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The New Dust Bowl

MAGGIE SIEGER / Time v.160, n.12, 16sep02

Scottsbluff, NB -- BITTER HARVEST Cursed by a drought worse than the Okies saw at the height of the Great Depression, the West's farmers are selling their cattle and leaving plots to blow toward the Rockies. As harvest season arrives, grocery stores will raise prices and the nation's growers will seek relief, yet again, from a Congress with its own budget problems NEBRASKA FACING A HARD CHOICE: TO ABANDON CASH CROPS OR COWS

Bob Roberts used to think the droughts of the Great Depression were the benchmark for tough times. Now he and other old-timers in Scottsbluff, Neb., a small farming community near the Wyoming border, are talking about the scant 2.16 in. of rain that has fallen this year--30% less than what fell during the worst of the 1930s drought years and more than 80% below normal. When it comes to water, local farmers are living through their greatest depression yet.


The Historical Pattern
% of US area severely to extremely dry

Sources: National Drought Mitigation Center; National Climactic Data Center/ NESDIS/NOAA; US Drought Monitor; National Interagency Fire Center; US Bureau of Reclamation, Upper CO Region.


Inflow* to Lake Powell
in millions of cubic feet per second

This year's snowmelt feeding into Lake Powell has been the lowest on record and could mean less power generation for Las Vegas and less water for states like California. * This is "unregulated flow," the flow that would be observed in a river if all human influences (such as upstream dams) were removed.


Driving his Ford Explorer through fields of severely stunted corn, Roberts, 67, says, "You're looking at a sad man." Stalks that should be 12 ft. high are less than 3 ft. In the next field over, a handful of tiny, withered sorghum plants the only ones that grew fight an obviously losing battle against cloudless skies.

The drought is devastating farmers in Nebraska, but it's also making an impact as far away as the Capitol Hill. Majority leader Tom Daschle introduced a proposal last week in the Senate that would authorize some $5 billion in drought relief for farmers. President Bush has previously said that to restrain the federal deficit, he wants any aid to come from the $249 billion farm bill that was enacted last May. That's likely to set off a feisty debate in some congressional districts over whether farmers need extra help or have had plenty of help already.

There's little doubt that many U.S. farmers are suffering. So far this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wheat production is down 14% from last year, and corn, soybean, and cotton production have also experienced big drops. Dave Frederickson, president of the National Farmers Union, says the low harvest yield will almost certainly mean higher grocery-store prices, perhaps even before stores actually feel the pinch. Says Frederickson: "Sometimes folks will use a perceived shortage to push prices up."

In the meantime, those who cultivate crops are being forced to make some tough economic decisions. When it became clear that irrigation water pumped in from a Cheyenne, Wyo., reservoir would not last the growing season, farmers like Roberts were faced with a choice: Which crops should they abandon? Roberts had to pick between corn, a primary cash crop, and alfalfa, essential for feeding cows. He decided he needed feed more than cash.

Twenty miles southwest of Scottsbluff, Jim Wyatt, 41, who has already stripped his fields of everything but baked, brown grass, is hoping he can find enough scrub weed in neighbors' pastures to feed his cattle. Others have sold entire herds for pennies a pound. "If you can't feed them, you can't keep them," says Wyatt. Dry-land farmers, who either can't afford the expensive irrigation water or live too far out to be able to use it, are in even worse shape.

John Jones, 48, harvested less than half his usual haul of wheat this year. His millet, a grain used in birdseed, hasn't even germinated. The field is an expanse of naked earth surrounded by burned-out pastures. "In June it looked like September, and it's just getting worse," Jones says.

Indeed, the North Platte River is merely damp sand for long stretches. Local stores carry postcards of a lush, green Scotts Bluff that bears only a passing resemblance to the bare, tan-colored mesa that rises from the Nebraska prairie and once served as a landmark for settlers heading west on the Oregon Trail. Even the weeds have deserted miles of pasture, leaving nothing behind but swirling dust, starving antelope and bawling calves hungry for milk their mothers can't produce.

This year's bitter combination of high temperatures and low rainfall has been the harshest in a four-year cycle, and it has prompted the state to take action. A new task force has been charged with solving the state's water problems. Part of its charter is to prevent future disputes with Wyoming over distribution of water from the North Platte River. The decades-long fight recently cost Nebraska $20 million and has been stepped up by the 2002 drought.

Federal farm-loan managers estimate that 90% of farmers in the area are in financial trouble. Jones says he would be broke it were not for his wife's schoolteacher salary. "Everyone's asking everyone else, 'What are you doing?'" Jones says. "We all know what to do when it rains. But nobody knows how to farm when it doesn't."

With reporting by Amanda Bower/New York


Local Farmers Are Suffering Through the Worst Drought in Memory.
So Why is the Golf Course Green?

TERRY MCCARTHY / Time 16sep02

Durango, CO -- Ron gillen has a face like his farmland-brown and a little bit broken. "I don't know how we're going to make it," the farmer says as he looks at some of his cows huddling under a bridge to escape the burning sun. Gillen, 66, has only 20 cows left from a herd of 450. After three years of drought in southwestern Colorado, Gillen's fields are parched, his irrigation water is spent, and he has been selling off land and livestockto cover debts. His banker keeps telling him that he should find some other line of work, that farming these days "is pretty grim." But after a lifetime of farming, Gillen says, "where would I go to find work? Welcoming people at Wal-Mart?"

Thirty miles away in the city of Durango (pop. 15,000) at El Patio Bar & Grill, misting machines spray diners to keep them cool. Lawns are lush, and the golf course has fairways greener than fresh limes. But according to the widely used Palmer monthly drought index, the region around Durango is suffering the worst drought in the U.S. In June the Missionary Ridge fire, northeast of town, burned 70,000 acres. Only 2.86 in. of rain have fallen all year. And Durango, which since 1877 has had first rights to the water that flows down the Florida River and the local Animas, can hold only a seven-day supply in its reservoir. So the city uses up most of its entitlement, consuming 6 million gal. of water a day to preserve an oasis environment on a semidesert plateau. The golf course alone absorbs half a million gallons a day, water that would otherwise flow downstream and feed the Colorado River. "We created an arti.cial environment here, and we are trying to keep it," says city manager Robert Ledger. "The water we don't use ends up in a fountain in Vegas."

Durango-which means "well-watered place"-embodies all the perplexities of water management in the West. Any water that is allowed to run downstream is wasted water. Any water that can be held captive behind the thousands of dams built under the 1902 Reclamation Act is good water. Today the contradictions of this water policy are starting to show through as clearly as the cracked earth on the bottom of the Lemon Reservoir. Some 14 miles northeast of Durango, the Lemon was built in 1963 to hold 40,000 acre-ft. of water for irrigation in the area. It is down to 9% of capacity, all irrigation has been suspended, and the reservoir serves as an amusement for locals who drive pickups outonto the dry bed and make doughnut shapes with their tires.

An old mining town that once thrived on smelting gold and silver ore, Durango today is following Aspen and Telluride in remodeling itself as a tourist destination and a home for wealthy retirees seeking an outdoor life. The small town is quaintly restored, but the economy is sagging. Fires and drought have put an end to much of the hiking and whitewater rafting, restaurants are laying off staff, and many tourists have canceled trips. While the rest of the country keeps a nervous eye on the Dow Jones industrial average, everyone in Durango follows cubic-feet-per-second flow rates on the two local rivers. Both are running at one-fifth their normal levels for this time of year. "It will take two to three years to get out of the hole we are in now," says Ken Beegles, head of the Durango office of the state division of water resources. "We are counting on Mother Nature to change."

But what if Mother Nature doesn't comply? Some 35 miles west of Durango, in the Mesa Verde National Park, site of a fire in July, are the famous cliff dwellings of the Anasazi-or ancestral Puebloans, as they are now known-whose civilization flourished there until the end of the 13th century, when the combination of a 30-year drought, a population explosion and overuse of natural resources forced them out.

Durango is oblivious to the lessons of history. It plans to build enough houses to expand its population 160%, to 40,000. This growth will require more water, and the city is banking on another dam, the controversial Animas-La Plata project, which has been on the drawing board since 1968. It is still unclear whether Congress will appropriate the entire $350 million needed for the dam. Water flows toward money. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s pushed small farmers off the land and consolidated larger land holdings. The drought of today will force farmers like Gillen to sell off more of their land for housing subdivisions. The grass on those future lawns will probably be kept greener than his dying fields. -With reporting by Rita Healy/Marvel


The Chief Judge of the State's Water Court is the Last Word on Disputes.
This Year His Job is Tougher than Ever

PAT DAWSON / Time 16sep02

Bozeman, MT -- Judge C. Bruce Loble has the kind of record jurists dream about. He has adjudicated 14,000 claims in Montana and has never once been reversed by the state supreme court. He holds virtually untrammeled power over the petitioners who come before him because he controls what they all want: water. For 12 years he has served as chief judge of the Montana Water Court, supervising six judges and overseeing as many as seven water commissioners at one time. Loble settles disputes between farmers and ensures that the state is fulfilling its commitments to its Native American tribes. Technically, he can even overrule the President. Once Congress approves and the President signs a water compact, it is returned to theMontana Water Court for final approval. I guess people think some obscure water judge in Montana is not going to abuse his authority," says Loble.

This summer, Montana's third dry one in a row, Judge Loble is guarding that trust. The 250-mile-long Musselshell River, which bisects much of the center of the state west to east, has run dry. Stunted brown patches of barley and drooping cornstalks along its winding path testify to the summer's record heat wave. Deadman's Basin, one of the river's three storage reservoirs, yielded a piddling 10,000 acre-ft. of water this year, compared with an average of 48,940 acre-ft. Due in large part to the lack of water, the state's winter wheat harvest was the smallest since the Dust Bow l year of 1937-42% of the wheat planted in the fall was abandoned, and the outlook for the spring harvest is dreary.

Even as the water disappears, newcomers to subdivisions in southwestern Montana are demanding their fair share of it. "As water gets short, tempers get shorter," says Loble. "To prevent anarchy on the streams, there needs to be a water cop." Thanks to Loble's careful oversight and the water court's new electronic measuring devices, which make sure that upstream users don't hog all the river flow, more people in Montana got water this year than in 1988. Sometimes, Loble says, just holding a meeting is all it takes to get two disputing parties to work together. And other times Loble gets tough. A few weeks ago, a rancherwas put on notice by a water commissioner for contempt of court for taking toomuch water out of the Musselshell. The penalty for the rancher's infraction was a $500 fine-and $500 more to stay out of jail. "Traditionally, irrigating farmers and ranchers just took all the water they could, regardless of other rights," Loble says. "This year we're enforcing our decrees."

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