US Farmers Fear the Return of the Dust Bowl

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There is not much to be happy about these days in Happy, Texas. Main Street is shuttered but for the Happy National Bank, slowly but inexorably disappearing into a High Plains wind that turns all to dust. The old Picture House, the cinema, has closed. Tumbleweed rolls into the still corners behind the grain elevators, soaring prairie cathedrals that spoke of prosperity before they were abandoned for lack of business.

Happy’s problem is that it has run out of water for its farms. Its population, dropping 10 per cent a year, is down to 595. The name, which brings a smile for miles around and plays in faded paint on the fronts of every shuttered business – Happy Grain Inc, Happy Game Room – has become irony tinged with bitterness. It goes back to the cowboy days of the 19th century. A cattle drive north through the Texas Panhandle to the rail heads beyond had been running out of water, steers dying on the hoof, when its cowboys stumbled on a watering hole. They named the spot Happy Draw, for the water. Now Happy is the harbinger of a potential Dust Bowl unseen in America since the Great Depression.

‘It was a booming town when I grew up,’ Judy Shipman, who manages the bank, says. ‘We had three restaurants, a grocery, a plumber, an electrician, a building contractor, a doctor. We had so much fun, growing up.’ Like all the townsfolk, she knows why the fun has gone. ‘It’s the decline in the water level,’ she says. ‘In the 1950s a lot of wells were drilled, and the water went down. Now you can’t farm the land.’

Those wells were drilled into a geological phenomenon called the Ogallala Aquifer. It is an underground lake of pristine water formed between two and six million years ago, in the Pliocene age, when the tectonic shifts that pushed the Rocky Mountains skywards were still active. The water was trapped below the new surface crust that would become the semi-arid soil of the Plains, dry and dusty. It stretches all the way down the eastern slope of the Rockies from the badlands of South Dakota to the Texas Panhandle. It does not replenish.

Happy is the canary in the coalmine because the Ogallala is deepest in the north, as much as 300ft in the more fertile country of Nebraska and Kansas. In the south, through the panhandle and over the border to New Mexico, it is 50-100ft. And around Happy, 75 miles south of Amarillo, it is now 0-50ft. The farms have been handed over to the government’s Conservation Reserve Programme (CRP) to lie fallow in exchange for grants: farmers’ welfare, although they hate to think of it like that.

The first ranchers, and the Plains Indians before them, knew of water below the ground from the watering holes that sustained buffalo and then cattle far from any river. The white man learnt to drill, leaving primitive windmills on top of wooden derricks silhouetted against Wild West horizons.

But it was only in the 1940s, after the Dust Bowl (the result of a severe drought and excessive farming in the early 1930s), that the US Geological Survey worked out that the watering holes were clues to the Ogallala, now believed to be the world’s largest body of fresh water. They were about to repeat the dreams of man from the days of Ancient Egypt and Judea to turn the desert green, only without the Nile or Jordan. With new technology the wells could reach the deepest water, and from the early 1950s the boom was on. Some of the descendants of Dust Bowl survivors became millionaire landowners.

‘Since then,’ says David Brauer of the US Agriculture Department agency, the Ogallala Research Service, ‘we have drained enough water to half-fill Lake Erie of the Great Lakes.’ Billions upon billions of gallons – or, as they prefer to measure it, acre-feet of water, each one equivalent to a football field flooded a foot deep – have been pumped. ‘The problem,’ he goes on, ‘is that in a brief half-century we have drawn the Ogallala level down from an average of 240ft to about 80.’

Brauer’s agency was set up in direct response to the Dust Bowl, with the brief of finding ways to make sure that the devastation never happens again. If it does, the impact on the world’s food supply will be far greater. The irrigated Plains grow 20 per cent of American grain and corn (maize), and America’s ‘industrial’ agriculture dominates international markets. A collapse of those markets would lead to starvation in Africa and anywhere else where a meal depends on cheap American exports. ‘The Ogallala supply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm,’ Brauer says. ‘That is beyond reasonable argument. Our goal now is to engineer a soft landing. That’s all we can do.’

Estimates vary, but with careful conservation, less wasteful irrigation and seeds for corn, cotton, wheat and sorghum genetically engineered for drought conditions, farming may yet go on for 60 years. That would be over the deepest stratum of the Ogallala. But the husbanding of water, soil, minerals or anything else has never been the Texan way, and without it the dust will start blowing in as few as 10 years.

Water – not oil – has always been the most valuable resource in the West. Wars have been fought over it, feuds maintained, and fortunes won or lost. Apart from the Ogallala, the main source remains the Colorado River, flowing west from the Rockies, its annual bounty of snow melt providing the drinking water for Las Vegas, irrigation for California’s Central Valley, and the swimming-pools of Los Angeles. No one is surprised that the mighty Colorado now runs dry before it reaches the Pacific, nor that climate change, with falling rain and snow levels, spells potential disaster for the Sunshine States. There are at least public controls over most of this water, even if it is actually owned by corporations and very rich people with ‘water rights’.

But Texas, true to its self-conscious style of ‘rugged individualism’, has no such legal controls. It maintains its Wild West-era laws of ‘right to capture’. This means that if you have water under your land, or in a river running through it, you can take and use as much of it as you like. You can water the corn or the cows, or you can make a buck by selling it to the nearest thirsty suburb. If you want to drain your land into desert, you may.

With the American ‘can-do’ faith in technology, Brauer’s own hopes are for the 60-odd years of reduced but viable farming. ‘We don’t want it to be a bust,’ he says. ‘We have to be optimistic.’

In Happy, that sounds more like wishful thinking. The early December sun sinks towards the winter solstice at a few minutes after six, leaving Main and its crossroads with the railway tracks in darkness but for a few street lights. A miniature suburban-style housing grid stretches between Main and the high school on the eastern edge of town. The football team is the Happy Cowboys, their cheerleaders the Happy Cowgirls. Old pick-up trucks in the car-park denote an away match, their drivers piled into yellow school buses for the trip. Most of the houses are still lived in, valued at about half the Texas average. Some are dilapidated, their gardens planted with rusting detritus, others spruce with the Stars and Stripes flapping in the breeze. Nowadays, the working population drives an hour or so north or south to small cities where they find employment.

The temperature drops below freezing. Kay Horner sits in My Happy Place, her diner on Highway 87, hoping for traffic and customers. She has moved back from Arkansas, snapping-up a Main Street store for only $10,000 to turn into her home. ‘There used to be 50,000 head of cattle, now there’s 1,000,’ she says. ‘Grazed them on wheat, but the feed lots took all the water so we can’t grow wheat. Now the feed lots can’t get local steers so they bring in cheap unwanted milking calves from California and turn them into burger if they can’t make them veal. It doesn’t make much sense. We’re heading back to the Dust Bowl.’

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