Southeast Colorado has seen some fierce dust storms of late, while other parts of the state and country are also experiencing serious drought. How do drought and dust conditions impact agriculture and Colorado’s economy? As the Denver Post printed this week:
Dirt is almost all that people can talk about these days in communities along U.S. 50 and 287.
Photos of fierce dust storms rolling across the state’s Eastern Plains are showing up on Facebook and local TV news, harking to the Dust Bowl years that devastated southeastern Colorado in the 1930s. Farmers and ranchers are tolling their losses. People are praying for rain.
It’s the inevitable result of three seasons of extreme drought in the area — D4 this year, the worst on the U.S. Drought Monitor scale, and no relief in sight, said state climatologist Nolan Doesken.
“The first year, it was very dry, but there was still reasonable vegetative cover,” he said. “That started deteriorating last year, with more and more bare ground.”
…The conditions are taxing the financial ledgers and the creativity of people who make their living from the land.
Colorado’s farm and ranch production is currently a $6.4 billion industry in farmgate receipts, according to a 2011 CSU report. Yet there are many activities tied to production beyond the farmgate. The CSU study estimates that Colorado’s agricultural production, manufacturing, processing and inputs contribute more than $40 billion to the state’s economy annually. This vast industry is still fueled primarily by family farmers– husbands, wives and their children.
Current water conditions in the Rio Grande Basin are not the worst they’ve ever been — but close. “We are in trouble,” Colorado Division of Water Resources Staff Engineer Pat McDermott told members of the Rio Grande Roundtable yesterday.
Rollbacks in planting during dry years reduce short-term crop losses in a profession defined by its risks and unexpected costs. Longer-term adaptations in farming practices, crop rotations, water use and irrigation technology are helping farmers use water more efficiently, while innovative new partnerships are also exploring how farming can persist in the face of limited water supplies. Some strategies move farther afield: Rusler’s past investments in an onion packing shed and equipment for processing and packaging beans have supported his family through the lean times.
Lessons for Colorado farmers and ranchers haven’t come easy—or cheap. Nor have they all come soon enough to keep some farmers in business. In addition to lingering drought conditions, increased demands for water from communities and industry have combined to diminish supplies for irrigated farms. Amid the pressure, some farmers have sold off water rights to cities or energy companies, while others, including Rusler and his family, are forging ahead into the parched future.
“We know there’s interest [in buying our water], and there are days when you think about that,” Rusler says, “but we’re so busy with how we make our living, we just keep our nose to the grindstone.”
- Southeastern Colorado wheat crop a disaster from drought, freezes (denverpost.com)
- Drought news: Dust storms in southeast Colorado reminiscent of 1930s Dust Bowl #COdrought (coyotegulch.wordpress.com)
- Massive dust storms hit southeast Colorado, evoking “Dirty Thirties” (denverpost.com)
- Drought Conditions Forecast to Return to the Central U.S. (prweb.com)
- Lingering drought means water shortage on the border (khou.com)
- Drought takes toll on southeastern Colorado (krdo.com)
- DRYING UP: Dust Bowl Conditions Are LITERALLY Returning To The Western Half Of The United States (secretsofthefed.com)
- Colorado scientists quantify increased dust pollution (summitcountyvoice.com)