Drought continues to deepen in western Kansas

4/30/2014

By AMY BICKEL

By AMY BICKEL

Special to The Telegram

In western Kansas, it seems like the wind will never quit.

And during the past few days, the wind has been relentless. Topsoil is blowing, covering the sky and everything else in its path. Farmers in tractors dot the landscape, chiseling fields to help stop the erosion.

Still, dust blows as the prolonged drought continues to bear down on the High Plains.

"A lot of ground is turned loose," said Stanton County farmer Steve Shepard, who has spent three or four days in the tractor seat himself trying to keep a couple of fields from blowing away. "Looking around right now, it is just brown. It is brown all around us, all over us — just dirt blowing."

No, it's not the Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s — or even close. But four years of deep drought have taken a toll on the land. It is dry enough that residents across southwest Kansas say more tumbleweeds are blowing around than normal, hitting fence posts, blocking roadways and filling up yards. It's also dry enough that concern looms for the upcoming wheat crop and the dried-up pastures that should be stocked with cattle.

Now, it is dry enough that, coupled with heftier-than-normal winds this year, the soil is blowing and, as a result of the multiyear drought, there is little residue left to stop it.

"We are farming better, using less tillage; we are trying to keep more residue in the ground," said John Holman, a southwest Kansas agronomist with Kansas State University Research and Extension. "But the problem is when you have no rain, you have no crop growth. You have no crop growth, you have nothing protecting the soil."

Scarred land

Droughts have come and gone in Kansas — especially in this seemingly arid southwest corner of the state.

In the 1930s, drought and winds created rolling walls of dust that spread across the Great Plains, causing nearly a quarter of southwest Kansas' population to leave, according to the book "Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas."

Now, the same area that was the epicenter of the 1930s event is suffering from the 21st century drought.

Drought began to set in during the summer of 2010, the last year the area received normal rainfall, Holman said. This year hasn't seen much promise for pardon, either, with Garden City receiving 30 percent of normal precipitation and just 45 percent for the wheat-growing season that starts in September.

The U.S. Drought Monitor lists the entire state as in some form of drought. Nearly 20 percent is listed as extreme, with western Kansas hit the hardest.

It's not a pretty picture, Holman said, but it could be worse. Conditions aren't as bad as during the 1930s — the Dust Bowl era — or even the 1950s, he said. The 1930s had nearly 10 years of below-normal precipitation, and the 1950s had five.

Still, Holman added, year four of drought has taken a toll on the thirsty land. The wheat crop is in poor shape. Pastures are dried up, and some native stands are bad enough they are blowing.

One thing that could be different, however, is the wind. Kansas State Climatologist Mary Knapp said 2014 already has been a third windier than historical averages.

Wind gusts into the 50- and 60-mph range have been ripping across southwest Kansas since Saturday, said Shepard's wife, Glenda. Visibility has been bad enough that there have been times while driving that it's been hard to see the road.

It was windy and dirty enough Tuesday that Stanton County's school system canceled classes. Superintendent Angela Lawrence said at times she can't see the elementary school out her window, which is just a half-block away.

There have been few breaks from the unyielding wind, said Michele Boy, a writer and farm wife in Hamilton County.

"A lot of farmers were out chiseling yesterday," she said, noting that her husband was one of them. "But the dirt is piling up."

The wind is becoming hard to take, she said. It's the kind of wind that gives you headaches, leaves a layer of dust on the furniture and walls, and keeps you and the kids inside.

Moods are somber.

"This is your livelihood," she said, later adding, "It's a disaster here. The wheat is coming up, but the wind is burning up what is there."

Rain needed

State officials began their annual cross-country tour of the state's wheat fields Tuesday. Scars of the drought and the cold winter already are evident, however.

The Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service rates 37 percent of the state's wheat as poor or very poor and 42 percent as fair.

Holman said several southwest Kansas wheat fields would be zeroed out because of the lack of moisture. The area could see anywhere from fields not harvested to some dryland fields averaging 25 to 30 bushels an acre.

Drought has ravaged the region far too long, but there is some hope on the horizon. As farmers often say, each day is one closer to rain, and Holman notes that forecasters talk of a possible El Nino, which would bring fall and winter moisture to Kansas.

Yet, for now, forecasters predict gusting wind through today, at least. Gusts on Tuesday hit 65 mph in Garden City — the fourth day of wind speeds reaching above 45 mph.

Rain would solve many issues, Shepard said. Nevertheless, on Tuesday it spit rain for just a few minutes, enough to cause muddy clods to fly with the dust. Moreover, with the wind, evidence that it had ever rained disappeared as quickly as it fell.

Shepard and fellow farmers discussed the situation over coffee, peering out the window at the implement dealership 300 yards away.

However, there were times he couldn't see it as the dust roared by the window.

"We don't know where to begin now," he said of farmers and their tractors and chisels, out trying to stop the dirt. "Everything in the country is moving, and, really, it is coming from everywhere."

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