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Dry High Plains*
May 3, 2002
Dry High Plains Are Blowing Away, Again
By TIMOTHY EGAN
AMAR, Colo. A hypnotist was the featured guest at the soil conservation district's annual meeting here a few weeks ago, a fitting diversion for a place where it has not rained for nearly a year and the land seems to be in a hard trance.
Across the state line from this southeastern Colorado town, in Syracuse, Kan., a crowd packed into the school gym to hear Dusty Dowd, a crop-duster, lead a prayer for rain. "Lord, we ask that you might again bless us with the general, beneficial rains that are so vital to our crops and our lives," the prayer went.
The soil is on the move again in the High Plains, drifting over a swath of the American midsection calcified by drought. For some, it is reviving memories of a time when the world seemed to blow away. There have been serious droughts here before, some as fierce as the dry spells of the 1930's. But this drought is among the worst, and in some counties, particularly in the northern plains, it is the most devastating in more than a century.
In eastern Montana, more than a thousand wheat farmers have called it quits rather than try to coax another crop out of ground that has received less rain over the last 12 months than many deserts get in a year. Blinding dust storms have forced drivers off the road, dozens of businesses have folded in withered communities, and the entire state has been declared a federal disaster area for farmers.
Wyoming is much the same. Here in southeastern Colorado, in the heart of the old Dust Bowl, the ground is so dry that agriculture officials say most of this state will not even produce a wheat crop.
"We've had severe drought before, but never four years in a row of terrible drought," said Jesse Aber, who directs Montana's drought task force.
John Stulp, a farmer from this flat, wind-chipped corner of Colorado, added: "It's drier around here than it has been for a hundred years. We've chiseled up the ground on land where we usually have wheat coming up, just to bring dirt clods up to hold the soil down."
Drought is no stranger to much of the country this year, with 29 states suffering through a prolonged dry spell. The East, from Maine to Georgia, has been particularly hard hit.
But what makes the drought stand out in the western Plains is the blowing dust, a haunt of the Dirty Thirties when brown blizzards carried sand all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and prompted more than three million people to leave their homes.
While the storms this year have not been nearly as epic or debilitating as the brown clouds that rolled over the flatlands during the Depression, they have been fierce and they have come as something of a surprise for people who believed the land had been stabilized.
Two weeks ago, Herb Homsher pulled his car over by the side of the road in the midst of a dust storm near the Colorado-Oklahoma border. It was the kind of duster Mr. Homsher had not experienced in years. "You couldn't see the end of your car," he said.
In Montana, heavy dust this year caused a similar brownout, resulting in a traffic pileup that killed two television reporters.
According to the latest assessment by federal officials, half of Montana, all of Wyoming, nearly two-thirds of Colorado, half of Kansas, a third of Texas and most of New Mexico are in the midst of a drought labeled severe to extreme. Wildfires are racing through the eastern front of Colorado. With 280 fires already this year, Colorado has had four times as many fires as normal.
On much of the High Plains, the prairie grass was long ago plowed under to grow dry land wheat, a grain that depends entirely on what falls from the sky, with no help from irrigation.
"My father was born in 1918 and all my life he's been talking about how we should be careful, we could have another 1930's," said Lochiel Edwards, a wheat farmer from near Havre, Mont. "Well, now it's as dire as I've seen in my life, and my father just the other day said it's as bad as 1936."
The aridity may be worse than it was in the 1930's, but the dust storms do not compare. Up to 10 million acres lost at least the upper five inches of topsoil in those years, according to federal surveys. During one storm in 1934, more than 350 tons of airborne dust was galloping across the prairie. Wheat was never replanted on much of the land, which was reseeded with native prairie grass. Now the government pays thousands of farmers to keep the ground untilled, as part of the conservation reserve program.
Without the last half-century of federally directed soil conservation, much of the old Dust Bowl would be windblown again, many officials and farmers say. Even so, Mr. Edwards said, many of his neighbors have lost topsoil to the new dust storms. "Their land has gotten away from them, and I don't think it's their fault," he said. "This drought is just a killer."
To counties already hit by declining population and depressed farm prices, the days without rain are just one more piece of bad luck. In much of eastern Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, less than an inch of rain has fallen since last June. The soil is dry down to two feet in some areas.
"It's a cumulative thing," Mr. Aber of Montana's task force said. "Four years without much rain at all. Even during the 30's, there were some fairly normal rainfall years, so this is almost unprecedented."
Bridges cross over dry beds labeled rivers. Fields that usually turn green with the first spring rains are as brown as the skin of a baked potato. Rivers that drain snowmelt from the Rockies and flow east like the Platte and the Arkansas are running thin, and are so overtaxed that in some places only people with water rights dating to the 19th century are likely to get their regular share.
Some small towns, like Melstone, Mont., have lost their municipal water supplies, the first time anyone can remember this happening. River rafting companies on the Front Range, where the prairie meets the mountains, talk about "what water" instead of white water. Fishing guides worry that the winter's snow will not bring nearly enough water to make for a successful year on the region's trout streams.
"Everyone knows it's dry here, but it is the extreme, prolonged dry times that makes this such a disaster," said Jeff Tranel, an agronomist with Colorado State University.
Prowers County, where Lamar is, is already a federal disaster area, making farmers eligible for subsidized loans because of the weather. This week, Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado asked the federal government to declare the entire state a disaster area. But few people want to take on more debt.
"We're in trouble," said Steve Wertz, who has 3,000 acres in wheat and corn near this town on the old Santa Fe wagon trail. "I've been farming for 25 years and never seen it like this."
The quirks of global agriculture are such that even though dry land wheat, the crop that first brought white settlers here to break the prairie sod, is in trouble, grain prices remain depressed because of a worldwide glut. Senators from the region are pressing for $2.4 billion in disaster payments for farmers who will not be able to grow a crop this year. But with so many subsidies already directed at failing agricultural operations, a new payment for drought-related losses faces stiff opposition in Congress.
Looking to the white sky, farmers shrug and wonder if a new Dust Bowl will soon be upon them.
"The attitude out here is bad," said Mr. Edwards, the third-generation Montana wheat farmer. "It's just a depressing time to be on the prairie."
A joke making the rounds has it that the ducks who live in the cotton-mouthed counties in eastern Montana have yet to learn to swim. Most people say the line with a straight face.
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