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Denver reports:

In the late 1990s, I was casting about for a new career track. "Why don't you write a book about the Dust Bowl," said my aunt, Ardith Rieke, who had grown up in the 1930s on a farm in northeastern Colorado.

"Aunt Ardith," I protested, "at least eight books have been written about the Dust Bowl. What's left to say?"

Plenty, as it turns out. In 2006, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Timothy Egan came out with "The Worst Hard Time." In it he assembled facts into a novel-like read, later winning the National Book Award. At Tattered Cover's LoDo store, he told me one of his best and previously untapped sources was the historical society in Springfield, located in Colorado's southeast corner, in the core area of distress.

Tonight, PBS will begin broadcasting "The Dust Bowl," a two-part documentary (the second part airs Monday) by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. They have also co-authored a new book - "The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History" (Chronicle Books, October 2012) - that is heavy on photographs but rich in elegant, accessible prose.

The Dust Bowl still matters today. Those dark, dirty and desperate times were not just something that crept into comments at my family's dinner table, a regional subtext to the broader story of the Great Depression. The Dust Bowl stands as a story alone. It was the worst human-caused ecological disaster in U.S. history and arguably among the worst in the world. The lessons should be applied to problems today, like the unsustainable mining of the Ogallala and other aquifers and, more daunting yet, the challenges of global warming.

Victims, not villains, populate the Dust Bowl story. As Duncan pointed out when he spoke recently at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Lubbock, Texas, it was primarily a consequence of many people trying to better themselves and their families. And for awhile, their gamble in this region that the explorer Stephen Long and other had described as desert paid off. The thatch of buffalo grass, when upended, delivered bountiful crops of wheat when blessed with good or even moderate precipitation.

During World War I, farmers were called upon to produce more and more. Wheat will win the war, they were told. Plowing was patriotic and profitable and, with the aid of the new technology called tractors, prodigious. Wheat production in Colorado, mostly on dryland, unirrigated farms, tripled between 1913 and 1919, according to James F. Wickens in "Colorado in the Great Depression." Population boomed. Prowers County, where Lamar is located, grew 1,400 percent between 1900 and 1930. Other counties in the dryland country of Colorado were close behind.

When demand drooped and prices flagged, the new dryland farmers plowed yet more to compensate for reduced revenue. Compounding the problem were the so-called suitcase farmers, from Denver and elsewhere, absentee landowners who plowed massive swathes of prairie sod. In these ways, millions and millions of acres of soil were rendered naked.

Drought then came, lasting most of the 1930s. After receiving 331 inches of moisture in the 1920s, southeast Colorado got only 126 inches the next decade. Heat was scorching, at places hotter than in 2012. Wind and dust have always been a part of prairie life, but what happened next convinced the religious of a Biblical apocalypse.

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