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Drought pushes farmers to the brink

July 23, 2014 - 4:50am

LAS ANIMAS, Colo. — The water could start at any time.

Every few hours, Anita Pointon refreshes the website that tells when it’s their turn to tap into a canal they share with other farmers, 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 about only 18 acres of their 500, so they have to choose carefully.

As rural America wilts, this is how those left working the powder-dry land get by: At the appointed hour, Pointon turns the head gate at the Fort Lyon Canal, sending water sluicing through ditches bordering the fields. He tracks up and down the rows all night adjusting valves, sending as much of the precious flow as he can from one field to the next, watching out for stoppages that could leave some crops dry.

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 can’t afford to install, even if they could spare the 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.

For most of the past 10 years, abnormal dryness has made the West a tinderbox; fire season lasts months longer than it used to, and the National Drought Mitigation Center estimates that half the area of the lower 48 states is in a drought.

The drought is so punishing that it’s pushing people such as 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 Agriculture Department’s drought map, indicating sustained, abnormal dryness — less rain fell in the 42 months before May 2013 than during the Dust Bowl in the mid-1930s.

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: While the poverty rate stabilized for urban 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 in 2010-12.

With climate change shortening the wet times and prolonging the dry ones, it’s unclear that they’ll ever recover.

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, because investors have been buying up water rights and profiting 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 Pointon worries about nearby cities damming Fowler 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.”

The Pointons were once part of that younger generation that moved away from 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 she 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,” Pointon said. “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 probably go further into debt. Chuck could work at the fish hatchery, which he did during a bad spell in 2003, and Anita might smoke a few more Misty Menthol Greens than she knows she ought to.

“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,” Chuck said from the living room, where was 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.

About an hour and a half away, on a sandy plateau outside Pueblo, Dwight Watson 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 said, it’s a root network that’s supposed to live for years, hibernating through the winter and bouncing back when the rains come.

For decades, Watson and his wife, Carolyn, lived like that: 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 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 2010.

And the financial calculus looks worse: Even with beef prices sky-high, they can afford to feed only about 21 heifers — down from about 120 in the 1990s. 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 Watson says, “at which you start thinking it’s not worth the investment.”

The walls of the couple’s 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. The Watsons pull out pictures to prove how rich their land once was. In the sepia print of their wedding day, in the spring of 1968, 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,” Carolyn said, sitting at the kitchen island.

“To convince people why we stay here,” Dwight added. “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 in the 1970s and used it as collateral to buy all their heavy equipment. Although they have had brushes with bankruptcy, selling the calves each year of 120 heifers a year pulled them through.

Their commitment 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: One of the main reasons why more of the land hasn’t blown away, like it did during the Dust Bowl, is because cattle weren’t stripping the land of the root systems that keep the dirt in place.

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 half 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.”

For some farmers on the high plateau, there’s an exit strategy: Take your cattle somewhere else to ride out the drought. Larry Fillmore, who grew up next to the Watsons, trucked his cattle north to South Dakota, where he’s leased lush grassland. The contrast between that and what his own land has become is hard to confront.

Of course, the Watsons 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 said. “And when it’s bad, you can’t afford to.”