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An Historic Drought Ravaging Southwest

An Historic Drought Ravaging Southwest

by Sherwood Ross
August 18, 2013

A severe drought in the Southwestern U.S. is devastating crops and farm communities---sending a warning about climate change, Sasha Abramsky reports in a prescient article published in the August 5-12 issue of The Nation.

“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...the soil disintegrates...(and its) 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,” the author writes. Sandstorms are now commonplace.

“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...sandstorms,” he adds.

These storms---dubbed “haboobs” by returning Iraq veterans after their Arabic name---”are no longer considered an episodic menace but rather a fixture of the landscape, the calling card of an emerging climatological crisis,” Abramsky contends. Some facts:

• U.S. Drought Monitor maps show virtually all central and western states suffering moderate to extreme drought. Despite the hard rains that fell this Spring in the east and north, the drought worsened in the west and southwest.

• 71% of America’s landmass has been branded a disaster area by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture(USDA).

• Arizona and Colorado are afflicted by forest fires of the ferocity that killed 19 fire-fighters in Arizona this past June.

• In 2011 and 2012 about half of the Texas cotton crop was killed by drought.

• U.S. corn, wheat, and soy production are all down owing to the drought. Corn production has dropped to its 2000 level, USDA says, and much of what is produced goes into gas tanks in the form of ethanol. As a result, corn prices are rising, leading to a general food price upsurge that is impacting poorer communities around the world that import from America.

• Aquifers don’t produce water as formerly; some areas haven’t seen rain for 18 months. “The water supply conditions we have right now are by far the worst we’ve had in the last 100 years,” New Mexico State University civil engineering professor Phil King is quoted as saying. This year only 163,000 acre-feet of Rio Grande water is likely to be released to farmers, an all-time low.

• And what water farmers can squeeze out of the land is becoming saltier, thus less suitable for growing crops.

• The U.S. cattle population has been dropping---down 10% in the last decade.

“As hay and alfalfa prices skyrocket in response to the drought, farmers are selling off animals they can no longer afford to feed...The tight supply sets up the prospect that consumers will pay far more for beef in the years to come,” Abramsky writes. In eastern New Mexico and the Texas panhandle, he reports, 20% of the dairies have closed and consumers are noticing the impact of higher milk production costs. And, because so few cattle were left in the area, Cargill closed its Plainview, Tex., beef-processing plant, making 2,000 jobless.

“The U.S. cattle herd is at its lowest level since 1952. Increased feed costs resulting from the prolonged drought, combined with herd liquidations by cattle ranchers, are severely and adversely contributing to the challenging business conditions we face as an industry," John Keating, president of Cargill Beef, told Reuters.

Ominously, the journal Nature Climate Change predicts the U.S. likely faces severe droughts over the next 30 years. And Climate Central climatologist Heidi Cullen says “the weather of the future is going to be more extreme. That means more extreme heat, extreme storms, extreme drought.”

“Just like in the days of the Dust Bowl, a way of life is under threat here, as are the livelihoods of millions of people,” Abramsky writes. “If the weather chaos of the past few years becomes a new norm, the stability of the U.S. and global food systems could come under threat---tightening supplies, (and)increasing prices”---as well as pushing American farmers off their land.

Farmers are seeing their arable land dwindle before their eyes and are ever more reliant on crop insurance payouts to cover basic operating costs. A farmer may have to shell out $20,000 or $30,000 to a private insurer for crop insurance, to insure the value of up to 75% of the crop. The private insurance firms are backed by the federal government which covers 60% of their costs.

“At the moment, farmers are surviving on grittiness, technological creativity and crop insurance,” Abramsky reports. “But the payouts are subject to the law of diminishing returns: each year’s payout is based on the average value of the previous ten years’ crops. Meanwhile, because insurance companies are disbursing record amounts to farmers, premiums are going up.”

P.S. While 57% of President Obama’s budget goes to the Pentagon only 1% of his budget is earmarked to help American agriculture.


Sherwood Ross is a public relations consultant for good causes who formerly reported for the Chicago Daily News and wire services.

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