Why the Great Plains Are Dying

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 American 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 it 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.

Steven Conn is Professor of History and Director of Public History at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

April, 2007