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Avoiding Another Manmade Disaster

In November, Ken Burns’ documentary, The Dust Bowl, was aired on PBS. If there was any reason for funding Public Broadcasting, this would be it—besides Downton Abbey, Frontline and Masterpiece Theatre, as well as hundreds of spectacular films and examples of independent journalism that you wouldn’t find anywhere else on television. The Dust Bowl is now on video, so if you haven’t seen it yet,  you can now view it on video. This is a must-see.
The Dust Bowl is the term given to an area encompassing Oklahoma, Kansas, the Texas Panhandle, Colorado and New Mexico. The series covers the droughts during the 1930s, a time in American history that some of us only heard about from our grandparents. Many of us may have also read of this era in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s portrait of life during the 1930s. Photographs by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Alfred Eisenstaedt illustrated the hardscrabble lives of the sinewy farmers in their tattered clothes.
It is important that we understand how the terrible dust storms were created so we don’t repeat the past. The tall grasses of the High Plains sustained themselves for many decades, providing sustenance for buffalo. All that was obliterated by settlers who  used unsustainable farming practices. The mostly immigrant farmers succumbed to the lures of real estate companies that carved up the Plains; developers sold the small plots of land to the farmers who plowed over the tall grasses and used what was then considered modern farm methods to plow, plant and harvest their crops. Instead of rotating their crops from year to year, farmers planted the same crops year after year and failed to replenish the earth. Topsoil became dust and was exhausted by repetitive plowing, rather than creating layered terraces to hold the crops and water in place. But without the tall grasses with their deep roots to hold the soil and water together, during drought conditions the high winds blew tons of dirt on the surface across the Plains and the dust gathered volume and force.
The bleakest day was to come in 1935. It was remembered as Black Sunday. The gigantic clouds of dust that gathered on that April 14th completely blocked out sunlight. Trucks were blown down country roads, left to be dug out under many feet of dust, according to Wessel’s Living History Farm. By that date, some 150 million acres of farmland had lost its topsoil. When high winds blew across the High Plains, what were called “black blizzards” whipped swirls of dirt into every nook and crevice, choked cattle and made it impossible to keep the thick dust out of the farmers’ houses. Many suffered from serious respiratory illnesses as a result.
The Depression-era dust storms created an exodus of starving farm families from Oklahoma and surrounding states to any place away from the terrible droughts, soil erosion and dirt storms that stretched across thousands of miles. Farmers fled by the tens of thousands. They loaded their families into their jalopies and trucks and drove west, looking for any paying work, usually seasonal. Many eventually ended up in California.
The Ogallala Aquifer, the largest fresh water underwater aquifer in the world, lies beneath the Great Plains. Since the late 1930s, farmers have been diverting the water for irrigation and farming and digging well after well until their wells went dry. Ninety-five percent of the Ogallala is now used for agriculture. Billionaire T. Boone Pickens and his company, Mesa Water, control a large portion of the water. The Telegraph reports that Pickens plans on draining 200,000 acre-feet a year (or 124,000 gallons a minute) and eventually pipe the water to Dallas—a city that is expected to more than double in size in the next few decades. The Ogallala Aquifer not only supplies 30 percent of U.S. irrigation, it “provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people who live within the aquifer boundary,” according to a USGS High Plains regional ground-water study.
Conservation practices like crop rotation, irrigation and terracing have helped slow down the depletion of the water in the aquifer, and have led to some higher water levels in some areas. But other controversies have kept the High Plains area in the news, including locating a nuclear waste repository in the Texas Panhandle. Farmer Frank Ford led a successful effort in the 1980s to relocate the nuclear facility in the Yucca Mountain area instead.
Recently, the Ogallala Aquifer has been in the news due to the Canadian Keystone XL Pipeline proposal to carry oil sands from Alberta, Canada along 1,661 miles through the United States to oil refineries near Houston, Texas. Environmentalists have been concerned that oil spills could contaminate the aquifer beneath the pipeline. The New York Times reports that the oil sands industry in Canada has been found to increase the levels of carcinogens in deposits of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are released from bitumen and sands in oil sands mining. Some scientists fear the long-term effects of oil sands development here—increased incidence of cancer in those exposed to PAH and other chemicals that leak downstream.
Many of us think that the Dust Bowl years were merely a fluke of an extreme climate.  But they weren’t. We are used to 60 mile-per-hour winds these days. Droughts come and go. But the effects of the Dust Bowl were man-made. We created the conditions that decimated the land and the lives of the farmers and the whole country during that time.
If we continue to ignore man-made global warming, plant the same crops year after year, keep favoring a meat-centered diet and exhaust our aquifers, we will be creating the conditions that
can only lead to disaster. We know better. Protecting our environment—including aquifers—are critically important to prevent other black blizzards and Dust Bowls to come.

Published: February 23, 2013
Issue: Winter 2013 Issue