Why the Great Plains Are Dying

Mr. Conn is an associate professor in the history department at Ohio State University and a writer for the History News Service.

Much of the western United States has been experiencing a severe drought for nearly a decade, and the future only looks drier. One of the conclusions of the new United Nations study on global climate change is that wet places on the planet will probably get wetter and dry places, like much of the American West, will become even more parched. John Wesley Powell is rolling over in his grave.

Powell isn't a household name any more, but in the era after the Civil War he was among the most prominent American scientists and explorers. His expedition down the Colorado River became the stuff of heroic legend in the late 19th century.

But Powell was not simply an adventurer. Between 1881 and 1894 Powell directed the United States Geologic Survey. Based on his research he concluded that there were really two Americas, one wet and one dry, divided almost exactly down the middle, roughly at the 100th meridian. That unalterable fact of the climate, Powell warned, would force limits on the way Americans settled the West.

Americans don't like to be told that there are limits. The very idea rubs us the wrong way and it did in Powell's day as well. Yet then as now scientists were telling us that we faced real environmental constraints. Then as now the question was whether we were prepared to face those limits, restrain our use of resources, and re-imagine our national aspirations so that they were more environmentally sustainable. Powell's career serves as a reminder of what it ultimately costs if we stick our heads in the sand.

In 1878 Powell wrote and submitted to Congress his Report on the Arid Lands of the United States. It was a blockbuster as scientific reports go. Powell told Congress that if the West was going to be settled at all, the region would require an extensive plan for water management and allocation.

It was not what Congress wanted to hear, any more than Congress wants to hear that message today, especially not the expansion-minded politicians from the West who rashly predicted that their states would some day be home to as any as 180 million Americans. Rep. Thomas Patterson of Colorado denounced Powell as "a charlatan in science and intermeddler in affairs of which he has no proper conception." The bill to reconfigure the use of public land in the West that resulted from Powell's report died a slow procedural death.

Events proved Powell right, of course, though being right has never been a path to political success in America. Americans have a long and rich tradition of shooting the messengers bearing bad news. Drought hit the arid lands in the 1880s, creating the first large-scale farm crisis in the nation's history. "In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted," so the expression went at the time.

The rains stopped again in the 1930s and created the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl. Look at a map of the areas most devastated by the drought and wind of the "dirty '30s" and you'll notice they hug that 100th meridian -- exactly the region that Powell worried would be under-watered and over-farmed.

After World War II, farmers on the plains dealt with the natural cycles of rain and drought by pumping water from the Ogallala aquifer, a vast underground lake, to irrigate their fields.  It's the agricultural equivalent of paying your mortgage with a credit card -- the bank catches up with you eventually. In this case the water table under the Great Plains is now dropping dramatically, as much as five feet in a single year, and to what end? The plains are being depopulated; the nation's poorest county is now in Nebraska.

Meanwhile, suburban regions in the west continue to sprawl without restraint. It makes even less sense to water lawns and golf courses in the Las Vegas desert than it does to farm intensively on the plains. Yet they continue to sprout up, surreal, unnatural green dots on a tan and tawny landscape.

In the West, the region Powell spent a lifetime studying, no quantity of boosterism, or political grandstanding or individual will can create more water where there isn't enough. Denying a problem doesn't make it go away. Oklahoma's Sen. James Inhofe, who still insists in 2007 that climate change is a "hoax," is simply the successor to Rep. Patterson in 1878.

Climate change is no more a hoax now than Powell was a charlatan. We have paid a grievous environmental price for our failure to take Powell's warnings about water seriously. Perhaps we can learn from that failure and face the challenges posed by climate change by pulling our heads out of the sand.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

John Charles Crocker - 6/21/2007

One of the predictions of current climate models is that wet places will become wetter and dry places will become drier. Why did expression of this prediction turn you off? (I am unsure which definition of quaint you are using, as this prediction is not particularly old fashioned and all other definitions are positive)

The examples you give reveal a profound misunderstanding of basic physics.
In answer to your questions.
If the universe were compacting towards a "Big Crunch" it would not be an issue for this planets climate for several billion years. This is akin to being concerned about our suns destiny as a red giant. In several billion years the radius of our sun should expand to the point that it engulfs the earth at which point other environmental concerns will become mute. This is not a reason to stop thinking about our climate on shorter time scales.
It appears that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This has no measurable effect on our climate. Even if it did how would that matter?
By a real falling star, I assume you mean a comet or asteroid impact. These could certainly have profound effects on our climate and have done so in the past. That we might be hit by a comet is far from a rational reason for ignoring climate change on this planet and has virtually nothing to do with the topic at hand.

Astronomers (professional and amateur) are watching for large bodies with near earth trajectories. You have no doubt heard of a few of the near misses.

Do you have any real reasons for your choice to ignore the evidence of global climate change and its likely anthropogenic causation?

Vernon Clayson - 6/21/2007

Words, indeed, the first words in this article that turned me off was the reference in the first chapter to the United Nations quaint notion that places that are wet will get wetter and dry places will get drier. Yeah, the UN is a great authority on trivia, if they fiddle with that they don't have to think about real emergencies, war, for example. Mr. Crocker, you might think that the size of the universe, galaxy, etc., has nothing to do with environmental issue on this planet but I disagree. What would the results be if the universe compacts? How about if it expands faster than it does now? It seems to have not changed much in eons insofar as it affects us earthlings, but a real falling star even a million miles away could upset things, don't you think?

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/19/2007


Your love of this land and the people who live there is clear, and compelling. It is good for that to be part of this discussion.

One of my concerns of our carelessness with water resources--in the Plains, in the desert southwest, in any dry region--is that far too many decisions are made without regard to those resources. As you note, the farmers who broke the plains were well aware of the limits of moisture. Their farming had to conform to this.

But now it is quite possible for whole cities and numerous corporate farms to act in a profligate fashion and suck the commonly held richness of the aquifers up through their wells. And when the water level begins to get too deep they will look to have pipelines built to pull water from other regions to theirs. To the extent that their use of water has attracted new population, they will have political clout to accomplish this.

And I do not think that this would be good for the land, the cultures the land supports, or the country.

John Charles Crocker - 6/18/2007

When articles were being printed in the popular press about global cooling in the 70s starting with the 75 Newsweek article, their was not consensus in the scientific community. In fact the NAS report that year said, "we do not have a good quantitative understanding of our climate machine and what determines its course. Without the fundamental understanding, it does not seem possible to predict climate," and "it is only through the use of adequately calibrated numerical models that we can hope to acquire the information necessary for a quantitative assessment of the climatic impacts." The situation is quite different now. Those models and climate data to make them have been worked on for over 30 years since that time and we have actually learned a bit about the climate. The some popular press blew a climate story 30 years ago, so I will dismiss scientific consensus now argument is no argument.

"We are star matter and share particles of atoms and sub-atoms, and more, with all existence."
That we are made of the same building blocks as all existence does not mean that physics does not apply.

"Our most ancient ancestors marveled at the light of stars which had died eons before they saw them - and we still see them. Nothing to do with issues we face now???"

"the size of the solar system, galaxy, universe etc. has absolutely nothing to do with ENVIRONMENTAL issues we face on this planet."

See how one little word makes all the difference? Scientists should continue to study things beyond our solar system, but not if their primary goal is better understanding of our climate.

Nobody is asking anyone to live like a caveman. This is yet another straw man.

Vernon Clayson - 6/18/2007

Mr. Crocker, in the 1970's. before I became ossified in my current positions, the scaremongers were speaking of global cooling; I lived in western New York so I believed it. My small joke, not nearly as good as yours about the "size of the solar system, galaxy, universe, etc.," having "nothing to do with environmental issues on this planet." We are star matter and share particles of atoms and sub-atoms, and more, with all existence.
Our most ancient ancestors marveled at the light of stars which had died eons before they saw them - and we still see them. Nothing to do with issues we face now??? If that's the case scientists should cease their study of the universe, galaxy, etc., and figure how best to get us back to cave dwelling and travel by foot with their minimum pollution.

Joe Bridges - 6/18/2007

I wonder how many of "us" grew up on the Great Plains. I wonder how many of "us" followed the summer wheat harvest beginning in the Texas panhandle in May and ending in the valley of the Milk River in northern Montana in August. People who did not live on the Great Plains may think of cattle ranches, but that period ended in the 1880's and those cattle ranches became feed lots in the twentieth century. The Great Plains is about grass. Grasses fueled the Bison ecosystem before European agriculture introduced wheat. Wheat still remains the backbone of sparse human settlement in the Great Plains. The first settlers knew how harsh the environment was long before Mr. Powell's report, "in God we trusted, in Kansas we busted" proves that point. Those settlers came from the squalor of poverty Europe and the eastern United States, and they found the Great Plains a land of opportunity. The slow-paced, rural life of the vast expanses of the Great Plains isn't for everyone, but to say that human societies on the Great Plains are dying ignores the facts that the Dust Bowl didn't kill them, and that people who find value in wide open spaces instead of urban landscapes will never leave the Great Plains.

John Wesley Powell never made the Great Plains his home. He simply gave the opinion of a man who saw the world through the view of an American who grew up in the well-watered eastern woodlands. He didn't see value in the Great Plains, and many still don't. You won't get rich in a capitalist sense living on the Great Plains, but you'll never know the joy of harvesting a colossal field of wheat and watching a sunset over the rolling hills of a sea of grass. When will that type of human joy die? I doubt it ever will.

Carmelo Lisciotto - 6/15/2007

I agree

Carmelo Lisciotto

John Charles Crocker - 6/15/2007

My conservation measures by themselves will of course not have a measurable impact. Neither does my refraining from murder or any other crime significantly effect the rate of those crimes. This is hardly a reason to abandon taking personal responsibility for ones part of a large problem.

People in China and India are still per capita much less of a problem than Americans, though the gap is shrinking. If Americans are not willing to address the problem of greenhouse gas emissions it will be much more difficult to convince the Indians and Chinese to address the problem. If the US and EU limit emissions they will be in a position to demand emission limits on other polluters. Tariffs on goods manufactured in countries that do not meet targets could be levied and aid could be given to developing countries to provide cleaner energy.

I don't see that your age has anything to do with this other than ossifying your positions.

As long as we as a species are effectively trapped on this planet; the size of the solar system, galaxy, universe etc. has absolutely nothing to do with environmental issues we face on this planet.

Vernon Clayson - 6/15/2007

Mr. Besch, "humanity" is the only species that conducts "research", so the research will be as varied as those making up humanity, perhaps later some other creature will do "research" and come to a different conclusion. Your "six and a half billion people" are like fleas on a mastiff, the dog scratches one area on his back but the fleas elsewhere remain largely unaffected. A hurricane causes an affect on a small segment of humanity, the rest of humanity, except politicians and profiteer goes about their business. By the way, the largest boulder rolling down a hill is an insignificant event on this huge planet in this immense constellation in this immeasurable universe and perhaps there is something larger than that. Press on, indeed.

Vernon Clayson - 6/15/2007

Mr. Crocker, do you really believe your little conservation measures mean anything when there are billions of people in China and India who know or care little about their carbon footprints, to say nothing of a billion Muslims who care little about getting advice from Americans on how to live their life? Do your part if it makes you feel good but I'm an old man and have seen many of these futile movements come and go. This will pass soon enough and be replaced by other hysteria.

Randll Reese Besch - 6/14/2007

Six and a half billion people can make quite an imprint on the world. Especially if they are all wasting 25% as the 5% of the USA does right now. The massed populations of Inda and China need to be using the next level of cleaner,renuable,effecient technologies not the level zero tech of the fossile fuel age we are still in. Research has shown that humanity is the only known species that alters the ecosytem over any other known lifeform. We must work with nature not subvert it despite the accompaning effects as we are seeing now. Remember once the boulder starts rolling down the hill it is far harder to stop than tipping it over in the first place. Humanity also has the facility to ignore feedback and press on regardless.
Nature will adjust to the changes wrought as will we.

John Charles Crocker - 6/13/2007

"Mr. Crocker, unless you are in some position, political or otherwise, where you can affect some change the "we" in your argument is meaningless."
By this logic we should not make any effort to solve any problem facing our society or the world at large.

Each of us can act in a way to effect the world as best we can by minimizing our carbon footprints or by other means. The more people who take personal responsibility for their part of the problem, however small, and try to do something about it the better of we all are. The more people who approach this and other problems with the attitude you have outlined above the greater our problems become.

Re: wastebasket science
I fail to see the logic in dismissing all research because you think some of it is frivolous.
I take global climate change seriously because I have spoken with climate modellers and read several of the modelling papers and some of the literature reviews and the case is compelling. Have you really researched the issue or have you just dismissed it.

Vernon Clayson - 6/13/2007

Mr. Crocker, unless you are in some position, political or otherwise, where you can affect some change the "we" in your argument is meaningless. Even if you are in some such position you would be one voice against many and the many are more interested in maintaining their status than being concerned about "point and non-point source pollutions." Such matters are left to bureaucrats shuffling letters amongst themselves. Their interest and action is neither studied or serious, most of their "work" is no more important than you and I exchanging comments. You want to hear silliness, back during the so-called energy crisis of the early 1970's when we were advised to turn the heat down and the AC up as conservation policy, there were government entities that researched how much energy was being discarded in waste baskets. Some genius considered the worth of such waste against the cost of collecting it and burning it as fuel. And you take the current scare tactics seriously!

John Charles Crocker - 6/13/2007

You are no doubt aware of the difference between point source and non-point source pollution. Many small (often undetectable) sources of pollution can easily eclipse single large point sources of pollution. The smog in LA is an excellent example of this principle.

"I doubt very much that my little carbon based imprint, and yours, is of much significance in temperature variations in any part of this vast space."
Similarly, if you were to dump the waste oil from your car after every oil change in your back yard where you bury all of your old batteries and computer monitors you would not likely have a measurable impact on you local aquifer. If, however a significant portion of the population does likewise the aquifer would likely be spoiled for all. If these impacts are not managed then everyone suffers.

Likely impacts of global climate change if we do little or nothing will cause almost all of us significant discomfort and some of us much more than that.

That very few want to do without or even with less of their little comforts makes the problem much more difficult to address.

Vernon Clayson - 6/12/2007

Mr. Voas, Lake Powell is a long way from the Great Plains, I don't get your point. It might be news to some but the purpose of dams on the Colorado is to store water for periods of drought, it seems to be working. The Colorado carved the Grand Canyon over millions of years, chances are there will be ebbs and flows of water run off mountains for a few more years.

Vernon Clayson - 6/12/2007

Mr. Crocker, I do not lose sleep over global warming nor do I gnash my teeth over any other conditions that I have little or no control over. In a universe beyond imagination, a planet of enormous proportions, a continent of immense size, a nation, state and city area, all of bewildering complexities, I doubt very much that my little carbon based imprint, and yours, is of much significance in temperature variations in any part of this vast space. I've lived without electricity, running water, central heat and ready transportation, it's nice that you have the time and understanding to worry about such things as global temperatures but very few of us want to lose our little comforts.

Jeremy Brian Voas - 6/12/2007

Nice piece. It inspired me to check out the levels of the famed explorer's namesake lake. You can as well at http://lakepowell.water-data.com/

John Charles Crocker - 6/12/2007

The effects of global climate change are far greater than simply putting on or removing a jacket.

Your comments about the Great Plains and the Colorado River show similarly simplistic engagement in the topic.

John W Bland - 6/12/2007

Mother Nature gives the test first—and then the lesson. Survivors may retest if they choose.

Quoting Ste. Exupery (the Citadel/Wisdom of the Sands) by "memory": "Mistake by mistake we make our way . . ."

Vernon Clayson - 6/11/2007

I suppose Mr. Simonelli realizes it was time out of mind when the Sahara was a flourishing "garden of Eden", so far back in time that the denizens of the area were unaware of methods of land preservation and federally controlled land usage and allowed the desert to develop into a huge sand trap. He appears to believe it was overpopulation and abuse that brought about the Sahara but no one can know that, if only they had had groups like Green Peace and Hollywood actors and touchy-feely politicians to speak up for the land. Iraq has rivers, run off from mountains, that supports greenery, there is green space in Iraq, and it is far more likely that the so-called "garden of Eden" was supported by those same rivers, all in the same spaces seen now. The earth has its own pace and people have to adapt. If it gets warm, shed a jacket, if it gets cold, put one on. If there isn't water in the Great Plains, go to where it is. Complaint about desert dwellers and using too much water? The Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon through drought and floods, it's not likely to stop anytime soon. Nevada controls and conserves water, California uses it unsparingly, perhaps the ancients in the Sahara were like Californians.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/11/2007

I share Steven Conn's concern about Global Warming and the foolishness of people like Senator Inhofe who dismiss it so easily.

However, this article is more about climatic continuity that climate change. Areas centrally located in large land masses tend to be dry most of the time. If you overpopulate them, the tendency will be to overuse the land, overuse the surface water, and to dig deeper wells. The latter lowers the acquifer, which in turn reduces surface water.

Compensating for the overuse, requires an increased use of energy and the ability to import water. The Great Lakes has long been looked at as a possible source for the latter. However, the level of water in the Great Lakes is declining now, which puts a most practical stopper on that pipe dream.

Not even global warming skeptics should be able to ignore all that.

Alas, that does not mean that they won't.

James Jude Simonelli - 6/11/2007

Sadly prophetic. Once the Sahara, Iraq (so called Garden of Eden) were lush and rich in bounty. Now these places are desolate dust bowls. Overpopulation, over-eploitation and abuse of the Earth, history WILL repeat itself for sure in USA and elsewhere - whether we read about or or care about it. Mother nature has her own "command" structure.


History News Network