.
Hope and fear in drought
Doesken said there’s reason for hope for this year, even if it depends on temperature fluctuations over the tropical Pacific Ocean.
The El Niño weather pattern, if it takes shape, tends to mean rain for the Eastern Plains, he said.
“But there’s no guarantee they’ll get more precipitation this spring,” he said.
Wildfires also are a big concern. Some fields are parched to a stark white. The high winds would make a grass fire explode across thousands of uninterrupted acres primed to burn, said a group of local residents outside the Alco store in Springfield.
The abundance of tumbleweeds — the thin, dry aftermath of a Russian thistle bloom late last summer — makes Jeff Turner, 52, of the Campo area worry even more.
“If fire hits one of those, it might as well be soaked in gas,” Turner said. “Imagine that spinning ball of fire coming across your property at 30 miles per hour.”
Others here say land-related hardship is a tradition, and they will wait on the rain.
“It will start raining again,” said Prowers County resident Flauran Beckwith. “It has to.”
The Rosengrants family is faring well because of diversity, said father and son. In addition to tending to cattle and crops, family members work in real estate, teach school and do hair.
“During the Dust Bowl, people didn’t have as many opportunities,” said Joe Rosengrants.
But the family’s foundation is, as it has been for more than a century, the land, said the patriarch.
“You’re just attached to the soil, and you love it,” he said.
His son says it another way.
“There’s a cost to living out here.”