Parts Of Southeast Colorado Drier Than The Dust Bowl

Originally published on June 26, 2014 11:41 am

Parts of Southeast Colorado are experiencing a longer period of drought than the dry times that occurred during the Dust Bowl.

According to Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist, the past three years and eight months have been the driest stretch ever recorded for some parts of the state, including Rocky Ford, La Junta and Ordway.

"It was drier than the worst consecutive drought period of the 30s and of the 50s," said Doesken.

Rocky Ford has gotten just 19.7 inches since October 2010, according to the state climatologist. While this is a serious dry spell, there were more prolonged droughts in the 1930s and 1970s – it's just that they were interspersed with some rainfall relief, which much of the southeastern part of the state hasn't seen over three and a half years.

Recent spring rains have brought some relief to parts of the region, but the rainfall has been spotty, said Doesken. This means some towns ended their driest period on record in March, but a few are still as parched as they have ever been.

Credit Eric Luebehusen / U.S. Department of Agriculture
Severe drought continues to grip much of Southeast Colorado, despite relief in the northern part of the state

Making comparisons with the Dust Bowl, characterized by striking storms of blowing soil and agricultural practices no longer in use today, can be tricky.

"You can't compare dust storms, you can't compare vegetation," said Doesken, because there is no standard measurement for some of the plagues brought by drought. "But how we measure rain is the same. So that we could compare, apples to apples."

Wet Winter Didn't Extend Down South

The rest of the state has reveled in abundant snowfall in 2014, gleefully filling reservoirs and even experiencing flooding as part of the spring runoff season. But, as Doesken and others like to point out, Colorado is a big state, and weather patterns do not affect it equally.

"Southeast Colorado requires a very deep, far southerly storm track. And that occurs, but infrequently, and has been almost nonexistent for the last three and a half years," he said. In contrast, many storms have crossed over the central and northern mountains, leading to good water levels for the past two years.

Credit Colorado Climate Center
Colorado's southeastern corner has been in a persistent drought for many years, but got some much-needed rainfall in early June.

John Stulp is a special adviser to Gov. Hickenlooper on water and also chairs the state's Interbasin Compact Committee. His family owns a ranch in the southeastern part of the state, but they sold off all their cattle in 2013, when rains failed to come. Stulp's son couldn't afford to buy high-priced hay, and the native grassland they usually graze their cattle on is so parched it is no longer growing.

It's not that farmers and ranchers in the area are unaccustomed to drought, said Stulp. After all, the area only gets around 12 to 15 inches a year anyway. But when it reaches Dust Bowl proportions, the ground – and the people's – capacity to adapt can wither right along with their crops.

"People in Southeast Colorado are pretty resilient. They've been through droughts before. But these prolonged droughts just put an extra burden on their financial bottom line and probably their mental health," Stulp said.

No-till and low-till farming methods have helped to minimize dust problems, although the area has certainly seen its share of blowing dust and tumbleweed pileups. But at some point, as the drought lasts and lasts, the soil just runs out of moisture.

Credit Lance Cheung / U.S. Department of Agriculture
Aerial views of drought-affected Colorado farm lands near Strasburg, in 2012. That part of the state has since recovered from drought, but persistent dryness still grips areas further south.

"The longer you are in drought, the less options you have from a response in management practices, said Taryn Finnessey, the state's climate change risk management specialist, who closely tracks water conditions in the state. Farmers have adapted by changing practices, trying to pull moist soil from below up to the surface, and spread manure to prevent blowing dust. But "you can only do so many things," she said.

Such long term drought, and the drying of the soil, also makes it difficult for small amounts of moisture to make much difference. The ground is hard packed and water from summer downpours runs off. Low soil moisture means less relative humidity, and long term drought means less vegetation is around to hold moisture.

"To some extent, drought begets drought," Finnessey added. "When you have warmer, drier conditions, it kind of becomes this cycle resulting in warmer, drier conditions. The ground gets warm and there is not as much soil moisture, and it continues that cycle until something really comes in to break [it]."

Could El Niño Be The Cure?

Stulp, who has watched droughts come and go across state for decades, said folks in the southeast are hopeful that the wetness to the north will eventually make its way toward them.

"Farmers and ranchers are optimists -- unfortunately sometimes -- and so we always think that next week, next year will be better."

They are not alone in their optimism. Earlier this year, forecasters were projecting an El Niño would come, and a strong one typically can bring extra moisture to the southern part of the state. But so far the conditions do not look favorable for a strong El Niño, at least early in the year, Klaus Wolter, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences reported Wednesday in a conference call.

"It looks like we have an El Niño started but it is struggling," said Wolter.

This may just mean that a strong El Niño will take longer to emerge. So while it could eventually bring the hoped-for moisture, this summer isn't looking promising for rains in that part of the state.

For the next few months at least, "I wouldn't bet on wet," Wolter said.

Copyright 2018 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.