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High and Dry: Colorado in Drought — State's residents have coped with extreme dryness for generations

From the High and Dry: Drought in Colorado series
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In the first part of our series, we explore the history of The Dry, a Black community in southeast Colorado undone by drought. Check back Wednesday, March 3, 2021 for part 2. (Video by Skyler Ballard)

When Rolan Dixon arrived with her family on the high plains of Colorado in 1916, the landscape in its remote solitude was vast and silent.

Family lore has it so quiet that a snake rustling through the grass could be heard, the sound of a distant bird’s wingbeat thrummed with clarity. Dixon could look across the fields for miles in any direction and see nothing but stalks of cacti and reeds of prairie grass covering the dry ground.

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She was 18 and had journeyed 300 miles with her family from Nicodemus, Kan., to start a new life with other Black homesteaders just outside Manzanola — a small farm town some 40 miles southeast of Pueblo. Sharecroppers in Kansas, Dixon’s family was drawn to its patch of Colorado by the Homestead Act, an ambitious U.S. government program to settle the West that granted 160 acre tracts to those willing to take the risk. Nicodemus was also a historic Black homesteading community.

They arrived in Colorado by horse and wagon for the promise of opportunity.

What they found on the Colorado prairie was no oasis. The land was parched, with limited access to water. The new settlers — eventually there would be some 50 Black families — called it “The Dry.”

But a nearby river and the ambition to build irrigation gave them hope.

Even at its most populated and robust, The Dry was riddled by hardship.

But there was a sense of camaraderie, of freedom, among the families that lived there that made the adversity worthwhile, said Michelle Slaughter, a Colorado archaeologist and an expert on The Dry.

“It was always hard,” Slaughter said. “And I think that for a lot of the folks who moved out there, they were willing to work with that because it was still such a remarkable opportunity for them.”

Some of the families of The Dry were only a generation removed from slavery. They grew gardens, picnicked together and lived off land they could call their own, Slaughter said.

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Alice McDonald grew up on The Dry, an area of land south of Manzanola, Colorado first homesteaded by Black families that moved to Colorado from other Black agricultural communities in the Midwest. McDonald spent most of her life on The Dry. She has fond memories of riding her horse around the area and enjoying the beauty of the prairie. (Forrest Czarnecki/The Gazette)

Rolan Dixon’s daughter, Alice McDonald, now 86, is a surviving resident of The Dry, one of two Black homesteading communities of the era in Colorado, the other being the more prominent Dearfield in Weld County. McDonald now lives in Manzanola, less than eight miles from where her mother moved more than a century ago

Much has changed since then, but there is one remaining constant — Aridity and epoch-making drought have long been features of life in Colorado.

• • •

The Anasazi peoples who populated Mesa Verde are theorized to have abandoned their spectacular cliff dwellings after a period of extreme drought. During the height of the 1930s Dust Bowl, agriculture and community life in eastern Colorado was struck by unparalleled devastation. The 1950s experienced a lesser, but still severe drought that came to be known as the “filthy fifties.”

In 2020 Colorado faced renewed water challenges and the harsh reality that the first two decades of this century have presented severe, episodic droughts as dire as many of the more distant past.

The state experienced its third driest year on record in 2020 and moving toward the third month of 2021, the entire state is experiencing some level of drought, with many counties suffering “extreme” or “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which issues a weekly, color-code map depicting conditions.

Many experts believe that with warming — virtually all long-term climate projections call for a hotter and drier Southwest, including Colorado — drought will be more pervasive, and that balancing water resources will be more crucial than ever.

The past may be prelude when it comes to drought, and Colorado's history offers punishing lessons, but the present and future may be even more complicated, according to a wide array of expertise.

Unlike the era of the Dust Bowl, which was exacerbated by localized farming practices that created a feedback loop of dryness, erosion, and airborne soil, the drought Colorado confronts today is likely to  be more intense because of global changes, said Russ Schumacher, Colorado state climatologist and a professor at CSU.

“The effects of climate change are sort of pushing it (drought) to be worse,” Schumacher said.

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Clockwise from top photo: Alice and her brother, Harvey, Jr., sit on a pair of horses, Fancy and Dolly, behind a couple of their family's milk cows at their homestead in the 1940s. Alice McDonald's niece, Margery Owens, pets Dolly the saddle pony at McDonald's homestead during a summer time visit around 1961-62. Alice McDonald's father, Harvey, Sr., and McDonald's nephew, Jayme Owens, sit in the shade of the elm tree in front of McDonald's homestead in the early 1960s. (Photos provided by Alice McDonald)

Schumacher emphasized that Colorado’s climate is not “abundant with water,” so the effects of climate change compound the state’s natural dryness.

The natural cycles of drought and wet years will continue as they always have, but at a higher frequency and more intense levels, Schumacher said. These cycles accelerated with four severe droughts since 2000, one of which barely lifted after 2018, with spring 2019 snowstorms, before 2020 began seeing drought again.

Coloradans have endured cycles of severe dryness in the remote past, and in the opening years of the 21st century with drastic impact on the present. What will Colorado's future climate require of residents to endure megadroughts to come? In High and Dry, Colorado in Drought, The Gazette searches for answers.

• • •

The Homestead Act was passed in 1862, but its enticement and specific updates were still drawing homesteaders West in the 1910s and 20s, particular around the period of World War I, when the demand for wheat skyrocketed, said Doug Sheflin, Dust Bowl expert and history professor at Colorado State University.

“In the 1920s, late 1910s, is kind of a peak moment for not only economic opportunity on the plains, but also demographic shift into it,” Sheflin said.

Alice McDonald’s family was a part of that westward shift.

But unlike many of the farmer’s who plowed up millions of acres of topsoil to harvest wheat, McDonald’s family and others in The Dry were attempting dryland farming — an approach that maximizes limited water in arid climates and focuses on planting vegetation that requires less water.

“They tried farming, they planted,” McDonald said. “They were told Indian corn would grow. And that is the little short ears of corn that are usually orange and yellow and red — pretty colors. And beans, pinto beans, sometimes. You can raise pinto beans, but there wasn't a lot that they could raise.”

McDonald’s family and the other’s living on The Dry were drawn to the land outside Manzanola by two African American sisters, Josephine and Lenora Rucker, who encouraged families from Kansas and Oklahoma to come settle in Colorado.

The Rucker sisters worked for George Swink, who was white, and had been a “visionary” for the area. His idea was build irrigation and make the region flourish. Swink would come to be known for establishing melon farming 10 miles away in the town of Rocky Ford.

“He said he wanted to build a dam upon the head gates of the Apishipa River (a 139-mile long tributary of the Arkansas),” McDonald said. “And so they did in fact go up there and they built a dam.”

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An old ditch leading to a defunct reservoir near The Dry is filled with thousands of tumbleweeds. The reservoir, along with several others, was intended to hold water for residents of The Dry and the surrounding area, but those hopes never came true, and years after they were created, they sat empty and dry. (Forrest Czarnecki/The Gazette)

The dam was light at the end of a dusty tunnel for the families of The Dry. The earthen dam held back precious water and diverted its flow through irrigation ditches and canals.

“They said, ‘Well, let's open the head gates and let the water down and we have that field and we'll water it,’” McDonald said. “And so everybody came to see them irrigate the first field.”

But the joy of the dam’s irrigation did not last long. In 1923, less than two years after construction, it burst in a powerful rainstorm.

“That was the end of the irrigation,” McDonald said. “The people were weary and tired and disheartened, and they never rebuilt it. At that time people said, ‘Well you know we're not gonna be able to irrigate, we're not going to be able to farm.’ And so that was the beginning of the exodus.”

• • •

Families from The Dry began to leave as prospects of farming evaporated.

Some migrated closer to more heavily populated areas, including Colorado Springs and Denver, and some stayed to ranch on the land and raise animals instead of crops.

McDonald’s family chose to stay.

“They had land and they were not city people,” McDonald said. “They were ranchers and farmers. They liked the land.”

With cattle, pigs, chickens and a few sheep, McDonald’s family managed to make a life for themselves.

“My grandmother always said, ‘You own the land. And it is home. It is bad. But won't be bad forever. Things change.’”

But for McDonald’s family and the remaining homesteaders, conditions became worse. The 1930’s brought the Dust Bowl, one of the greatest ecological disasters in American history.

Across the greater region, unsustainable farming practices had overworked the land, stripped the prairies of their natural grasses and left a layer of bone dry topsoil that created apocalyptic dust storms that blackened skies, engulfing homes, livestock and farm equipment.

Hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil blew away, darkening skies as far away as Boston and New York City.

“That dust was just coming in wherever there were cracks,” McDonald said. “If they saw cracks and the dust was coming in, they would try to push a newspaper or rags or something they had to try to keep that dust out of the house.”

“It just would come in, and wherever it would come in it would just build up and build up.”

McDonald’s mother, Rolan Dixon, would hang wet sheets over the windows, doors and even cover her children’s cribs to block out the dust.

For most residents of The Dry, the devastation of the Dust Bowl was more than they could withstand. By the 1940s, most of even the last homesteaders departed, but McDonald's family and some of their relatives didn't go.

“Our family stayed, my grandmother's family stayed and there was another gentleman that stayed but most of the people left,” McDonald said. “So in the end all that was there was our family.”

For McDonald's family, staying on the land meant having something to call their own.

“There were so many of the people that came out of slavery and came across and never owned any land,” McDonald said. "They owned it, and that was very important because anyone that comes and has that kind of grit and gut and puts in that much energy and that much of their lifeblood — it’s worth keeping.”

• • •

The epic destruction of the Dust Bowl changed the future of American agriculture forever. Not only did the relationship between farmers and the land change, but the relationship between the government and farmers shifted, too.

Federal intervention with agencies such as the Agricultural Adjustment Administration subsidized farmers to diversify their crops with those less damaging to the land. Subsidies were also given to farmers to not farm some sections so the soil could recover, Dust Bowl expert Sheflin said.

“To put it simply, we need these farmers to stay where they are because farmers are the backbone of the United States,” Sheflin said. “But they can't keep doing what they're doing and we need to incentivize some changes.”

And with the help of agencies like the Soil Conservation Service, the government bought and converted hundreds of thousands of acres of land to be preserved as national grasslands, including the Comanche and Pawnee Grasslands, encompassing over a 600,000 acres in eastern Colorado.

Students trained at local land grant universities, including Colorado State University, became expert in agriculture, helping implement new techniques and better practices such as contour farming, planting cover crops and shelterbelts of trees to minimize soil erosion.

“There are ways in which the world can modernize, but they're also vulnerable,” Sheflin said. “And drought really does kind of expose that vulnerability.”

However, small ranchers and farmers like McDonald’s family were largely left out of government intervention.

Sheflin said farmers with larger acreage and production were targeted for subsidy programs because that enabled the government to salvage more land. Plus, it was more profitable.

“It was a form of triage,” Sheflin said.

“As I see it, their goal was to keep people farming in places like the Colorado plains, which meant they needed to bet on the bigger farms being more likely to survive such crises because smaller operations were inherently, in their eyes, more susceptible to economic and environmental changes.”

McDonald’s family managed to survive on their own.

They walked the eight miles to Manzanola to purchase barrels of drinking water.

A small spring near their home and two bathtub sized cisterns outside the house were lifelines, providing water to wash and cook with and for the animals to drink.

But for a mass of farmers and ranchers the lessons learned from the Dust Bowl and the changes implemented to rectify the mistakes of that era proved to be successful. Farmers and ranchers managed to weather another severe drought during the 1950’s with less chaos and turmoil than the Dust Bowl, Sheflin said.

“But the bottom line is that drought doesn't go away,” Sheflin said.

Even though drought persists, tools, technology and data can help mitigate the effects of drought. 

By the late 1970's Colorado was again in the throes of severe dryness. Local economies were hard hit as ski runs were bare and fields parched. As reported by the Colorado Climate Center, the state's governor at the time, Richard Lamm, brought experts together to help create the Colorado Drought Response Plan. New and consistent means to track drought and water supply were initiated, making Colorado one of the first state to institutionalize the process.

• • •

In Colorado, the drought of 2020 appears to be bleeding into 2021 and farmers in the areas surrounding Manzanola are preparing for what could be a tough spring and summer.

For Rocky Ford alfalfa farmer, Phillip Chavez, 54, that means scrambling to find water sources for his farm. Whether that is irrigation from the Arkansas River, using well-water, or buying water from Pueblo Board of Water Works, planning his water use in drought years takes time and effort.

Chavez’s family has owned farmland in Rocky Ford for 27 years. Ten years ago Chavez bought out his family’s business partner in the farm, and he has since been trying to implement better farming practices to revitalize the soil.

“We, as farmers, I think we've failed at sustainability, for the sake of quick profits, in just not investing in our ground,” Chavez said. “I think overall, we failed miserably and we're trying to change that.”

On Chavez’s farm that means trying to put more organic matter into the ground and tilling up less land to help ease the burden of drought.

“We can’t control the weather but healthier soils means that there'll be more moisture in the ground,” Chavez said.

Chavez is optimistic that farmers have the ability to make drought years more bearable. While it’s not a solution to drought, Chavez believes it's a step in the right direction.

• • •

For McDonald and her family, the years of struggling against drought are over. The last relatives living on The Dry left the homestead in the 1970s.

“There’s nothing left of any of the buildings,” McDonald said.

Among the grass and cacti, foundations of cinder block, mangled wire and twisted metal are all that remain of the homesteads of The Dry. Even the windbreak trees they planted are gone.

McDonald lives a five minute car ride away from the old homestead in a house where family photos line the walls with cousins, aunts and uncles, all smiling together.

“In all things we have, and we have not, and it’s there and it's gone,” McDonald said.

“I'm not gonna ever belabor myself with things of the past other than the memories. And you have good memories, and you have bad memories, and you have memories. But life goes on.”

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@JessySnouwaert

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