Posted by: JohnnyRook | August 13, 2008

Center of “Dust Bowl” Hit by Worst Drought Since 1921

n the first chapter of his National-Book-Award winning The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, Timothy Egan describes Bam White and his family’s journey in 1926 through Cimarron County, Oklahoma on their way to Texas.

Through, No Man’s Land, the family wheeled past fields that just been turned, the grass upside down. People in sputtering cars roared by honking, hooting at the cowboy family in the horse-drawn wagon, churning up dust in their faces. The children kept asking if they were getting any closer to Texas and if it would look different from this long strip of Oklahoma. They seldom saw a tree in Cimarron County. There wasn’t even grass for the horse team; the sod that hadn’t been turned was frozen and brown. Windmills broke the plain, next to dugouts and sod houses and still-forming villages. Resting for a long spell at midday, the children played around a buffalo wallow, the ground mashed. Cimarron is a Mexican hybrid word, descended from the Apache who spent many nights in these same buffalo wallows. It means “wanderer”.[pp. 14-15]

Dallas SD 1936

Dallas, South Dakota, 1936

Were he alive today, Bam White would have no difficulty in recognizing the physical landscape of Cimarron County, which once again finds itself locked in the tenacious grip of drought. According to staff climatologist Gary McManus of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey (OCS):

“The area has been in and out of drought since the start of the decade. Mostly in,” McManus said. “But fall of last year was when it really started to get bad. In some places, this year has been as dry or even drier than the Dust Bowl.” As of early August, the Oklahoma panhandle was experiencing its driest year (previous 365 days) since 1921, according to OCS calculations. Through July, year-to-date precipitation in Boise City, Cimarron’s County Seat, was only about 4.8 inches, barely half of average and drier than some years in the 1930s, the height of the Dust Bowl.

Drought Map from NASA Earth Observatory

Map: NASA Earth Observatory

On June 19, the U.S. Drought Monitor applied its most severe drought rating: “D4–Exceptional” to Cimarron and Texas Counties.

This, despite the fact that local farmers, drawing on the lessons of the 1930’s, have changed the way the farm. Cherrie Brown, USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service district conservationist from Boise (rhymes with voice) City in Cimarron County explains:

“The people around here learned their lessons in the Dust Bowl and the drought of the 50s,” Brown says. “They know it can get bad and they take care of the land year in and year out, so when a drought does hit, it helps protect their resources a little more.”

“Nearly everyone in the farming community around here has a conservation plan and tries very hard to follow those plans,” she adds.

But even the best conservation efforts can’t make it rain. Brown says soil tests show no moisture four inches down into the ground. In fact there is no subsoil moisture found as deep as six feet. Since the drought began in January 2007, many windmills have gone dry; others have had to be lowered and reset.

“The irrigated crops aren’t making it because although the farmers have watered and watered, the high winds and heat are so excessive, the water can’t keep up with the evaporation rate,” Brown explains. “Then if the plants do come up, wind erosion cuts them off and kills the crop.” [emphasis-JR]

Cimarron County Hardpan from NASA Earth Observatory

Cimarron County, Oklahoma, summer 2008 Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

Kiley Whited, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Rangeland Management Specialist for Cimarron County, says the situation on the area’s rangelands may be even worse. On the prairies that once sustained America bison by the millions, even the buffalo grass, whose fibrous root system helps hold the top soil in place, is dying or has gone dormant unusually early. “Buffalo grass is the most resilient of the native grasses to drought and grazing,” says Whited. “To see it wilting and dying is scary.” Because the vegetation has the additional pressure of grazing, it can take longer to recover from drought.

In order to help ranchers (but not farmers since only grazing has been approved) survive the USDA has allowed some of them to graze their cattle on lands belonging to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which makes up 30% of the agricultural land in Cimarron County. The CRP is designed to protect land that is susceptible to environmental damage. Farmers are encouraged to:

…convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, such as tame or native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filterstrips, or riparian buffers. Farmers receive an annual rental payment for the term of the multi-year contract.

Although Farmers and ranchers are paid to keep the land out of production, in the case of a major emergency such as the current drought the land can be temporarily put back into use, which is what the USDA has done.

Unfortunately, it did so without completing an environmental impact statement (surprise, surprise), which led to a lawsuit by the National Wildlife Federation. A Federal District Court Judge in Seattle has given approval for the program to go ahead this year with the stipulation, among others, that in any future crisis, an EIS be completed before permission is give to graze the land, which, given how long it takes to complete an EIS, makes it unlikely any future permission could be granted quickly enough to help the ranchers.

The biggest irony in all of this of course is that in a drought, which has already ruined lands deemed more sustainable, the most vulnerable land is now being turned to grazing. What will be the consequences for these sensitive lands and the entire area if the drought continues for several years?

Not surprisingly, I have not encountered any reference to Climaticide in the reporting on the drought. Yet, as Sir John Houghton, Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Scientific Assessment Committee has written concerning “…the likelihood of drought in regions where the average summer rainfall falls by perhaps twenty per cent…”:

The likely result of such a drop in rainfall is not that the number of rainy days will remain the same, with less rain falling each time; it is more likely that there will be substantially fewer rainy days and considerably more chance of prolonged periods of no rainfall at all. In other words much more likelihood of drought. Further, the higher temperatures will will lead to increased evaporation reducing the amount of moisture available at the surface–thus adding to the drought conditions. The proportional increase in the likelihood of drought is much greater than the proportional decrease in average rainfall. [Global Warming: The Complete Briefing pp. 130-131]

These words which sound like an eyewitness account of the current situation in Cimarron County were written well over a decade ago.

Some of the farmers in Cimarron County have survived because they are irrigated. Yet the future of irrigation in the area does not look promising. To once again quote Timothy Egan:

Only a handful of family farmers still work the homesteads of No Man’s Land and the Texas Panhandle. To keep agribusiness going, a vast infrastructure of pumps and pipes reaches deep into the Ogallala Aquifer, the nations biggest source of underground freshwater, drawing the water down eight times faster than nature can refill it. The aquifer is a sponge stretching from South Dakota to Texas, which filled up with glaciers melted about 15,000 years ago. It provides almost 30 percent of the irrigation water in the United States. With this water, farmers in Texas were able to dramatically increase production of cotton, which no longer has an American market. So cotton growers, siphoning from the Ogallala, get three billion dollars a year in taxpayer money for fiber that is shipped to China, where it is used to make cheap clothing sold back to American chain retail stores like Wal-Mart. The aquifer is declining at a rate of 1.1 million acre feet a day–that is a a million acres, filled to a depth of one foot with water. At present rates of use, it will dry up, perhaps within a hundred years. In parts of the Texas panhandle, hydrologists say, the water will be gone in 2010. [Worst Hard Times pp. 310-311]

One might be excused for wondering whether anyone other than the spirits of Apache warriors will wander the parched lands of Cimarron County a couple of decades from now.

Crossposted at Daily Kos


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