Years of drought and overgrazing have dried out the fields in southwestern La Plata County. Dust easily blows away in the wind.
Last year, from March until May, dust storms caused problems for students, drivers and farmers, and without enough precipitation, the dirty storms could return.
At Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary, the administration tried to seal the building as much as possible to keep dust out, but the school had to bring in extra custodial help to clean, Principal John Marchino said.
“It was cloudy in the classrooms,” he said.
Dust storms limit visibility along roads, said Tom Hartnett, president of the La Plata Conservation District.
The problem is exacerbated by prairie dogs and cut worms that can eat an entire field of grass or wheat, Hartnett said.
The area from Breen into New Mexico and west of Black Ridge to the La Plata County line was hit hard last year by dust, said Sterling Moss, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Durango.
The recent snowfall earlier this week dumped about a foot of snow near Breen and Kline, and more snow is expected to accumulate this weekend.
“This is a huge blessing, but we are still way far from being out of the woods,” said Trent Taylor, owner of Blue Horizons Farm Inc.
The entire river basin, which includes the Dolores, Animas, San Juan and San Miguel rivers, would need to receive 218 percent of historical snowfall to get back on track, said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.
“I don’t think we’ll make it to normal snowpack this year,” he said.
A long dry spell in January and February left local conservationists and farmers nervous. In mid-February, Moss dug down to test soil moisture as wind dried the field of winter wheat all around him.
In southwestern La Plata County, snow should have blanketed the field near County Road 119 for weeks. But instead, Moss didn’t even find enough moisture in the soil to support the wheat through harvest.
“I’ve never seen a February like that,” Taylor said.
The newly fallen snow could ease the situation. If it melts slowly, it can soak deeper into the soil than rain does.
But re-establishing healthy fields is key to preventing dust storms through the spring winds.
Moss and his office have been working with landowners to plant grass in areas dedicated to conservation reserves to keep the top soil from blowing away. These areas are dedicated to wildlife habitat, and landowners receive a government subsidy for not working the land. This helps farmers survive in the worst drought years, Taylor said.
But it has been challenging.
“A lot of grass has been planted that hasn’t been established yet,” Moss said.
The stands of grass are key to keeping valuable topsoil in place. An inch of topsoil can take 100 years to accumulate, he said.
But without precipitation at the right time, the grasses won’t grow. This year, Moss might recommend planting grass or another cover crop in mid-summer in hopes the monsoons will come.
In the past few years, fall rains have brought most of the moisture for the year.
Leaving the stems from last year’s crop in place also can prevent wind and rain erosion and keep the soil cooler, said Abdel Berrada, a soil scientist with Colorado State University.
This stubble helps conserve soil, but it also provides habitat for pests, like cut worms that may require herbicide, Taylor said.
Planting trees as wind breaks or setting up snow fences can help keep the dust down. But trees can’t thrive when there’s very little water.
“It looks good on a flip chart, but when you’re out there with your shovel, it’s a different topic,” Hartnett said.
This has been the case for bringing empty dry fields back to life across the region, especially in areas that don’t have any irrigation water.
“Growing plants on bare bones soil with little to no water can be an uphill challenge,” said Darrin Parmenter, county extension agent for Colorado State University.