Views from the Secretary

Views from the Secretary
The nice thing about natural cycles like drought is that it gives a new generation a chance to learn some old lessons.

People have known the long-term answer to drought problems for thousands of years. Maybe now is the time to review some old lessons.

The first and most basic among them is that change is inevitable. It really does not matter if we long for the good old days of the early European explorers, or the Old West, or the excess rainy period of the last thirty years. Things change. Longing won't stop that.


Change is nothing to fear. Millions fear the climate is getting warmer. I don't because it is always getting either warmer or colder. People now worry about farms getting too big. Not too long ago the big concern in Congress was about farms being too small. Facts are supposed to change. When the polar ice sheets get close to my ranch, I might worry about that.

The principles on which the world operates, however, don't seem to change much. For example, one of the major principles in this part of the world is that you can't grow much without water. Drought is a good reminder of that.

However, we have the ability to water our crops above the amount of rain that happens to fall in a given growing season, if we want to. People have done it for thousands of years all over the world. It is called irrigation.

An acre foot of water is the amount it takes to cover one acre of land with 12 inches of water. Can you imagine what we could grow by adding that to our usual annual (as little as 14 inches in some areas) moisture from rain and snow? We could certainly avoid most of the impacts of a drought like this one.

You might think that is a huge amount of water, but consider this. Irrigators in South Dakota used only about 300,000 acre feet of water in 1995, applying only about 7 inches of water per acre as a supplement to natural moisture. While these farmers were using barely more than half an acre foot to grow food, golf courses in the Southwest applied as much as 6.5 acre feet of water to grow recreational grass. How many millions of acres they cover, I have no idea.

We know this for sure: irrigated land is worth two to three times the value of dry farmland in the central plains; water is worth money and sells for $500 or more per acre foot in the West; our culture has moved away from viewing water as a valuable tool for production toward viewing it as a source of recreation. Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with recreation as long as you have plenty to eat.

However, there may come a time when things have changed enough that production will again be a priority. I don't know if necessity is really the mother of all invention, but it is a wonderful motivator for accepting and adapting to change. Historically, the Missouri River Basin produces 62 billion gallons of water a day. The storage capacity of Oahe alone is 23 million acre feet. What should we do with it?

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