ULYSSES, Kan. — Even a snake needs water.
The Associated Press
Anthony Stevenson stopped his truck to point out the trail a bull snake left as it crossed a dusty dirt road sandwiched between two thirsty fields of wheat. But, he said, there is no water. It rarely rains - it hasn't in months.
With the ponds empty, streams dry and the pastures baked, the only water for a bull snake is underneath an irrigation center pivot, which appears to be running nonstop this time of year.
Moreover, the only clouds the 49-year-old Grant County farmer has seen are made of dust, which roll across the surrounding fields and pile up like snow on the edges of his wheat field.
"The only problem is, it doesn't melt," he said.
It's just one of the deep wounds on this swath of Kansas prairie where drought has raged for the past three years. Stevenson parked his pickup and stepped out into a nearby field of boot-tall, thin wheat. In Grant County, the June harvest is a month away and in a normal year, wheat would be about waist high, thick and green.
Yet this isn't a normal year, he said softly. Months of dry spells, followed by at least four nights of lengthy freezes, and his entire June paycheck is nearly spent.
As much of the eastern part of Kansas is finally getting relief from the multiyear drought, this corner of southwest Kansas can't buy a rain, it seems. Ulysses, the county seat of Grant County, has only received 2 inches of moisture in the past five months - not enough to save the wheat crop and hardly a drop in the bucket of its normal 18 inches for the year.
Stevenson tries to stay upbeat, but admits this situation is becoming wearisome. There just won't be much of a wheat harvest for the third straight year. And this wheat harvest will be far worse than the other two with almost all his dryland and irrigated wheat fields destroyed by drought and freeze.
"My dad would always say it will rain when you really, really need it," he said. "But I really, really needed a rain for a long, long time."
Droughts have come and gone in Kansas - especially in this seemingly arid southwestern corner of the state.
In the 1930s, drought and winds created rolling walls of dust that spread across the Great Plains, causing nearly a quarter of southwest Kansas' population to leave, according to the book "Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwest Kansas."
Now, the same area that was the epicenter of the Dirty Thirties is the heart of this 21-century drought, said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.
This western swath of Kansas, in fact, is a far different picture than that of the eastern half of Kansas where, after two years of drought, a dramatic weather turnaround has brought snow and rain and bolstered prospects for a bumper wheat harvest.
In southwest Kansas, where on a normal year only 18 inches of rain falls compared to the more than 30 inches in the east, such a turnaround is tougher. This area, Svoboda said, has dug itself so far into drought that it will have a hard time climbing out.
All of western Kansas remains in an extreme to exceptional drought - the highest rankings issued by the U.S. Drought Monitor. The worst areas stretch across the Oklahoma Panhandle into Texas, as well as parts of Colorado and Nebraska.
The effects of the extended dry spell have left definite scars on the southwest Kansas prairie. The wheat crop is vanishing with each day of no rain. Pasture grasses continue to decline because of the lack of moisture. With little grass or feed, ranchers are culling deeper into their herds.
"There were a few places that had rain this spring but for the large part, the little lakes and ponds are dry," he said. "The pastures are brown - the pastures look like August."
This year's wheat harvest could be one of the worst harvests for the region in at least 25 years, Holman said.
Stevenson estimates his dryland crop at less than 10 bushels an acre. However, this year he has had a double disaster, he said. Typically, he can count on his irrigated wheat crop to do well, and in the last two years, irrigated ground has bested 60 bushels an acre.
This year he said he would be surprised if it made more than 18 bushels an acre after the multiple days of below freezing temperatures in April. One night lingered in the teens with a wind chill of zero.
"This year's weather has totally wiped out most of my wheat," he said. "But there's nothing I could do about it. Nothing."
Far beyond the dusty wheat fields and parched pastures, the drought impact is felt in small towns like Ulysses.
Ulysses, population 6,300, was born twice, first in 1885 and a second time in 1909 when, to escape the banker, the entire town loaded up and moved a few miles to the west.
A century later and new Ulysses has weathered through the Great Depression, as well as drought years in the 1950s. Like each drought period, the effects ripple across the business community, said Larry Altis, who manages the local Ace Hardware.
"When you are in a farming community and the crops don't produce, you tighten your belt," he said. "Last year we thought we had a good corn crop but there were no kernels in the heads. Now we have the death of our wheat crop, and the water table is getting tighter."
Two years of little rainfall already has cost the state's farmers nearly $5 billion in crop losses - the loss of production and the price farmers would have received.
Meanwhile, claims for this year's failed crops are beginning to accumulate in the Risk Management Agency's Topeka office.
Kansas farmers have claimed $33.5 million in indemnities so far this year for crop losses on 9.4 million acres, according to the agency. Wheat makes up the largest share of those claims, at more than $31 million.
The drought has lingered too long. The rig Stevenson's grandfather built to drill irrigation wells on the farm in the 1940s and 1950s still sits on his farmstead. The past two years, his irrigation system hasn't been able to keep up with his corn crop's demand for water.
He recalled a hailstorm in 1994 that wiped out his entire wheat crop. That was the only year he never pulled out a combine. This year, however, could nearly measure up.
And, he noted, the year is far from over. His irrigated corn that is emerging needs rain from the sky to make a decent crop. Last year's crop didn't make more than 100 bushels an acre. Typically, it should surpass 200-plus.
"I can't out pump the drought," he said. "There just isn't that much water anymore."