Wednesday, September 17, 2014

National Drought Mitigation Center

The Dust Bowl's Legacy

"I wonder if in the next 500 years--or the next 1000, there will be summers when rain will fall in Inavale. Certainly not as long as I live will the curse of drouth be lifted from this country." Don Hartwell, Inavale, NE 1937*

The magnitude of the droughts of the 1930s, combined with the Great Depression, led to unprecedented government relief efforts. Congressional actions in 1934 alone accounted for relief expenditures of $525 million (U.S. House of Representatives, 1934); the total cost (social, economic, and environmental) would be impossible to determine.

Grass tries to grow through sand near Syracuse, Kansas, in 1939.Grass tries to grow through sand near Syracuse, Kansas, in 1939. Photo by Lee Russell. (Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-034195-D DLC)

If the Roosevelt era marked the beginning of large-scale aid, it also ushered in some of the first long-term, proactive programs to reduce future vulnerability to drought. It was in these years, for example, that the Soil Conservation Service (SCS)—now the Natural Resources Conservation Service—began to stress soil conservation measures. Through their efforts, the first soil conservation districts came into being, and demonstration projects were carried out to show the benefits of practices such as terracing and contouring (for a discussion of the activities of the SCS during this period, see Hurt, 1981).

Warrick et al. (1975) note that the proactive measures continued in the years following the drought: conservation practices and irrigation increased, farm sizes grew larger, crop diversity increased, federal crop insurance was established, and the regional economy was diversified. Many other proactive measures taken after the 1930s drought also reduced rural and urban vulnerability to drought, including new or enlarged reservoirs, improved domestic water systems, changes in farm policies, new insurance and aid programs, and removal of some of the most sensitive agricultural lands from production (Riebsame et al., 1991).

Problems remained, but these programs and activities would play a fundamental role in reducing the vulnerability of the nation to the forthcoming 1950s drought. Although a larger area was affected during the 1950s drought, the conservation techniques that many farmers implemented in the intervening years helped prevent conditions from reaching the severity of the 1930s drought.

*Egan, Timothy. 2005. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Houghton-Mifflin

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