CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Drought, dust, and tumbleweeds plague southeastern Colorado
    by Linda McMulkin, CSU Extension-Pueblo County

        Drought, dust, and tumbleweeds have been in the Pueblo news in recent days. Years long drought has damaged plant communities throughout the region, stripping the land of its native vegetation.  High winds have sent dust and dry plants into the air, creating health and driving hazards, and waves of brown, watermelon sized balls rolling across the prairie.

US Drought Monitor map for Colorado, 1/12/14
        Southeastern Colorado has experienced drought conditions for years (5-10 years depending on who you talk to).  While the drought designation from the US Drought Monitor has eased a bit for my county in recent weeks, parts of our region are still in that scary dark red color.  My travels through the Arkansas Valley this winter revealed too many acres with no visible plants except a few dead or struggling yucca and cholla. 

While I measured less moisture at my home (17 miles from the Pueblo Airport) than was recorded at the official National Weather Service station, the annual precipitation numbers for Pueblo help reveal the reason for our recent dust storms.  Average precipitation is around 12 inches per year, but the past 3 years have been much less; in 2013 we received 9.7 inches, 2012 5 inches, and 2011 9.2 inches.  What those annual numbers don’t show is the moisture pattern, where about half of the rainfall we received fell in a 2 -3 week window in late July and early August.

In 2013, we started the year with the soil moisture so depleted and irrigation water unavailable that many of our farmers chose to leave fields fallow and ranchers sold a high number of cattle. From January through June, we got 2.2 inches of moisture.  In unirrigated lots and fields, nothing greened up, even normally drought tolerant species. 

 In my yard, kochia and Russian thistle germinated after limited rain in May, but stayed less than ½ inch tall until the gully washers started in late July.  The nearly 6 inches of moisture we got in those next 3 weeks helped green up some native forbs, but mostly gave the tumbleweed crop just what it needed to thrive.  While green was good after so many months of brown, I knew what we would face when those thousands of plants went dormant in the fall.

A ditch along Highway 10 in Otero County,
filled for miles with hunbreds of the incredibly prickly,
 2013  crop of Russian thistle.
The onslaught began in early November, when the wind broke the plants loose and started them rolling them back and forth across the prairie.  Tumbleweeds have collected 3+ feet deep in ditches (I waded into the ditch in the photo to measure), covered fences and cholla, blocked entrances to buildings, and provided me with some hair-raising experiences as I drive the local highways.  I suspect I saw the same plants rolling eastward last night that were rolling westward this morning.  While I enjoy smashing the rollers, drifts of them blocking lanes of I-25 and Highway 50 are scary.

The dust storms started last summer and have gotten bad enough recently to cause multi-car accidents on I-25.  I’ve watched the Ken Burns series about the dust bowl and realize our current problems don’t compare.  But dust related allergy symptoms and hazardous driving conditions have become a too frequent topic of conversation recently (click for Pueblo Chieftain photo of the visibility in Pueblo on 1/15/14).

       I’m optimistic that things will get better, but know that to heal the land takes time as well as water.  For now, I’ll smash tumbleweeds as they roll across the highway, gather and dispose of the ones in my yard, and schedule time to pull the new plants as they come up this spring.  I’ll take my allergy pills and drive slower on my daily commute.  And hope that snow and rain return to our region in 2014.
      Click on the links for recent articles from the Pueblo Chieftain on tumbleweeds and dust storms.

1 comment:

  1. Linda, it isn't just Southeastern. It's Northeastern too! I thought surely by now, every tumbleweed in the county has blow to Kansas. But they just keep crossing the highway and building up in the yard!