Dust Bowl Era Conditions in the Southern United States

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In 2011, the United States has seen record snowfall in the Northeast, flooding in North Dakota, deadly tornadoes in Alabama, wildfires in New Mexico, and too many more natural disasters. And, as temperatures across the United States reach new highs, the record setting drought in the South is making headlines. At least 14 states from Florida to Arizona are experiencing a drought that began last year. For farmers and ranchers, no rain means no crops and no way to feed livestock.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has declared all of Texas a natural disaster area and claims that as much as 30 percent of the wheat grown in the state could be lost, creating a huge shortage in the market. Drought conditions have been widespread in Texas for at least a year, which has forced ranchers to irrigate continuously, running wells dry in some areas. Irrigation systems, like those being used in Texas, account for 70 percent of water withdrawn from aquifers, lakes and rivers, according to water expert Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project.

In addition to large quantities of water, irrigation pumps need fuel to operate. In Georgia, a 2,000 acre farm near Spring Creek is irrigating corn, cotton, and other crops at a cost of over $80,000 in diesel fuel for the last two months. The USDA estimates that improving the efficiency of water use on irrigated farms by just 10 percent could save almost $200 million per year in fuel costs.

High volume irrigation is also costly to the environment. For example, Spring Creek, which is connected to the irrigation system supplying water to the 2,000 acre farm in Georgia, is also home to endangered freshwater mussels and numerous other plants and animals. As the water level in the creek falls the risk to aquatic life is increased. Spring Creek is a reminder that agriculture shares resources with plant and animal life, making it vital to conserve water. As a major consumer of water, agriculture needs to operate efficiently, while considering its impact on the environment.

To prepare for drought conditions in the 21st century, the U.S. government formed the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), which is responsible for forecasting and monitoring drought conditions. According to NIDIS maps, abnormally dry conditions are affecting farmers from southern New Jersey to southern California, Alaska, and Hawaii. The NIDIS is predicting that for most of the south, the drought is going to persist and even intensify in many areas, including the development of new drought ridden areas in Arkansas.

As the current drought reaches Dust Bowl era intensity, it is vital that we implement sustainable agriculture practices that conserve water and protect biodiversity, while also producing food for the growing world. We can look to innovations in Sub-Saharan Africa, where people are growing food with little water and utilizing indigenous crops that are drought tolerant. By finding ways to better manage water on the farm, the pressure on our planet’s most vital resource could be eased. This also helps reduce production costs, and improve diets and livelihoods, especially for small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa who depend on their crops for food and income. Only 4 percent of the cultivated land across sub-Saharan Africa is currently equipped for irrigation, compared with 18 percent in the rest of the world. But the continent’s rain-fed areas with low agricultural yields hold the biggest potential for getting ‘more crop per drop.’

There are many examples of simple and inexpensive ways of improving water management for small-scale farmers. Increased investment in small holder irrigation, for example, can create greater diversity of water source options. Low technology irrigation methods are also cost-efficient. These include surface irrigation systems, such as furrows and small basins, pressurized sprinkler systems, and water lifting technologies which can be driven by gravity, manual labor, and motorized pumps.

On the ground, countless groups are working to help farmers improve water management techniques and gain access to these technologies.

In Accra, Ghana, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a non-profit organization working in Asia and Africa to improve water and land management for farmers and the environment, received funding from several groups, including the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s (CGIAR) initiative, Challenge Program for Water and Food, to work with urban farmers to develop improved farm wastewater management. Because of the lack of safe alternatives, farmers often use contaminated wastewater to irrigate their crops and clean their vegetables. But, IWMI helps these farmers clean the water they have, as well as conserve it, improving sanitation, crop yields and livelihoods.

The fact is we are all connected to the steadfast drought in the South. The farmers and ranchers losing crops are forced to either purchase hay or grain or sell-off livestock that they can no longer afford feed. The increase in demand for grain reduces supplies and drives up prices. At a time when food prices are already high and global demand is steadily increasing, farmers cannot afford to lose crops or be forced to compete at the market.

Lacey Cochart is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project. Photo: Drip irrigation in Niger, Africa. (credit: Bernard Pollack)

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