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Droughts and rainmaking

by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO- Beginning during the drought in 2002, and including the dry conditions of 2011, people have asked me if in my research I had found worst droughts than the current ones.
Well, through exhaustive reading and study, I have the definitive answer – maybe. There have certainly been longer ones.
There also have been killer droughts, and that does mean killer. Entire herds of livestock- sheep and cattle – have experienced die-outs from these periods, and numerous times the stock was removed from the area altogether and taken farther east in search of food and water (or butchered). These parched times began when people first started noticing and writing down their versions of weather reports, back in the 1800s. Droughts in this part of the country are not the exception, but the norm.
Especially lengthy dry periods have occurred periodically, 1902 was a banner year, for instance, but a two-year drought continuing into 1880 must have given pause to those planning to settle in this beautiful mountain setting to raise their crops and stock. Then there were the Dust Bowl years and, yes, Huerfano County was very much affected, by choking dust storms, grasshopper plagues and no precipitation.
One of the worst periods was during the early 1950s. The winter of 1949-50 brought little snow, so in May of ’50 there was “virtually no spring runoff.” The Cucharas River was noted to be the lowest since that bad drought of 1902. There was no snow to measure in April or May on several of the snow courses that feed the waterways.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say. In this case, the desperation led to an experiment being made in the northern part of the state – cloud seeding, also known as making “artificial rain”.
For months city, town and county officials, backed by the chambers of commerce, had discussed the possibility of this new method of rainmaking to bring relief to the area. The big problem was financial. The cloud seeder was asking for $15,000.
Fund raising began, and within days, $400 was secured. This was still plenty short of the total amount. Nevertheless, through some secret agreement, the clouds were seeded, and to no avail. The drought dragged on.
Finally, the cloud seeder agreed to do the job for $25,000 with rain guaranteed. He claimed rain would fall on or about July 11.
This was one of those cases you hear about when someone says, “Be careful what you wish for.”
The July 14 newspapers were full of the results of cloud seeding. Two inches of rain fell in the Walsenburg region, covering Highway 85-87 and stopping traffic, inundating Johnson Field and leaving city streets flooded. In La Veta, the two inches of rain was accompanied by hail that finished off what crops were left. By the end of the month, the World-Independent reported 100% more rain had fallen that before cloud seeding. By August everything had dried back up again.
Some people never learn, and Huerfanos were some of them. 1951 was very dry, but ’52 was fairly normal, but severe drought was back in 1953. Huerfano was in the designated drought area (and was again in 1954).
This time, instead of some fancy-dancy out-of-town city slicker with expensive equipment, the county turned to one of its native sons, Richard Micek. Micek was an inventor with his own factory in Walsenburg making his own designs and employing local people. Rainmaking was not his forte, but he was clever. He seeded the clouds and voila, two and a half inches of rain!
Excellent, every one thought. Again, though, after one good rain, the skies again appeared cloudless and unforgiving. The drought continued into the fall, when the cattle were suffering horribly and crops had died in the field. Evidently the clouds had to be seeded and reseeded continuously to keep the rain coming.
In the early spring of 1955, it was said Huerfano County was in an “emergency dust bowl”, and farmers were eligible for federal relief in the form of funds, hay and feed. Then, without any seeding at all, the clouds dumped five feet of snow on parts of the county, flattening small buildings and flooding some areas.
In 1956 the drought returned. In 1957 the Department of Agriculture named this a disaster area.
So, yes, there have been worse droughts than those we’ve experienced in recent years. But at least we’ve learned to save our money on cloud seeding!