Tuesday, April 08, 2014

New dust bowl is damaging farmland in Southeast Colorado, sending residents packing

Continued drought has led to a new "dust bowl" in Southeast Colorado, causing residents to begin to flee for greener pastures, Joey Bunch reports for The Denver Post. The southeast part of the state typically gets 12 to 16 inches of rain annually, but several areas have gotten less than 8 inches a year since 2010. And residents aren't sticking around for things to get better. While the state has grown in population by 4.8 percent since 2010, the population of Baca County has decreased by 2.8 percent, down to only 3,682 residents, with 75 percent of the loss occurring during the last year. (Post graphic)

"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," Bunch writes. "Since the latest drought officially set in late in the summer of 2010, the Arkansas [River] Valley has been drier for a longer sustained period of time than during the [1930s] Dust Bowl, said Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist at Colorado State University."

In Baca County "about 15 percent of the farmland is irrigated, fed by high-country reservoirs," Bunch writes. "That leaves 85 percent of the naturally sandy soil turning to dust. Displaced topsoil means it could take years for the land to bounce back." Doesken told Bunch, "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."

The recent problems mirror those of the Dust Bowl. Baca County's population peaked in 1930 with 10,570 residents, but from 1935 to 1938 it accounted for some of the worst soil erosion of the Dust Bowl era, and by 1940, the population had dropped by almost 42 percent, Bunch writes. Ward Williams, who "is leasing out his 200 acres north of Springfield so cattle can chew off the stubble of his last grain-sorghum harvest in 2012," told Bunch, "It's just too much of a cycle of booms and busts. 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."

The county has received plenty of government aid, $413 million between 1995 and 2012, including $85.9 million in crop-insurance subsidies and $50 million in disaster grants, while farmers have also "received government checks to seed grass on 269,249 acres of cropland to try to hold down the soil," but weather conditions haven't done much to help. Kevin Larson, a researcher at the Plainsman Research Center in Walsh, Colorado State's agricultural experiment station for southeastern Colorado, told Bunch. "Just can't grow anything if there's not any precipitation on it. It's as simple as that." (Read more)

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