Meet The New Dust Bowl, Same As The Old Dust Bowl

Ken Burns’ 2-part documentary “Dust Bowl” premieres tonight on PBS. Sadly, Burns fails to make the link between then and now. Climate Progress has done so in regards climate change many times (see “We’re Already Topping Dust Bowl Temperatures — Imagine What’ll Happen If We Fail To Stop 10°F Warming“). But the piece below makes clear there’s much more to the link — JR.

by Don Carr, via Environmental Working Group

Ken Burns, America’s premiere documentarian, has tackled topics from jazz to the Civil War. His new film chronicles the Dust Bowl, the massive ecological disaster that plagued a large swath of U. S. farmland during the 1930’s.

Misguided farming practices at the heart of the disaster

The opening episode of the 4-hour epic that premieres on PBS on November 18 goes right to the cause of the problem.  In a short time, farmers converted an area twice the size of New Jersey and centering in the Oklahoma Panhandle from native grassland to wheat fields.  They did so because of a concerted policy in the 1920’s to industrialize agriculture and to “turn farming into a factory.” But the wind-swept prairie that dominated the region was unsuited for growing much, aside from drought- resistant grasses. Once farmers turned over the firm soil, they set the stage for a monumental disaster.

“Suitcase” farmers from back East –precursors to today’s Wall Street investors and absentee landlords – added to the problem by irresponsibly abandoning 4 million acres to “blow with each new wind” when the drought hit.

Burns’ film makes clear what really caused the disaster.

“A sea of grass once the domain of Indians and buffalo disappeared beneath the plow,” says Peter Coyote, the actor who narrates the documentary.

“We were just too selfish and we were trying to make money. It didn’t work out,” says an Oklahoma survivor of the disaster.

“A classic tale of humans pushing hard against nature and nature pushing back,” says New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, who authored the book, “The Dust Bowl.”

Hugh Bennett, founder and head of the Soil Conservation Service, was tasked by President Roosevelt to find a solution. He characterized the basic cause of the problem as “an attempt to impose upon the region, a system of agriculture to which the plains are not adapted.”

Because of this human-caused disaster, American agriculture went into a downward spiral as land prices cratered, cattle herds were culled at government expense, farmers committed suicide rather than face foreclosures, and children succumbed to deadly pneumonia caused by inhaling wind-blown dust or got lost and died when “dusters” hit.

Conservation worked

Ken Burns’ documentary shows how a few farmers survived the Dust Bowl – even before the drought broke – by employing simple conservation practices.  They used plows that didn’t pulverize the soil and planted crops on the contour. Passions rose so high that some of these farmers demanded that martial law be declared to force their neighbors to take conservation measures. Soil blowing from neighboring fields was destroying farms downwind, even if those downwind farmers were doing a good job keeping their own soil in place.

In the mid 1930’s the federal government stepped in to buy and repair close to 4 million acres of utterly destroyed cropland – leveling drifting dunes of eroding soil and planting grasses.

The Dust Bowl returns

By the end of the 30’s, conservation practices combined with a break in the drought started to reverse the course of the disaster. But during World War II, wheat prices soared, causing many farmers to return to the same destructive practices that had led to the Dust Bowl in the first place.

Suitcase farmers and land speculators revisited to the scene, and millions of acres of the most vulnerable acres went back under the plow. The dust blew again in the early 1950s when dry weather returned.

Farmers who stuck to good conservation practices helped mitigate some of the damage, but most turned to irrigation to keep the soil in place and crops growing. Farmers tapped into water in the Ogallala aquifer to transform a region best suited to growing grass into a region dominated by production of the thirstiest of all crops, corn.

Running out of time, again

The same forces that wreaked havoc on soil and farmer’s livelihoods over three decades are in play today. Producers are once again going all out in response to soaring crop prices. This time, however, overly generous crop insurance subsidies encourage farmers to take risks with their land and water.  When taxpayers pick up most of the risk, it shouldn’t be a surprise that farmers discount the chance of another drought and water shortage

At the Environmental Working Group we’ve been sounding the alarm on these trends for years. Consider:

  • According to our recent report, Plowed Under, nearly 24 million acres of U.S. grasslands, shrub land and wetlands were plowed under between 2008 and 2011. About 19 million of those acres have been planted to just three crops, corn, soybeans and winter wheat, due in part to federal policies like farm subsidies that support only a handful of commodity crops.
  • In intensively-farmed Iowa, EWG found that Iowa State University researchers had determined that some Iowa farms are losing precious topsoil up to 12 times faster than the government estimates. When storms hit vulnerable or poorly protected land, fields sometimes lose more soil in a single day than is considered sustainable for the whole year, or even decades.
  • The recent drought that ravaged most of the country’s farmland spurred a dust storm in October that stretched across Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. It was so big that it could be seen from space.

Betting on fossil water

What stands between the United States and another environmental catastrophe that leaves millions of acres blowing in the wind is the Ogallala aquifer, which covers about 175,000 square miles. Geologic action created this reservoir more than a million years ago.

Like oil, this is fossil water that cannot be renewed once it is pumped out. Some 82 percent of the people living above the aquifer depend on it for clean drinking water. Stunningly, much of this precious and irreplaceable water is being used to grow corn to feed pigs.

More worrisome, today nearly half the water is gone. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it “is being depleted at an unsustainable rate.”

In Burns’ film, Charles Shaw of Cimarron County, Oklahoma, says, “The only thing holding that ground together is that irrigation water that comes out of the Ogallala…we only got about 20 years of water left.”

Time to act is now

The enduring lesson of Burns’ film is that the time to engage in conservation practices is before the drought hits, not after. We must take urgent measures right now to make sure that the Dust Bowl doesn’t come back to haunt farmers and the rest of us.

Yet Congress is actually on track to pass a farm bill that cuts funding for conservation and guts the conservation compact between farmers and taxpayers that has protected soil from erosion since 1985. Previously, farmers were required to engage in conservation in exchange for taxpayer-funded subsidies. And before the current rush to plow and plant, farmers managing more than 140 million acres of land implemented practices that reduced by 40 percent the soil washing into streams from “highly erodible” lands.

Since field erosion and run-off are unregulated at the federal level, our only line of defense against erosion and water pollution is to fight attempts in the farm bill to slash cost-share funding for farmers implementing environmental practices.

Farmers want to do better by the soil, a fact illuminated by a 2010 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll that showed that two-thirds of Iowa farmers said they should be required to conserve soil on highly erodible cropland regardless of whether they participated in federal farm programs.

History doesn’t have to repeat itself, but only if we learn the hard lessons of the past. Ken Burns’ “The Dust Bowl” shows us that we ignore tried and true conservation practices at our peril.

Don Carr is a Senior Communications and Policy Advisor with the Environmental Working Group. This piece was originally published at EWG and was reprinted with permission.


13 Responses to Meet The New Dust Bowl, Same As The Old Dust Bowl

  1. Any conservative knows to preserve an endowment rather than consume it. The idea is to live off the dividends that the endowment’s capital generates. If you consume the capital, dividends diminish. That forces you to consume more capital to maintain the same level of wealth.

    The capital should only be used to invest in other, better assets that will produce more sustainable dividends.

    Fossil fuels–or “fossil water”–are also an endowment. Why it’s a “conservative” idea to consume and thereby destroy them is beyond me.

    Nonrenewables have a place in the economy: to bootstrap sustainable systems. There’s no way that solar or wind energy would exist if it hadn’t been for oil and coal.

    But once that capability is bootstrapped into existence, the prudent, conservative act is to stop consuming the endowment and reserve it for only those critical and highly leveraged applications for which there is no substitute. This does not mean gas-guzzling cars. This means strategic applications, mostly military and research.

    Using the Ogalalla faster than its recharge rate to make money is just another example of misapplying the word “conservatism” to what is really just unexamined, reflexive selfishness and greed.

    People aren’t “bad” for wanting to better their lives, but we need to evolve away from expedience. We’re like trust-fund babies with no respect for the gift we’ve inherited.

  2. Jim Baird says:

    “A classic tale of humans pushing hard against nature and nature pushing back,”

    Nature’s response to an overheating ocean is to convert that heat to mechanical energy through phase changes of a liquid.

    How dumb could it be to heed that analogy?

  3. Paul Magnus says:

    Mmmm…. any comment on this Joe?

    Climate Portals shared a link on FB.

    Global drought has not increased, but climate change is still a threat
    Global drought has not increased significantly over the past 60 years, a report in Nature has found.Previous assessments of global drought have relied on the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which only…

  4. This summer temperatures in Kansas exceeded the ability of corn to survive, and large patches of corn simply died on the stalk. (112 F. Temps in Kansas briefly hit 114 F.) Temps like that will become more and more common so that not only will we be faced with crops that don’t thrive due to drought, high temps will simply kill the plants in the field.

  5. Joe Romm says:

    Yes. I have been slow to respond to that nonsense. But I was on travel for much of last week. I’ll have something up on Monday.

  6. MWolfe says:

    To be fair to Ken Burns, he does make an explicit connection between now and then prominently mentioning anthropogenic climate change on the website, and opens it up for discussion:

  7. We need a Department of Water, like we have a Department of Energy. Thermal power plants (coal and nuclear) need to do better condensing turbine exhaust steam. Evaporating water and its latent heat into the atmosphere to regenerate the Rankine cycle (wet cooling) is in need of a serious look. According to the GAO, DOE has made little progress in the seven years since Congress mandated study and publication re water-energy nexus. Thermal power plants consume more water than any other users. DOE should step aside and let Gen. Petraeus, Secretary of Water, rebuild the water infrastructure in time to avoid the Dust Bowl.

  8. It’s about massive and permanent agricultural failure soon rather than sea level rise later.

    That’s connected to the ice cap. No ice cap, radically altered jet stream. Radically altered jet stream, erratic seasonal precipitation and temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere. Erratic seasonal weather, crop failures worldwide.

    Save the ice cap.

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    More crops destroyed by cricket ball sized hail and flash flooding over the weekend, ME

  10. Abigail Winston says:

    Currently, the greatest threat to agriculture in the mid-west is the Keystone XL pipeline. A leak, which is very probable considering Keystone’s record, would pollute the Oglalla aquifer and make it unusable. It is extremely critical that we do not pump it dry or pollute it with an oil pipeline leak. Oh yes, my sister just read an article that said that the worst dust storms also took the oxygen out of the air and many people died of suffocation during the Dust Bowl.

  11. syd bridges says:

    Hugh Hammond Bennett, Big Hugh, was one of the great heroes of the dust bowl. Like Jim Hansen on climate, he had warned of the dangers of soil erosion for decades before FDR finally took him seriously
    Here, in northern Colorado, it s still very dry and the US Drought Monitor shows many areas east and west of here in much worse condition. If there is not heavy snowfall this winter, I hate to think what next year will be like: wildfires, searing heat, dead crops, and dust storms seem likely.

  12. This is a good article on an important issue — thanks.

    A couple of minor, but possibly important nitpicks. One, Timothy Egan’s book is called, “The Worst Hard Time,” not “The Dust Bowl.” Two, in “The Worst Hard Time,” if I recall correctly, Eagan said that the grain speculation in the dustbowl areas started during WWI, when there was a great need for grain to feed the doughboys and our European allies. As soon as the war was over, the speculators pulled out. (A good reason to eliminate war along with eliminating carbon emissions.)

    I’ve written some stuff on the current midwest drought for my newspaper column, which is published in Oregon, Colorado, Montana and on the East Coast. It’s important to let those folks know that a “midwest problem” is everybody’s problem, as we all need to eat.

  13. Bob Bingham says:

    There is a good quote that says. “There is no such thing as free delivery from or free disposal to the environment” The USA has been taking and disposing for a long time.
    Twenty years to get it right and I see no hope of that.