Memories of the “dust bowl” recalled as drought grips U.S. Great Plains

Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. is experiencing drought conditions and many say the outlook is getting worse

Real estate agent Mark Faulkner recalls a day in early November when he was putting up a sign near Ulysses, Kansas, in 60-miles-per-hour winds that blew up blinding dust clouds.

“There were places you could not see, it was blowing so hard,” Faulkner said.

Residents of the Great Plains over the last year or so have experienced storms reminiscent of the 1930s dust bowl. Experts say the new storms have been brought on by a combination of historic drought, a dwindling Ogallala aquifer, climate change, and government farm programs.

The year ended with nearly 62 per cent of the U.S. gripped by drought, with “exceptional” drought in parts of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. One December dust storm stretched 240 kilometres from extreme southwestern Oklahoma across the Texas Panhandle to extreme eastern New Mexico.

And there’s no relief in sight for the Great Plains at least through the winter, according to forecasts.

While few people believe it could get as bad as the 1930s, many fear conditions will worsen.

“I hope we don’t talk ourselves into complacency with easy assumptions that a dust bowl could never happen again,” said Craig Cox, of the Environmental Working Group.

“Instead, we should do what it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Drying up

Farming practices have vastly improved since the “Dirty ’30s,” and irrigation from the Ogallala aquifer, a huge network of water under the Great Plains, also made land less vulnerable to dust storms.

But the Ogallala aquifer is drying up.

Near Sublette, Kansas, farmer Gail Wright said he would probably stop irrigating two square miles of his land and would plant wheat and grain sorghum instead of corn because of the diminishing aquifer. Drilling deeper wells would cost $120,000 each, Wright said.

“When we drilled those wells in the 1960s and ’70s, we were doing 1,500 or 1,600 gallons per minute,” said Wright. “Now, they are down to anywhere from 400 to 600 gallons per minute. We probably pumped out 200 feet of water.”

“We have pumped 170 feet off the aquifer, that’s gone. There’s just a little tick of water at the bottom,” added neighbour Lawrence Withers.

The Ogallala supplies water to 456,000 square kilometres in parts of eight states from the Texas Panhandle to southern South Dakota — about 27 per cent of the nation’s total. A 2009 survey estimated it had lost about nine per cent of its water since 1950, much of that in the previous 14 years. While some areas have 50 to 200 years of water left, parts of Texas, Oklahoma and southwest Kansas may be out of water in 25 years.

The worst drought in decades has exacerbated the situation. The semi-arid Texas Panhandle area around Lubbock, which typically gets about 19 inches of rain a year, received less than six inches in 2011, the lowest ever recorded. This year was better but still far below normal at 12.5 inches. Meanwhile temperatures have risen by one full degree over the last decade.

Some blame government, saying subsidized crop insurance encourages farmers to plant even in a drought year, and also for reducing funding that puts marginal land into grassland. More than 2.3 million acres have been pulled out of conservation reserves over the last five years in five states of the Great Plains — Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

If most of that land is plowed up for crops it could lead to more dust storms in the future.

“I think you are probably going to see increased erosion if that happens,” said Richard Zartman of the plant and soil science department at Texas Tech.

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