Farmers and ranchers tend to be optimists. They have to be. But not this winter.
On the high plains east of the Rocky Mountains, barren fields reveal the reason. Only a dusting of snow coats the ground as the interior West heads into its fifth straight year of drought.
"From what I've seen, this is the driest we've ever been," said Curtis Lewton, a wheat farmer near Brighton, Colo. "It's the driest conditions my father's seen and he can compare it to the '30s and '50s which typically we think were horrible years."
Lewton planted his winter wheat crop last autumn. Moisture from winter snow is critical for the crop to germinate. A tour down row after row revealed sprouts that were at the most one-inch long. "They should be four to five inches by now," Lewton said.
Down the road, Kent Acetic wondered whether he'd be able to hold onto his farm. His family has been farming for 100 years and he worried that he could be the one to lose it all. "I'm not working on farming, I'm not working on planting, or fertilizing," he said. "I'm working on what in the world are we going to do?"
He, too, complained that there has not been enough sub-soil moisture to establish a crop. "If something doesn't change in a hurry, the game is over," he said.
Farmers and ranchers are the biggest consumers of water in the West. They use more than 85 percent and in Colorado more than two-thirds of it comes from snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains.
That, too, is in short supply this winter.
Snowpack Not Enough to Alleviate Drought
Mike Gillespie is a snow surveyor with the National Resources Conservation Service. On a recent field trip to measure the snow pack, his aluminum measuring rod recorded 56 inches, one-third less than normal.
"Unfortunately, the snow pack right now is not enough to significantly alleviate our water supply situation," he said. "Last summer's drought really left our soils in dry condition across the state and a lot of this water that we are measuring here now is going to just run right into the soils before it runs off into the streams this spring."
Colorado and other Western states built huge reservoirs in the 1950s to capture and store water for urban and agricultural use. Most of those reservoirs are about 45 percent full.
The Denver Water Board estimates it would have to snow 8 inches, three times a week, for the next six to eight weeks to make up the shortfall. No one believes that will happen.
Klaus Wolter, a climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said while he is optimistic Colorado will get more moisture this spring, it will likely be too little, too late.
He pointed to a map in his Boulder, Colo., office that revealed the reason. The El Niño weather system, which was supposed to provide abundant precipitation this winter, appeared stuck in the Western Pacific Ocean.
"I don't have high hopes that we will bust the drought," he said. "I just don't think we're going to get enough precipitation to make up for years of drought. It's very unlikely."
Wolter said it would take "the spring of the century" to even get close to filling the reservoirs.
Ranchers’ Plight Means Higher Prices
Ranchers are also suffering. Last year, many of them sold off their herds to ranchers in other states where water and feed were more plentiful. This year, they say that may not be possible because the drought is so widespread. If water and feed have to be transported here it will likely cost not only ranchers but also consumers.
As he sifted powdery soil through his hands, Marty Reeves of the Farm Service Administration confirmed the bad news. "The person at the grocery store is going to see higher prices for food — simple as that," he said. "If we can't grow the food here, it's going to have to come from somewhere where they're not having a drought and it's going to make it more expensive. It simply costs more to get it here."
Ray Schmidt, a farmer who has grown wheat for 57 years, looked out at the flat horizon and predicted the worst.
"We haven't seen anything yet, " he said. "If we don't get moisture pretty quick, if we start getting wind now and in March we could have another dust bowl for a few months."
A few minutes later, strong winds blew across the prairie, peeled off precious topsoil, and kicked up dense clouds of dust. Tumbleweed flew through the air and bounced aimlessly across Schmidt's desolate wheat fields.
It looked like the 1930s had already returned.