One Drop at a Time: Current drought worse than the Dust Bowl

Published: Apr. 30, 2015 at 5:51 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 30, 2015 at 6:27 PM CDT
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LAWTON, Okla._The current drought conditions in our area are even drier than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

That statistic is according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service. However, conservationists say practices that have been put in place over the last 75 years have prevented this event from being quite as catastrophic. Southwest Oklahoma was hit especially hard during the Dust Bowl by overgrazing of stock and over-farming, which forced thousands to leave the state and their property behind.

As we continue our month-long series of reports on the water crisis, 'One Drop at a Time,' 7News reporter Kelsey Powell did some research on how the Dust Bowl impacted life in Southwest Oklahoma, and what's been done since then to prepare for droughts like this one.

During the Dust Bowl, the Great Plains, which was once covered with flowing grasses, turned into a desert, lacking vegetation for animals and terrible conditions for farmland.

"If you don't have water to feed your cattle and water your crops, you're in trouble. You're in trouble," said Oklahoma oral history librarian Juliana Nykolaiszyn.

Nykolaiszyn has an entire collection devoted to stories from more than 150 people who lived through the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma.

"Wind and dust blowing every day. It was so dry we couldn't even raise hay. Horses and cattle got so thin it was awful the shape that they were in. Cattle only worth a dime a pound. Hogs a nickel if a buyer could be found," Marvin Carnegey wrote in a poem.

Nykolaiszyn says there is a lot to be taken away from these Dust Bowl stories about what Oklahomans went through.

"They feel strongly about their land and their state. Oklahoma is their home and you can tell that they felt that way and their families felt that way because they did not want to give up their land no matter how bad it got," said Nykolaiszyn.

During World War I, before the Dust Bowl, grain prices were high and land was cheap, which often caused farmers to plow up as much land as possible in order to gain a larger profit. A lot of the land was put into wheat production, yielding a bumper crop or surplus of wheat.

The surplus caused wheat prices to drop from 68 cents a bushel in July 1930 to 25 cents in July 1931. That forced farmers to plant even more wheat to make up for the huge drop in price.

David Peters, OSU special collections and university archives department head, says that sense of urgency helped contribute to making the land virtually unusable. Many farmers plowed the soil too fine.

"One of the early problems with the Dust Bowl, of course, was that we had plowed up large areas of that region around the panhandle [of] Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas and that left the soil vulnerable to the wind, and so it was easily picked up and carried," explained Peters.

Another mistake, farmers would plow up their fields right after the harvest, leaving the ground empty until it was time to plant again months later. Peters said as a result of the disaster, a conservation specialist named H.H. Fennell helped lead the start of soil conservation efforts in Oklahoma in the 1930s.

"What Fennell began looking at was how to minimize tillage. So, he reduce plowing, so now you have more discs or other ways of preparing the soil. You don't try to bury all that vegetation. You try to keep as much vegetation on top as you can," explained Peters.

Discing simply loosens the soil for planting without completely breaking up the soil into a fine dust. Peters says in some cases there were fields that simply shouldn't have been used for farmlands. Soil conservationists then took action to bring the ground back to life.

"They did things like trying to collect native grass seeds and then repopulate those areas with native grasses, which were designed to live in those environments," explained Peters.

Peters says things like shelter belts were also created to keep soil from blowing away after fields were tilled.

"You don't see those as frequently now as you used to, but to actually plant vegetation in fence rows, whether it was brush or small trees or larger trees, but to help prevent the movement of the land or to try to capture the soil before it became too airborne and migrated off," said Peters.

Using cover crops, only farming certain fields and discing the land are all still farming practices that are in use today. Peters says Fennell believed it was important to understand that while we have no control over the weather, we can be prepared when it changes.

"There will be times of drought, there will be times of plentiful rainfall. There will be times of heat and times of cold, but we really have very few controls over the weather. So, we need to prepare for those situations," said Peters.

The drought in Oklahoma is currently affecting more than 1.7 million people according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.