A new, and irreversible, Dust Bowl looms

Out of America: The destructive power of tornadoes will be as nothing once the Great Plains' vast underground water reserve dries up

Share
Related Topics

As anyone who saw last week's images from Oklahoma can attest, terrible things happen above the ground out on the Great Plains. But, far down in the earth, where the 200mph winds of a tornado can never reach, a slow-motion disaster is unfolding. The water is starting to run out – and this particular disaster is not natural but man-made.

The Plains are one of my favourite parts of America. For most of us, they are fly-over territory, observed from 35,000ft as you speed from coast to coast, identifiable only by the brilliant-green circular fields created by central-pivot irrigation. Down at ground level, though, they have an extraordinary haunting beauty, a quiet boundlessness that, more than anywhere else in the country, evokes America before it became America.

But this huge wedge of land, half a million square miles in the middle of the US, is a harsh place to live. The winters are bitter, the summers relentlessly scorching, the winds ferocious. Here, where cold air from Canada collides with steamy air from the Gulf, with barely a hillock to separate them, the storms are epic and terrifying. On occasion, as in Moore, Oklahoma, last Monday afternoon, they can be deadly.

Gradually, though, as you move west towards the Rockies, "Tornado Alley" gives way to what is technically a semi-arid climate zone, where the rainfall is less than 20 inches in a normal year, and in a bad year next to none. But thanks to the water contained in a colossal aquifer called the Ogallala, left behind in the earth millions of years ago as the glaciers receded to the north, the Great Plains have become one of the planet's bread baskets.

Indeed, they've been exploited for their resources throughout recorded time: first, the bison, brought to near extinction in the late 19th century, then corn, wheat, cattle, cotton, oil and gas. The history of the Plains is one of boom and bust, where dreams seem to come true, before being brought low by Mother Nature or the markets. So it was with the 19th-century homesteads, lured by the promise of rich, unlimited farmland, only for utopia to be blown to smithereens by a collapse of agricultural prices, followed by the Dust Bowl.

The latter, too, was part of a cycle of years-long droughts that seem to afflict the region every quarter of a century or so. Naturally, lessons have been learnt. Changed agricultural practices mean that never again will millions of tons of bone-dry topsoil be blown from the ground to form the giant "dusters" that in the 1930s darkened the skies even in Washington DC. But the weather that caused the Dust Bowl wasn't a one-off. There were extended droughts in the 1890s, in the 1950s and late 1980s, and every sign is that we're in one now. In some parts of the Plains, less rain fell in 2012 than even during the driest years of the 1930s.

The fallback has always been the Ogallala, covering more than 170,000 square miles, providing fresh water when none arrived from the sky, enabling the irrigation of farms from South Dakota to the high plains of Texas. But for decades far more has been taken from the Ogallala than nature returns, even when the rains are good. Now it is running out and, once it's gone, there will be no replacing it.

The Ogallala was discovered by accident more than a century ago when a farmer sank a trial well and hit a gusher of H2O. By the 1940s, the aquifer was being drawn upon to support a rapidly expanding agricultural industry. Then, in the late 1980s, farmers in the southern plains, southern Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, noticed that the output of their wells was declining.

In the Plains' northern reaches, the aquifer is still in reasonable shape. Elsewhere, however, if water continues to be drawn off at current rates, it could be virtually dry in 25 years (roughly when the next cyclical drought is due). Even reducing extraction will only defer the inevitable. And, in northern Texas especially, the inevitable is already happening: great swathes of land can no longer be irrigated, forcing farmers to rely entirely on what little rain falls.

Water – or rather the lack of it – is, of course, not a new problem in this country. The American West has been fighting over the stuff almost from the moment it was settled. The transformation of desert oases into sprawling megalopolises made possible by air conditioning, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, has made matters worse. Tapped by half a dozen states, the Colorado river, the largest river of the south-west, now doesn't even make it across the US border, let alone to the Gulf of California, where it once emptied, 100 miles to the south.

But the Plains don't offer the sweet and sybaritic pleasures of the Sun Belt. There, today as always, boom and bust rule – and in recent years a couple of booms have put extra pressure on the Ogallala's water. The first was in biofuels, which created a surge in demand for ethanol, derived from corn, a particularly thirsty crop to which many Plains farmers switched.

Then came an even bigger fuel-related boom, the development of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", to prise loose vast reserves of shale oil and gas. For the Plains, the Dakotas and Oklahoma in particular, another oil boom is in full swing, akin to that triggered in the 1970s and 1980s by the Opec oil shocks. Soon, some predict, the US could be energy self-sufficient. A heady prospect indeed. But the chemical process of fracking not only needs water, it may also pollute the dwindling underground resources, hastening the day when the water is gone. But fear not. The Plains will still have tornadoes.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'