Dry Facts about Droughts Past and Present

The news is undeniably bad. Drought has struck hard in 14 states. Temperatures have remained over 100 degrees with no rain in sight. Farmers and ranchers are facing disaster. Crops are failing all across the South and Southwest while fires are consuming thousands of acres of forest from Arizona to Florida.

And this may be only the beginning. Newspaper articles quote climatologists who say the drought will last for years, maybe forever.

Naturally, any mention of drought brings up comparisons with the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Yet, when you read the articles about the drought of, say, 1934, you don’t get the same apocalyptic sense as you do from today’s news.

For example, take Chester C. Davis’s 1935 article in the Post. Davis knew better than most Americans how bad the Dust Bowl was. As head of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, he wrote about the previous year’s drought with a tone I can only describe as grim optimism.

Day by day and week by week, the tragic story of drought unfolded in the daily reports that were hurried to the desks of the drought fighters. Searing heat in July completed the devastation of a dry May and a disappointing June. The area of distress swiftly spread until, by late July, our maps showed an expanse of drought covering nearly three-fourths of the entire country.

Crop production proved 32 per cent less than the ten-year average. The corn crop was the smallest since 1881; the oats crop the smallest since 1890. Worst of all, on July 1st the pasture condition was only 48.9 per cent of normal.

As Davis saw it, the country had two choices:

Government inaction, abandoning the wretched individual to face the problem alone, [or] recognizing the drought as a summons to a great social effort. The preamble of the Constitution, defining promotion of the general welfare as one of the purposes of Government, was taken to mean what it says. The greatest collective power established by any people at any time—the power of the United States Government—came to grips with the drought.

The government could help, but it couldn’t solve the problem; that would would require farmers and ranchers to make better use of the water and soil.

No current program can beat a drought after it strikes. The best that can be done then is to spread the shock and thus lessen its force on those directly in its path. But we can consider taking out insurance against future droughts while we are still feeling the blight of this one.

The lack of a forward-looking land-use and soil-conservation policy can be remedied. Safeguards can be adopted against wind erosion, or dust storms, and serious water erosion.

The weather and the crops improved gradually through the 1930s, leading Americans to hope they would never again see such heat and drought. But they did. Just 20 years later, the Post reported that Texas was facing the worst water shortage in its history.

For seven long years … this drought has spread farther and farther from its starting point along the once-silvery Rio Grande. The old “dust-bowl” region of the ’30s is dry again. In all this area crops have been failing for years.

All that remains of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County, Texas.

Live oaks estimated to be 200 to 500 years old have died in this land. The toughest gnarled monarchs stood gray and naked throughout the year, too sick and sapless to sprout a covering of leaves. A Texas historian said, “If it doesn’t rain pretty soon, coming generations will wonder why the county was named Live Oak.”

At a livestock auction in this section last August, a graying man who had brought in twenty-seven cows refused to enter the ring and watch them go to the highest bidder. He sat on a corral fence with his back turned, tears streaking his sunburned face. He had been forced to liquidate his own herd months before because there wasn’t enough grass in his pastures to build a bird’s nest. This last bunch of cows had survived on high-priced hay until money and water played out. They belonged to his son, who would soon be coming home from military service overseas. Instead of starting life with his own herd, this lad would have to find a city job.

Farther down the fence, two cattlemen saw the father’s tears and averted their eyes. “It’s hell when it’s this way,” one said.

Amid these stories of loss, though, were stories of determination. The writer told of farmers and ranchers who, refusing to quit their spreads, switched jobs for a year to meet their payments.

In the Oklahoma Panhandle and Southern Kansas, scores of farmers have been riding in carpools every day to work in an aircraft-part plant at Liberal. In one Central Texas farming settlement, eighty-three men—almost the entire able-bodied male population—are driving fifty miles to work in a Forth Worth factory.

The same resolve was even more noticeable in Post reporting of the early ’30s. They told how farmers were enduring extreme poverty and fighting to keep their land and their independence.

It’s this spirit that appears to be missing from news stories about the current drought. There seems to be little faith in  human adaptability, innovation, or government agencies. Nor is there recognition that farmers and ranchers will learn to work with nature’s changing rules because they know, as Chester Davis put it,

With Nature, the future is always bright.

In devastated Karnes County, Texas, Dobie Gideon watches rain clouds bypass his once-prosperous ranch.