Must America Prepare for the "GREAT DROUGHT" of the 1970's?
In 1971, the American Southwest was hit by a severe drought. Will conditions ease next year or must America prepare for a prolonged and devastating drought?
AID YOUR heaven that is over your head shall be brass, and the earth that is under you shall be iron. The Lord shall make the rain of your land powder and dust; from heaven shall it come down upon you, until you be destroyed," wrote Moses in the Old Testament. Periodically, such prophecies have descended upon nations ancient and modern with almost apocalyptic vengeance. Although often falling short of the ultimate horror — utter destruction of land by drought — a cyclical pattern of devastating drought has been striking the North American continent about every 20 years. In 1971 a new and perhaps very critical pattern of drought began once again.
Dust Bowl Crisis?
Those who remember the agony of the 1930's Dust Bowl do not want to relive its possible repetition during the 1970's. Yet, if the past is any key to the future, the great drought of the 70's, already under way, may well develop into "Dust Bowl" proportions. In the 1930's disaster of dryness, millions of acres of rich farm land became powder and dust from the Canadian border to Mexico. The North American Great Plains covering parts of nearly a dozen states was hardest hit.
Black Blizzards of Death
Incredible and sobering accounts of the drought and dust devastation of the 1930's testify to man's utter dependence on a critical necessity we generally take for granted — WATER. In the 1930's, lack of water, blistering wind, and man's foolish farming practices resulted in the Dust Bowl. Startling facts about that decade of drought make farmers today cringe at the thought of its return. Then, massive blankets of topsoil disappeared from America's heartland as rains turned to dust. During one dust storm of May 11, 1934, an estimated 300,000,000 tons of topsoil were scoured off the Great Plains, America's breadbasket. In some places, a foot or more of fertile topsoil blew off fields, piling up along fence rows, covering neighboring fields. Incredible black billowing clouds composed of topsoil rose to great heights. People as far as Washington D.C., New York City, and ships on the Atlantic were dusted with Kansas topsoil. One day in 1934 even the U.S. Congress had the problem graphically portrayed before its eyes when a dust cloud engulfed the Capitol. Some reports have estimated that 25% of the farmlands in the Great Plains belt from Mexico to Canada were permanently ruined. The richness that nature had bestowed over the centuries was carried off in a matter of days in clouds of dust. Crops were often a total loss, especially in southwestern Kansas and over great areas elsewhere. Sixteen and twenty hours a day farmers worked the fields to save their land. They struggled in dust and in cold. Some, weakened by excessive dust in their lungs, were hospitalized. Winter temperatures were so cold the crankcase oil in tractors held together like thick honey. And dust trickled deep inside engine carburetors, cylinders and oil pans. Black blizzards swept over the land. The sun appeared faintly as a blood-red ball at midday, if it shone at all. Auto engines failed from static electricity due to millions of charged dust particles in the air. When cars stalled, motorists set out on foot to find help. Some suffocated in the darkening dust. Birds flew wildly ahead of oncoming storms. Finally, exhausted, they fell to the ground to suffocate. Jackrabbits died by the thousands, throats clogged with dust. Fences were buried by dust to the tops of posts. Wagons, farm implements and even houses disappeared under mounds of drift. Yet some farmers stayed on.
One farmer's 1932 experience was typical. His wheat crop was ruined. Next, a seeding of barley was blown away. Determined to harvest a crop, he seeded maize. Paradoxically, rains came — in torrents, 12 inches in June that year. The maize grew well, attaining 2 feet in height. Then the rains ceased. Clouds floated by, but there was no rain. As the maize began to "head out," it dried up for lack of moisture. This same local farmer of southwestern Kansas summed up his own situation during 1932: "I had planted wheat in 1929, in 1930, and in 1931. I had planted barley and I had planted maize. I had planted five crops and harvested only one, for which I received a miserable, low price. You might have thought I would have become convinced that there was no profit in farming wheat in the Great Plains. But I was a glutton for punishment, and here I was planting wheat again, and still hoping." (An Empire of Dust, by Lawrence Svobida) All he received for his labor was, as the title suggests, an empire of dust. These personal tragedies of Great Plains farming experience exemplify the suffering and misery of thousands of families during the 1930's. No crops, no livelihood. Farmers packed up and moved west to California (where you supposedly could reach out anywhere and pick an orange off a tree!), Oregon — and of course, cities everywhere.
Repetition of Dust Bowl?
For most people the 1930's drought is so much history. But history has a habit of repeating itself. Once again, farmers are asking themselves: Will the beginning drought conditions of the 1970's end in a repetition of the 1930's drought? Or could the current drought be WORSE than others before it? The whole question of drought is, of course, dependent upon RAINFALL. Every farmer yearns to have the Biblical promise of "rain in due season" come true. Yet, most nations have not received rain when needed, where needed and in the amounts needed. So badly have people wanted to break droughts that ancient tribes performed various incantations in hopes of persuading their god to send rain. Rain dances and other practices presumably appeased the gods who could give or withhold rain. Even in these modern times, men have looked to a Higher Power to send rainfall and thus break drought devastation. One interesting, and apparently serious, example was reported in the news when a San Angelo, Texas, advertising man put up a billboard which pleaded, "PRAY FOR RAIN." The area was then suffering a long-term drought, one of the worst of its history. Yet, to the dismay of the businessman, local groups pressured for the removal of the sign. "Why?" he asked. "Because God doesn't make it rain," they reportedly replied. "Well, if He doesn't, I don't know who does," admitted the bewildered businessman. One world-known weather authority and one time Assistant Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau, Ivan Ray Tannehill, commented on this attitude of mind: "In America we have a drought problem but it is not yet a question of famine. But it is characteristic of the American people that we like to cross our bridges only when we come to them. In times of heavy rainfall we talk of flood control and in times of drought we talk of soil conservation.... We must examine the records of weather and climate and identify the withering hand that falls upon our farms and ranges every few years" (Drought, Its Causes and Effects, Ivan Ray Tannehill, p. 22). Furthermore, the same author stated, "History shows that drought lies at the bottom of most famines." To the average, well-fed Westerner the thought of famine is a joke. "Why, with modern technology and current farming practices we'll never have famine," some might think. But this head-in-the-sand approach is dangerous.
Sadly, it is man's mismanagement of land that has helped make drought such a destructive force. Prior to the opening up of the vast U.S. Great Plains grassland for lucrative wheat farming, there was little or no erosion in the area. Historically, the rains came; so did periods of drought, and fierce winds. But the rich earth was protected by thick buffalo grass sod, which carpeted this heartland against wind or water erosion. Then came pioneer farmers and their short-sightedness. They ploughed up vast areas of natural grasses, leaving scant protection for the bare earth, not considering the harsh winds which attack the American Middle West annually. The planting of trees as wind breaks was seldom considered. Ecologist Paul Sears put his finger on the problem with this observation: "The high plains are subject to recurring periods of drought, usually lasting for several years, and alternating with groups of normal or moist years. To this regime the native grasses were adjusted. Wheat was not. And when the prolonged dryness of the 1930's came the fall-sown wheat failed to germinate, leaving nothing to hold the loose soils against the high winds of late winter and spring. With them came dust storms, made gigantic by the presence of hundreds of thousands of acres of bare soil." Unfortunately, sound ecological principles in farming were too often neglected even when these facts were understood. Little thought was given to the long-range effects upon the land. Some future generation would handle these problems, it was thought. Soil conservation was born only out of the terrible Dust Bowl days. Tragically, it took devastating erosion to move some farmers to become conservation minded. Today, economic realities restrict even well-meaning farmers from practicing total conservation, since they must be concerned with making profits or going under economically. Unfortunately, economics and other forces all too often encourage farmers to neglect sound ecological principles. And in this economic straitjacket, farmers find science is hamstrung in its ability to help. Implementing the inventions and discoveries of science costs the farmer money, which often he doesn't have because prices for his crops are too low. His dilemma is real. To the average farmer, looking out over parched fields, insect-laden crops — thinking of the low profit on his crops and the high costs of farming — must come the thought, "There must be a better way." There must be a better way to farm, a better way to get rid of insect plagues, a better way to manage a farm economy, and a better way to receive enough precious water.
Difficult to Pin Down
The cause of the "withering hand" of drought mentioned by Tannehill, even today after decades of study, remains unidentified. Quite frankly, droughts are a mystery to most meteorologists. Mr. John T. Carr, Jr., Assistant to Executive Director, Texas Water Development Board, stated in a report published April 1971: "The major causes of drought in Texas can be described, but the forces behind the causes are more difficult to pin down." Uncertainty pervades the subject of forces behind drought in other areas too. No one seems to know its real causes. Just why and when does rainfall fail? What causes drought? If the causes could be determined, then perhaps man could predict drought, and better prepare for it, avoiding resultant crop failures and famines. A flurry of scientific study has been undertaken in recent decades concerning drought. Meteorologists have studied the earth's atmosphere in hopes of determining and predicting droughts. One such group of scientists, Krick Associates, Inc., call themselves Weather Engineers. Many of these men are meteorologists or engineers, formerly on the staff of the California Institute of Technology's meteorology department. In 1946, they formed their own private organization, making their service available to cities, states and foreign countries. They study future water needs, supplies, weather, and devise methods of loud seeding — when clouds are available — so clients can store the extra rainfall, and thus be partially prepared when drought strikes. The Krick group of scientists predicted the drought of the 1950's, and also when it would break, as early as 1946. In 1969, a drought was predicted to begin in 1971 — which it did. This drought prediction was carried in a southwestern farm magazine, The Farmer Stockman. The approximate location of the predicted drought was to be the heart of the former Dust Bowl. Few paid heed to this prediction. Sorrowfully, thousands of acres of crops in this region were again ruined. Millions of dollars were lost.
"Official" Weather Studies
Other meteorologists have speculated about the recurrence of drought in cycles. Sunspot cycle charts reveal a pattern recurring approximately every 22 years. This cycle roughly corresponds with the droughts of the 1930's, the 1950's and the 1970's. But experts say it's not so simple to calculate drought cycles. The official position of the U.S. National Weather Service, in fact, is that neither the beginning nor the end of a drought can be accurately predicted. Lack of understanding of how the sun's radiation causes atmospheric changes renders simplified drought calculations inaccurate, or reduces them to mere guesswork, some meteorologists say. Currently, a conflict rages between the "official" government position, and the "educated guess" of other meteorologists. Even so, in localized areas, meteorologists have traced weather records and found recurring droughts in some areas every 20 years or so. These cycles, and global atmospheric studies are the basis of drought forecasting by private weather researchers. Whether or not drought can be accurately predicted, there is little question that up till now there has been a 20-year cyclical pattern of drought throughout parts of the American Southwest. Local records give sketchy accounts of droughts as far back as the 1850's, the 1870's, and the 1890's. In each of these decades drought struck with destructive force in parts of the Southwest. Another drought hit again with less severity after 1910. By far the most destructive recurrence came in the 1930's, and the 1950's saw the Southwest dry once again.
1970's — Decade of Drought?
Following such a pattern, drought returned to haunt farmers and ranchers over a wide swath from central Texas and southwestern Oklahoma to southern California during 1971. The approximate boundaries of the old Dust Bowl were struck hardest. But Florida and parts of the Midwest were also touched. Millions of dollars were lost to the economies of five contiguous states. Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and Kansas were affected mostly along the borders where all five states meet. Arizona also was struck hard. In some areas, such as New Mexico and Arizona, winter snows failed in the mountains. And no rains came in the spring to relieve the drought. By midsummer these entire states were disastrously affected by drought conditions. Water had to be hauled in for some local communities. Cattle sought relief in former watering holes, turned to mud bogs. Some died in the mud, or had to be pulled to safety by ropes. Irrigation water also was short, due to a lack of stored water in reservoirs. During June 1971, the Rio Grande River in New Mexico ran at its lowest since 1902. Water tables dropped while farmers desperately drilled deeper and deeper to provide well water for irrigation and livestock. Pumping costs are rising, and farmers are worrying about how long the finite water supply under their property will last. This sudden widespread and rapid use of underground water has become so critical in many local areas, that a dangerous drop in the underground water tables has resulted, a fact few people realize.
Underground Water Supply Failing
Take the Texas Panhandle, one hard hit area, for example. It uses the normal but scanty rainfall for dry-land wheat and other farming. However, supple-mental water must be drafted from underground supplies. "Irrigation has been the dominant factor in the agricultural expansion of the area," states an Agricultural Research Service bulletin, published by USDA's Southwestern Great Plains Research Station and Texas A & M University. The bulletin states further, "The predominant source of water, the ground water of the Ogallala formation, is being used much faster than it is being replenished by natural recharge." This aspect of drought — rapidly dropping water tables — is as critical as lack of rain. In some areas crops must be planted to utilize both irrigation and rainfall to greatest efficiency. Ultimately, farmers will have to "change their thinking to give rainfall first priority, irrigation second," says Dr. B.A. Stewart, Director of the Southwestern Great Plains Research Center near Amarillo, Texas. Eventually the vast underground storage of water will give out. When this water is used up, this great agricultural area may well revert to semi-arid desert. "Mining" water — as it's called when underground storage is pumped faster than natural recharge — is like spending your savings, Fred Kunkel, U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologist told PLAIN TRUTH reporters recently. "Eventually one must learn to live on current income, because savings will finally run out," he explained. The Texas High Plains found themselves blessed with a tremendous "inheritance" of underground water, but only a moderate "income." Yet, farmers there are "spending" water in a period of few decades that took hundreds of years to accumulate. Eventually, as in any continued mining operation, the mines give out and the miners no longer have a source of income. "Water mining" is no exception.
Effects of South Texas Drought
Yet the pressure of drought conditions is forcing farmers to "mine water." Near San Antonio, Texas, dry-land farms — that is, farms dependent on rainfall alone — were planted late if at all, in 1971. Here, too, farmers have turned to more productive irrigation farming, pumping water from finite underground reserves. With the pressures of drought, wells have gone dry, or have necessarily been drilled deeper — some as much as 600 to 2000 feet deep. Costs for pumping water from those depths also cut deep into farmers' profits. Local ranchers also reported the serious conditions of their grazing lands. "This past eight or nine months (late 1970 through June 1971) is worse than anybody can remember for any corresponding period before," commented ex-rancher Johnny Hinnart, who lives near San Antonio. "Some ranchers have sold their herds down to 20% or 40%. In my case, I was down to 25% and getting ready to ship them even though my lease hadn't expired," he continued. North, in the Red River region of southwestern Oklahoma and north central Texas, farms and reservoirs were hit hard. Dry-land wheat farms produced practically nothing. Irrigation water was rationed in some areas, and Oklahoma's overall wheat harvest was down a full third, mostly due to drought. For a time, the Red River flow was reduced to little more than a trickle. What does the future hold for the area? Some drought stricken areas have received rain. Too often, however, people assume that one quick rain is enough to break a drought. Unfortunately this is far from fact.
When Is a Drought Broken?
It takes sustained rain over a long period of time to break a deep drought. Wayne Palmer, a U.S. Weather Service meteorologist, invented an index to calculate drought severity and thereby determine how much rainfall is needed to end a drought. By Palmer's method, a climatologist can determine drought conditions even during a thunderstorm. It's possible for an area to be drenched in a 4-inch rainstorm and still be gripped with drought. This happened during 1971 in Florida and in southwestern Oklahoma, where floods of rain poured down on drought-stricken lands. "Understanding drought severity requires understanding of the various factors of soil moisture, temperature, crop needs, normal rainfall for the area and other related factors. No one 4-inch torrent is enough to relieve a drought that's entrenched by months of dry weather," Palmer told a PLAIN TRUTH reporter. Droughts are clearly not a matter of quantity of water only. Timing, distribution, "rain in due season," storage, and quality are equally as important.
Will Drought Worsen?
What does the decade of the 1970's hold for the Southwest — and elsewhere? Will droughts continue to spread, engulfing greater and greater areas of land? Will saddening migrations away from the land, such as those of the 1930's, be repeated as a result of the ravages of drought? Some authorities feel the present drought has just begun. "We feel this drought is not over. It will probably peak about 1975 to 1978, with intermittent relief during the years in between," stated Mr. Paul Caubin of Krick Associates, Inc., in a recent interview. If this comes to pass, United States agriculture will be in deep trouble. Drought conditions in 1971 were not exactly pleasant. Consider then, a drought for four to seven years — getting worse year by year. Such a possible drought specter should strike fear into the hearts of Americans. The official National Weather Service position is different. It insists that we have no way of knowing if the drought will continue. Yet some of its own meteorologists state privately that they believe the current drought will spread and worsen. "Educated guesses" are sometimes right, whereas "official positions" may cloud the issue. Whoever is right, the best situation for the coming years is barely reassuring, and the worst visions are of an apocalyptic nightmare.