The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Drier than the Dust Bowl: waiting for relief in rural America

As wide swaths of rural America suffer through historic drought, they're being left further behind.

Anita Pointon shows where the water has to soak over to in order to reach a bed of corn seeds. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)
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LAS ANIMAS, Colo. — The water could start at any time.

Every few hours, Anita Pointon refreshes the Web site that tells when it’s coming, because the work begins as soon as they know. Her husband, Chuck, 62, will set out to walk the farm with a moisture probe to see which fields are the driest. One run of water covers only about 18 acres of their 500, so they have to choose carefully.

As rural America wilts, this is how those left working its powder-dry land get by: At the appointed hour, Chuck turns the head gate at the Fort Lyon Canal, sending water sluicing through ditches bordering the fields. He tracks up and down the rows, adjusting pipes and valves to make sure the water is flowing just right. Almost as soon as he’s got it working, it’s another field’s turn, and he lifts the dams to send water in a different direction. That goes on through the night: If a piece of trash were to block a gate, they could lose thousands of gallons of water, which might leave whole rows of corn lacking the moisture they need to grow.

They call it “babysitting the water,” for its finicky nature and the sleep they lose over it. And in an age of automation, the Pointons have no machines to help. Without a sprinkler system — which the Pointons couldn’t afford to install, even if they could spare the extra land it takes up — they rely on gravity to spread it across the fields.

There’s been so little moisture lately, though, that gravity isn’t doing its job. The water doesn’t make it from the furrow to the seed bed. As Anita puts it: “If this doesn’t get wet, we’ve wasted our time.”

This drought is worse and longer-lasting than anyone here has ever seen — so punishing that it’s pushing people like the Pointons, whose families have survived on the land for decades, to the brink of giving up. Their farm is in an angry red splotch on the USDA’s drought map, indicating sustained, abnormal dryness — less rain fell in the 42 months before May of last year than in the stretch in the mid-1930s now called the Dust Bowl.

The lingering dryness, combined with the loss of access to the irrigation systems that used to make up for it, is one of the biggest forces dragging America’s rural areas further behind its dynamic cities: While the poverty rate stabilized for metropolitan areas in 2012, it kept growing on farms and in tiny towns, ticking up to 17.7 percent. Rural counties lost people overall — rather than just as a percentage of the U.S. population — for the first time ever from 2010 to 2012. With climate change shortening the wet times and prolonging the dry ones on into the future, it’s unclear that they’ll ever truly recover.

Rural counties lost people overall — rather than just as a percentage of the U.S. population — for the first time ever in 2010-2012.

And it’s not just the weather. Over the years, the farms have also lost a war with fast-growing urban centers: There’s already much less water than there used to be trickling through the surrounding fields, since investors had bought up their water rights — which are normally attached to the land, entitling the owner to take a certain percentage of the water flowing through a river — and profited by flipping them to thirsty cities. Just down the road in Rocky Ford, melon farmers sold their shares to pay off debts in the early 2000s, for tens of thousands of dollars each, leaving the farms baking and dry. In her pessimistic moments, Anita worries about nearby cities damming Fountain Creek to make a reservoir, which could choke off her lifeline as well.

“It’s a threat to us,” she says. “It’s one of those things where they get their foot in the door. Just little ways that they’ve come in, and it affects your water.”

Anita and Chuck were once part of that younger generation that moved away from these ranchlands. They lived in Denver for seven years, where Anita worked as an accountant — but returned in 1990 to take over her family farm, which Anita finds more satisfying. Still, it’s not been like what she remembered growing up there as a girl. This year, the farm has weathered dust storms the likes of which nobody had seen before: high-velocity clouds of dirt and debris that coated everything in muck.

“The dirt flows in, and it’s on your walls, and in your car. You can’t do anything. You’re in the house,” Anita shudders. “It’s horrible.” Her grainy cellphone pictures just show farm equipment as smudges in a brown miasma.

The couple’s financial reserves are wearing thin. Last year, farms fed by the Fort Lyon Canal in the Arkansas Valley got less than half the volume of water they usually do and almost no rain, leaving the land bone-dry. The Pointons sold half the cattle off their land, and leaned on the insurance on their failed corn crop for income.

If the crops fail again this year, they’ll likely go further into debt. Chuck could go work at the fish hatchery, which he did during a bad spell in 2003, and Anita might focus harder on the joy she feels in watching calves grow up every spring, rather than whether she can afford to keep raising them.

“There’s a lot of things in play,” Anita said. “After you start laying it out, it’s like, why are we farming?”

“Because we don’t have enough money to move away,” says Chuck, from the living room, where he’s taking a break from irrigating with a tall glass of ice water.​


The Pointons, at least, are able to harness the moisture of Colorado’s high mountains. Some farms, far from the river that feeds the fields, don’t have even that.

To get to that land, drive through the lowlands outside Pueblo, past the postage-stamp town of Boone, under a giant set of power lines, and then over a little rise onto a vast, sandy plateau. There, all landmarks disappear. Dirt roads at right angles vanish into the distance; if you’re lucky, you might cross a coyote scampering off your path.

That’s where Dwight Watson, with the rawboned, wrung-out limbs of someone who’s spent his life on a high windswept plain, leans down to poke at a clump of desiccated grass.

“This has some life in it,” he says hopefully, peering at greenish threads emerging from the tufty brown. That would make it a valiant survivor. Prairie grass isn’t just individual stalks, he explains — it’s a root network that’s supposed to live for years, hibernating through the winter but bouncing back when the rains come.

For decades, Watson and his wife, Carolyn, lived like those clumps of grass: They fed their herd of black Angus cattle on stored hay when conditions were rough, and pastured them when the prairie turned green again. They hung on even as the rest of the industry moved toward larger and larger farms, with few families remaining to work the land.

But after years of pounding drought, that ground cover has largely expired; this spring’s fleeting showers failed to resuscitate the landscape. The Watsons, too, are about ready to pack it in — but there’s little to pass along to their kids, or even someone else who might take it over. The fields around them are nothing but Russian thistle, which grows into tumbleweeds that have piled so high against wire fences that they’ve blocked roads; time that in a normal year might be spent mowing fresh hay instead goes to clearing out drifts of the thorny plant.

Even the small grove of planted juniper, elm and ash trees that once broke the wind around the Watsons’ house has largely died off, felled by the insects and diseases that proliferate when water disappears. The Watsons’ remaining cattle nibble unenthusiastically on baled weeds, expensive hay bought from elsewhere and straw left over from their last crop, in 2007. And the financial calculus looks worse and worse: Even with beef prices sky-high, they can afford to feed only 21 heifers. Their income from calf sales won’t pay the bills. Meanwhile, this herd costs nearly as much to maintain as one twice its size.

“There’s a point,” Dwight says, “at which you start thinking, it’s not worth the investment.”

If they finally leave their farm, they’ll be among the last ones out. Family after family in the high plains of southeast Colorado have abandoned their grandparents’ homesteads, coinciding with an overall decrease: America had 3,481,000 separate farms in 1964, compared with 2,103,210 in 2013, as automation and consolidation decreased the need for labor.

The walls of the Watsons’ little one-story house are covered with portraits of their five children, who all found jobs in cities where they could have their weekends free. Carolyn and Dwight pull out other pictures to prove how rich their land once was. In the sepia print of their wedding day, in the fall of 1967, the 20-year-olds who’d grown up on farms across the road from each other stood in grass up to their knees, with Pike’s Peak on the horizon. In later years, the photo albums burst into technicolor, with supple green waves cut into tawny rolls and blocks for piling onto the trucks that would take them to market.

“We need to capture these when it happens, because it doesn’t happen very often anymore,” says Carolyn, sitting at the kitchen island.

“To convince people why we stay here,” Dwight adds. “That’s why we hang on. Because we’ve seen it do what it can do.”  That’s their source of hope: The rains ceased and returned in the 1950s, when they were children. They bought the farm from Dwight’s father and uncle in the 1970s, and used it as collateral to borrow to buy all their heavy equipment. Though they had close brushes with bankruptcy, selling the calves each year of 120 heifers pulled them through.

“To convince people why we stay here,” Dwight adds. “That’s why we hang on. Because we’ve seen it do what it can do.”

“He always found us a way,” says Dwight, referring to God. “Or made us stay here, whichever way that is.”

Their commitment to the land was tested in the 1980s, when beef prices tanked. To try to depress supply, the USDA paid ranchers not to graze cattle on their land. The Watsons enrolled a large chunk of their acreage in the program, which provided a small income stream (according to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy database, they received $412,000 between 1995 and 2012). Later, they found it had another benefit: It’s one of the main reasons why more of the land hasn’t blown away, like it did during the Dust Bowl, since cattle weren’t stripping the land of the root systems that keep the dirt in place.

To supplement their income, Carolyn took a job driving 40 students in a school bus on a 37-mile loop into the nearby town of Fowler. She enjoyed the work, but as the years went on, the number of kids living on the farms dotting the plateau shrank; a Suburban replaced the school bus. Now, it only runs five miles out of town.

“There’s nothing to keep them here,” Carolyn says. Another casualty of the exodus: Carolyn’s own ability to have a life outside the farm.

“I guess where I am in my years, I would like to be more of a person that can serve other people. And when I retired, that was something I wanted to do,” she says. But she’d have to go to Pueblo or Colorado Springs to do that, and the cost of gas is prohibitive. “So as long as we live here, I guess I’ll serve him,” she says, glancing at Dwight quickly.

Until a few years ago, the Watsons thought all the work would be worth it: With their line of credit nearly paid down, they’d sell their cattle and lease their land for a tidy retirement. But they were forced to sell nearly the herd after the first phase of the decade long-drought hit in 2001. They spent that income a few years later to rebuild the herd. It happened again in 2013, leaving them with vastly reduced income and land that’s essentially worthless.

So, now what’s the retirement plan? “We try to avoid it. It’s painful,” Dwight says with an uneasy laugh. “I can’t utilize the land that we have invested in all these years to create income, because there’s nothing there to sell.”

Of course, they know why they’re still there: A wild hope that the land could finally return.

“When it’s good, it’s so good you don’t want to leave,” Dwight says. “And when it’s bad, you can’t afford to.”

Over the past few weeks, southeast Colorado has finally gotten some rain, spreading a film of green over the plains. Dwight Watson thinks it means he’ll be able to feed his cows through the summer, and find hay for them in the fall. The Pointons’ farm is still far drier than average, but nowhere near last year’s utter desiccation.

Still, it’s just a short respite. For both the Watsons and the Pointons, a question hangs in the parched air: Could these historic extremes be the fault of some global shift caused by human activity? Climate change is all over the news, after all. Perhaps that could account for the devastation that’s so totally sapped the land.

But for them — and most farmers around here — the answer is no. They all listen to a local meteorologist named Brian Bledsoe, who calls the phenomenon “government warming,” and broadcasts his climate change skepticism on the local radio station, through his Web site and on speaking gigs around the region.

“He’s kind of an icon in this area,” says Natalie Bond, an ebullient South Carolinian who moved to southeast Colorado for college and now leads a USDA farm lending program. She was checking in on the Pointons, who took out a USDA loan when they were turned down by the private banks.

“He is,” Anita agrees. “And I think he understands the agriculture because he grew up where he grew up, and that makes a big difference.”

“I’m a firm believer in I think it’s cycles of the Earth,” Bond goes on. “And you see the drought that happened many years ago, and it’s natural cycles.”

Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether they believe the drought is human-caused. It’s happening, and there’s nothing they can do about it.