The wrath of 2007: America’s great drought

The wrath of 2007: America’s great drought

By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles

Published: 11 June 2007

America is facing its worst summer drought since the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression. Or perhaps worse still.

From the mountains and desert of the West, now into an eighth
consecutive dry year, to the wheat farms of Alabama, where crops are
failing because of rainfall levels 12 inches lower than usual, to the
vast soupy expanse of Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida, which has
become so dry it actually caught fire a couple of weeks ago, a
continent is crying out for water.

In the south-east, usually a lush, humid region, it is the driest
few months since records began in 1895. California and Nevada, where
burgeoning population centres co-exist with an often harsh, barren
landscape, have seen less rain over the past year than at any time
since 1924. The Sierra Nevada range, which straddles the two states,
received only 27 per cent of its usual snowfall in winter, with
immediate knock-on effects on water supplies for the populations of Las
Vegas and Los Angeles.

The human impact, for the moment, has been limited, certainly
nothing compared to the great westward migration of Okies in the 1930 –
the desperate march described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.

Big farmers are now well protected by government subsidies and
emergency funds, and small farmers, some of whom are indeed struggling,
have been slowly moving off the land for decades anyway. The most
common inconvenience, for the moment, are restrictions on hosepipes and
garden sprinklers in eastern cities.

But the long-term implications are escaping nobody. Climatologists
see a growing volatility in the south-east’s weather – today’s drought
coming close on the heels of devastating hurricanes two to three years
ago. In the West, meanwhile, a growing body of scientific evidence
suggests a movement towards a state of perpetual drought by the middle
of this century. "The 1930s drought lasted less than a decade. This is
something that could remain for 100 years," said Richard Seager a
climatologist at Columbia University and lead researcher of a report
published recently by the government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA).

While some of this year’s dry weather is cyclical – California
actually had an unusually wet year last year, so many of the state’s
farmers still have plenty of water for their crops – some of it
portends more permanent changes. In Arizona, the tall mountains in the
southern Sonoran desert known as "sky islands" because they have been
welcome refuges from the desert heat for millennia, have already shown
unmistakable signs of change.

Predatory insects have started ravaging trees already weakened by
record temperatures and fires over the past few years. Animal species
such as frogs and red squirrels have been forced to move ever higher up
the mountains in search of cooler temperatures, and are in danger of
dying out altogether. Mount Lemmon, which rises above the city of
Tucson, boasts the southernmost ski resort in the US, but has barely
attracted any snow these past few years.

"A lot of people think climate change and the ecological
repercussions are 50 years away," Thomas Swetnam, an environmental
scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, told The New York
Times a few months ago. "But it’s happening now in the West. The data
is telling us that we are in the middle of one of the first big
indicators of climate change impacts in the continental United States."
Across the West, farmers and city water consumers are locked in a
perennial battle over water rights – one that the cities are slowly
winning. Down the line, though, there are serious questions about how
to keep showers and lawn sprinklers going in the retirement communities
of Nevada and Arizona. Lake Powell, the reservoir on the upper Colorado
River that helps provide water across a vast expanse of the West, has
been less than half full for years, with little prospect of filling up
in the foreseeable future.

According to the NOAA’s recent report, the West can expect 10-20 per
cent less rainfall by mid-century, which will increase air pollution in
the cities, kill off trees and water-retaining giant cactus plants and
shrink the available water supply by as much as 25 per cent.

In the south-east, the crisis is immediate – and may be alleviated
at any moment by the arrival of the tropical storm season. In Georgia,
where the driest spring on record followed closely on the heels of a
devastating frost, farmers are afraid they might lose anywhere from
half to two-thirds of crops such as melons and the state’s celebrated
peaches. Many cities are restricting lawn sprinklers to one hour per
day – and some places one hour only every other day.

The most striking effect of the dry weather has been to expose large
parts of the bed of Lake Okeechobee, the vast circular expanse of water
east of Palm Beach, Florida, which acts as a back-up water supply for
five million Floridians. Archaeologists have had a field day – dredging
the soil for human bone fragments, tools, bits of pottery and
ceremonial jewellery thought to have belonged to the natives who lived
near the lake before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.

Environmentalists are not entirely upset, because the lake is
notoriously polluted with pesticides and other farm products that then
poison nearby rivers. River fish stocks in the area are now booming.

Nothing, though, was so strange as the fires that broke out over
about 12,000 acres on the northern edge of the lake at the end of May.
They were eventually doused by Tropical Storm Barry last weekend. State
water managers, however, say it will may take a whole summer of
rainstorms, or longer, to restore the lake.

The great Dust Bowl disaster

The Dust Bowl was the result of catastrophic dust storms causing
major ecological and agricultural damage to American prairies in the
1930s. The fertile soil of the Great Plains had been exposed by removal
of grass during ploughing over decades of ill-conceived farming
techniques. The First World War and immense profits had driven farmers
to push the land well beyond its natural limits.

When drought hit, the soil dried, became dust, and blew eastwards,
mostly in large black clouds. This caused an exodus from Texas,
Arkansas, Oklahoma, and the surrounding Great Plains, with more than
half a million Americans left homeless in the Great Depression.

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