Drought leaves soil vulnerable to wind erosion

Drought and fire have destroyed crops and vegetation in eastern New Mexico, leaving the dry and barren soil vulnerable to wind erosion and leading the governor to declare a state of emergency earlier this month.

CNJ staff photo: Tonjia Rolan

Sand dunes accumulating along fencelines southwest of Clovis on N.M. 467 are signs of rapidly eroding farm and grassland.

Curry County Road Supervisor Steve Reed said the blowing sand and resulting drifts the last two years are the worst he's seen in his 17 years with the department. He said earlier this year his department spent four to five days clearing sand from a road south of Clovis.

"It's as bad as I've ever seen," said Reed, who has lived in Clovis since the 1970s. "I can just imagine what it was like in the 1930s (Dust Bowl)."

Reed said with average rain it would take two to three years to get the county roads back into shape.

"Even when we got that good rain and we started working the roads, it was amazing how fast they dried out," Reed said.

Juana Ruvalcaba, who farms with her husband southwest of Clovis on N.M. 467, said blowing sand from leased state land nearby is ruining their property.

"It's like a sandstorm when the wind blows," Ruvalcaba said. "I can barely see in front of me and I'm afraid to cross the highway and turn into my driveway."

Ruvalcaba has a livestock gate that is nearly buried beneath a sand dune, making it unusable.

"My husband has removed the sand from our driveway three times this year," she said.

Erik Nelson, district resource manager for the New Mexico State Land Office, said he is aware of the erosion problems and blowing sand on state leased land near N.M. 467.

Nelson said wells in the area are too low to irrigate crops so the lessee is trying to dryland farm. After his last wheat crop failed, it left the land with no cover to hold down the soil, Nelson said.

"All he can do is plow it, but he doesn't have the right equipment" Nelson said. "We've talked about getting some better equipment out there to plow it properly, but we don't have the resources for that."

Nelson said without moisture to form the soil into clods, even plowing won't do much good.

Patrick Kircher, Roosevelt County extension agent, likened the conditions to those of the Dust Bowl.

Kircher said the dust bowl effects aren't as obvious as they were in the '30s because of better soil management techniques used by farmers.

A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association states that during the Dust Bowl, eastern New Mexico and West Texas had several consecutive years of 10 inches or less precipitation.

While Curry County did receive less than 10 inches of precipitation in 2011, precipitation for 2010 was almost normal (about 18 inches). The area received 16 inches in 2009 and 13 inches in 2008, according to Accuweather meteorologists.

Rachel Armstrong of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service said wind erosion occurs when the land is stripped of plant life due to fire or drought and topsoil is picked up by the wind and deposited around structures, fences and barns.

Armstrong said land erodes when it loses more than five tons of soil per acre, per year.

"Where you're seeing these mounds of sand against fences, the erosion rates are greatly in excess of five tons per acre," Armstrong said.

Armstrong said erosion removes topsoil, which contains important nutrients and organic material for plant growth needed to keep the soil in place.

"I've talked to farmers who lived through the drought of the 50s," Armstrong said. "They said the fields that lost topsoil are never as productive as they once were."

Armstrong said the land will heal itself but it will take time — and moisture.

Curry County Extension Agent Stan Jones agrees. He said grass and plant seeds can lie dormant for years until the conditions return.

"Some people are worried that the native grasses won't return in their pastures," Jones said. "If we get enough rain, they'll come back.

"It's just hard to tell when."

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