Dust Bowl Blues
A desolate field near Taiban, New Mexico, in June. Mattie Akers/Cabin Creek Films
Ed Moore’s ranch sits on the flatlands of the Texas panhandle, east of Lubbock, just outside the tiny town of Ralls. On a clear day, you can see for miles in any direction. Most days, however, the dust blows—and when it does, the sky becomes a dull orange haze and the scene becomes impressionistic. The high gray towers of grain elevators dot the landscape. Cattle graze in silhouette. Farmers ride through the gloom on tractors with vast “sand fighters” that gather the earth into big clods so the soil won’t blow away. It’s daytime, yet it’s dark—not as black as it gets during the worst of the dust storms, like those that tore through southeastern Colorado in the spring and the ones that swept across Phoenix a few years ago, and maybe not as bleak as the land-destroying Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, but nevertheless eerily subdued. Something clearly isn’t right.
In a typical year, the winds ease up in mid-spring, and the dust tamps down. In the past three years, however, as the rains have failed and the land has dried up, the winds have continued into the searingly hot summers. As they blow, the soil disintegrates, and what little moisture there is in the earth evaporates. The soil quality is now so poor that on the few occasions when it does rain, the next day’s wind simply blows the newly moistened topsoil away. Across the area you can see rows of cotton, black and dead in the orange earth—entire fields burned by the static electricity generated by the sandstorms.
Locals have started calling the storms by their Arabic name, haboobs—presumably a nomenclature brought back by returning Iraq War veterans. Lately the haboobs have been visiting themselves on the High Plains with a depressing regularity. They are no longer considered an episodic menace but rather a fixture of the landscape, the calling card of an emerging climatological crisis.
Moore, who was born in a farmhouse on his family’s land just north of Ralls, is 73 years old. His balding head is deeply tanned, his forearms mottled by the sun and wind. When he was a young man, he got an aeronautical engineering degree and headed to Seattle to work for Boeing. In 1971, however, his heart called him back to West Texas. It was, after all, the land to which his mother and her family had trekked in a covered wagon in the 1920s. Moore recalled being told that his mother, at age 5, had walked alongside the wagon all the way from Comanche, Texas, 250 miles away. They were lured to the region by the promise of cheap, fertile land—the promise that drew so many to the High Plains during the boom years that preceded the catastrophic onset of the Dust Bowl.
“This land, I love it,” says the old farmer softly, his eyes staring far off in the distance. “It means essentially the world to me. I want to make sure I take care of it and make sure my sons can have it. The only thing we worry about is the water supply.”
Last summer, the water table in Moore’s area dropped by about a foot. The White River Reservoir, which supplies water to four towns in the area, is at its lowest point since it was built in the 1960s, Moore says. About ten feet at its deepest, “it’s just pollywog water.” His two wells, which used to pump up to 500 gallons per minute, are putting out only about 150 gallons per minute.
Like the haboobs, water scarcity here is starting to seem like something other than a passing concern. It’s a troubling sign of a long-term trend, a problem exacerbated by drought but more complex than annual precipitation. After decades of overuse—tapping into aquifers and removing more water than nature could add back in, even during the abnormally wet 1980s and ’90s—the water-credit system in this part of the country seems to be running out. “We’ve used much more water in the last couple years than we normally would because of the drought,” explains Robert Hagevoort, a dairy specialist at New Mexico State University’s agricultural science center. Water tables have dropped quickly, he says, and as a result irrigated agriculture is under severe threat.
Moore largely uses dryland farming techniques, since there isn’t enough water to irrigate his fields. If it rains, he can grow crops and keep cattle. If it doesn’t, he can’t. “I like a challenge,” he explains. “Every day is different. That’s what farming is. Do we plant cotton? Do we plant milo? Do we fight sand? When do we quit it all and get on a horse and ride?”
The question is not merely rhetorical. As Moore and his neighbors confront the grim possibility that this year’s rains will again fall far short of the twenty-five inches he says are necessary, with dwindling underground reserves to draw from, they are simply facing the facts. “We hope the rains start up again,” he says. If they don’t, “these little towns will disappear.”
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