Dust Storms, Drought and Colorado’s Economy

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.

Coloradans do make a living off the land– agriculture plays an important role in our state– particularly irrigated agriculture. About 86 percent of Colorado’s water diversions go toward irrigated agriculture on only about 4.5 percent of the state’s land– of course, water for agriculture means productive crops, and other industry tied to that agriculture. As the Colorado Foundation for Water Education published in the Fall 2012 issue of Headwaters magazine:
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.
Drought in Colorado is a serious issue, particularly this year in places like southeast Colorado and the Rio Grande Basin, where the situation is getting to be desperate. As published on Coyote Gulch via the Valley Courier:

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.

Drought means less water for the crops, but that doesn’t mean that farmers have stopped trying. They’ve learned from the past and are scaling back, becoming more efficient and experimenting. From the Headwaters article, the Ever-Evolving Farming:

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.”

Read the rest of the article and flip through the full magazine to read more about agriculture in Colorado.
Visit Revisiting the Dust Bowl, for thoughts on irrigation, climate and agricultural practices.
Have you personally felt the impacts of drought? Share your story.
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