The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was one of the greatest ecological disasters in the nation’s history, and Colorado’s southeastern corner was in the bull’s-eye of the massive, wind-borne destruction that persisted through much of the decade.
Baca County and corners of Las Animas and Prowers counties were classified by the Natural Resources Conservation Service as among the most severely impacted during the years 1935-1938, when the storms were at their worst. Experts meeting in Pueblo in 1935 to discuss the crisis estimated that winds had blown 850 million tons of topsoil off the southern plains that year, according to an account by Colorado Preservation, Inc.
Counties as far west as Pueblo, El Paso and Elbert were heavily impacted, and it wasn’t unusual for the skies above Denver to grow dark from the dust storms.
“My grandmother grew up in Colorado Springs and she vividly remembered the dust storms,” said State Historian Bill Convery, among those featured in the new Colorado Experience documentary on Rocky Mountain PBS, The Dust Bowl.
Cycles of drought and precipitation are natural on the plains, and damaging drought in southeastern Colorado, eastern New Mexico, the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and western Kansas has drawn direct comparison to the Dust Bowl.
“Absolutely,” said assistant state climatologist Wendy Ryan. “As we were keeping track, particularly in 2011 and 2012, we started drawing comparisons to the ‘30s. It was as dry and as hot down there as the Dust Bowl.”
The visual elements were also there: Enormous dust storms, but not with the frequency or longevity of the 1930s, and tumbleweed melees that covered highways and buried barns and houses.
“The Colorado historian Stephen J. Leonard, who is at Metro State University, described the history of the plains as a serial tragedy with the same disaster at the end of each episode,” said Convery.
“What he meant by that was that when settlers arrived in the 1870s it was in a period of better than normal rainfall, followed by droughts in the 1880s and 1890s. “When they returned in the 1910s rainfall was above average. And with the war in Europe, the farmers really turned to producing wheat. When the (wheat) market collapsed and the drought came, the Dust Bowl was next.”
There was also punishing drought in the 1950s and now this most recent stretch. The U.S. Drought Monitor has classified much of Colorado’s southeastern quadrant in the most serious stages of drought for three years, but that was mitigated somewhat by rainfall this summer and fall that boosted moisture totals there to 70 to 90 percent of normal average.
Still, there is a drought “deficit” and much of the Arkansas River valley has a long way to go before recovering.
“The effects of the drought are intensified by the way we treat the land, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to be better stewards of the land,” said Convery. “But it could be argued convincingly that climate change is making the peaks of wetness and dryness more historic.”