Weatherford Democrat

January 6, 2013

NOW HEAR THIS: Drought, groundwater, ethanol and idiots


Weatherford Democrat

— By LARRY M. JONES

During the 1930s an almost endless wave of dust storms slammed the southern plains of the United States causing one of the most severe ecological disasters in our nation’s history. The tragic consequences were physically, financially and emotionally devastating to the farming folks primarily of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, along with many others in adjoining states.

An estimated 100 million acres of farmland were severely damaged, with as much as 75 percent of the topsoil lost to wind erosion. I’ve read that an eighth of California’s population is of “Okie” origin because of those who fled the Dust Bowl. John Steinbeck’s classic, “Grapes of Wrath” (1939), tells of this era.

The cause of this epic “natural” disaster has been mostly attributed to greatly increased mechanization of agriculture and improper farming methods that failed to prevent or mitigate the losses from wind erosion. Using huge tractors and steel plows to lay bare thousands of acres of the short-grass plains was a recipe for disaster. A huge influx of settlers seeking free land under the Homestead Act, along with high commodity prices, caused agricultural production to soar in the region.

Government intervention and assistance in the 1930s and ‘40s helped stabilize the hard-hit region. Subsidized planting of wind breaks throughout the Plains, introduction of new farming methods with the creation of the Soil Conservation Service and subsidy payments to farmers to entice them to adopt these practices led to a much more stable condition by the 1940s.

Recently, I have been reading about a return of the problems of the Dust Bowl days. More than 60 percent of the United States is currently affected by drought conditions, with much of the traditional Dust Bowl states being gripped by “exceptional” drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, no relief is in sight.

Despite government assistance to stop the 1930s disaster, the recent recurrence of Dust Bowl conditions is ironically being blamed on government policies. Federal government-subsidized crop insurance encourages farmers to plant crops even during extremely unfavorable conditions. Another government program (Conservation Reserve Program) that encourages farmers to take marginal land out of production and put into grassland is being reduced. High commodity prices for crops, especially corn due to the ethanol subsidy and the Renewable Fuel Standard, encouraged farmers to plow up the grasslands and increase crop acreage. This is very similar to what happened during the 1920s when huge tracts of grasslands were laid bare.

Another factor that helped end the Dust Bowl of the ‘30s was the introduction of irrigation from the Ogallala aquifer. Today with massive corn production aimed at taking advantage of the ethanol demand, drawdown on this aquifer has increased two-and-a-half times in just over a decade. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, many areas in Texas, Oklahoma, and Southwest Kansas will run out of water in less than 25 years.

Whether a result of dust storms, declining aquifers, low lake levels or droughts of record, Texas and our neighboring states have serious water-related problems. Politicians posture and speak of finding new sources and building more new dams, but the key lies in conserving what we have. We can no longer afford to waste water growing irrigated corn to turn into ethanol to fuel corrupt and inept government policy.

Larry M. Jones is a retired Navy commander and aviator who raises cattle and hay in the Brock/Lazy Bend part of Parker County. Comments may be directed to nowhearthis@pwhome.com.