The Ogallala Aquifer and the Worst Hard Time

Over the Holidays I had the opportunity to read a great book recommended to me by a professor of urban planning economics.  Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl is a fascinating look at one of the country’s greatest environmental disasters.  The dust storms that ravaged the high plains throughout the 1930’s brought death and destructions to thousands of Americans who moved to the area over the previous 50 years to take advantage of cheap land and soaring wheat prices.

You may have heard of the American dust storms before but Egan’s tale brings these storms to light in new and horrifying ways.  Dust storms would black out the sun for days on end as people huddled in shelters.  At times the air was so full of dust that candles could not get enough air to stay lit.  Children walking home from school were literally suffocated to death by clouds of dust.  Men could not shake hands because static electricity built up in the clouds of dust to the point where touching another person could knock them off their feet and barbed wire fences hummed with an electric blue glow as storms approached.  Thousands died of dust pneumonia as the silica-laden dust particles scarred their lungs until they could not longer function.  This really was the worst hard time.

The American Great Plains

In the 1800’s much of the Great Plains, stretching from Montana and North Dakota in the north to Texas in the South, were Indian territory and grazing land for Bison – an epic flat grassland.  But a three-pronged attack of government incentives, global economics, and agricultural hubris, would turn this land into a desert by 1935.

The price of wheat skyrocketed in the 1910’s as World War I bogged down Russian producers.  Growing and exporting wheat became on of America’s top priorities in winning the war.  Therefore, the government created incentives to help farming families to relocate to the Great Plains.  Once there, their charge was grow as much wheat as they could, not because the government told them to, but because the global wheat shortage brought on by the war meant you could make more money growing wheat than doing virtually anything else.  Egan tells the tale of a Hollywood movie-maker who left California to grow wheat because it was more profitable.

After the war, the roaring twenties kept the economy going, but all that came to end with the stock market crash of 1929.  As the price of wheat declined, farmers in the Great Plains planted two or three times as much wheat in an attempt to maintain profits.  Ultimately, oversupply made wheat virtually worthless and by 1933 almost nobody was planting anything.  The fields that were once covered with buffalo grass ideally suited for the climate of the Great Plains were left barren.  As the winds rolled in, tons of soil was picked up and carried across the country to be dropped as far east as the cities of New York and Washington, DC or into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

Click to enlarge

The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the attempt at cultivating the Great Plains had been unknowingly executed during an unusually wet period, which ended in 1930.  The drought of the 1930’s was actually the norm for the region.  Both farmers and the government eventually came to realize that the Great Plains were too cold for cattle and too dry for wheat.  Ironically, the ecosystem was ideally suited for the buffalo grass and bison that, along with the Native Americans, the white man had been so eager to remove from the land.

Though Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies of soil conservation and tree planting helped to restore the Great Plains, they never fully recovered.  However, the dust storms have lost their biblical qualities owing mainly to the pursuit of an alternate source of water.  The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the largest aquifers in the world.  In the 1930’s the technology did not exist to create wells deep enough to fully exploit this resource, but that changed after World War II.

Egan’s book ends with a clear warning to current agri-business operating in the Great Plains.  Much like the initial settlers did not fully comprehend the effects their actions would have on the larger ecosystem, the Ogallala Aquifer is being pumped at an astounding rate while nobody knows what the long-term impacts will be.    Water is being pumped out of the aquifer faster than it is being replenished and some estimates predict it could dry up in 25 years or less.  When the plains once again go arid, will there be another New Deal-like push for soil conservation and tree planting, or will the dust storms of the 1930’s once again plague the land?

You don’t have to look hard at satellite images of the Great Plains to find circles made by central-pivot irrigation systems fed by the Ogallala Aquifer via wells at their epicenters.
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