From 1929 to 1940, the Great Plains experienced a devastating drought. Scorching temperatures, an over-abundance of sunshine, and dry winds ravaged the land. From the Dakotas to Texas, soils turned to powder and blew away. In those hard, lean years, plains residents experienced hundreds of deadly dust storms. The Black Blizzards threw billowing clouds of dirt into the atmosphere, blotted out the sun, suffocated stock animals, and inflicted a phenomenon known as dust pneumonia on the rural population. Untold numbers died from the respiratory ailment.
Human greed made that earlier drought into an ecological, economic and social catastrophe. High wheat prices in the 1920s encouraged plains farmers to plow-up subpar land in order to turn a quick profit. When the drought struck, the marginal soils – which should have never been put into production – went airborne with the wind. The parched and eroded regions of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Texas became known as the Dust Bowl. Boise, Oklahoma, sat squarely in the middle of the blown-out area. By 1936, portions of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles resembled the Red Center of Australia – with high sand dunes and the near-total absence of life. The Dust Bowl served as a vivid representation of what happens when farmers are allowed to pursue profit without public oversight.
History will show that human avarice played a role in the Great Missouri River Flood of 2011. The Army kept the reservoir levels high going into the 2011 runoff season to maximize the monetary benefits derived from the reservoir fishery, the hydroelectric generating plants, and the Missouri and Mississippi navigation channels. Thus, when the flood descended the river, the reservoirs did not have the storage capacity to capture it.
Missouri basin farmers plowed-up thousands of square miles of former Conservation Reserve Program acres to increase their profit margins. High corn and soybean prices encouraged farmers to convert grassland to cropland. In 2007 and 2008, farmers in Montana and the Dakotas plowed under 2,023 square miles of water-absorbing grassland. In 2009, nearly 800 square miles of CRP land in those three states went into corn and soybeans. More grassland succumbed to the plow in 2010 and 2011. The U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledges that CRP land “reduce[s] downstream flooding.” But this year, rainwater and snowmelt poured off the new cropland and into the Missouri’s reservoirs in unprecedented amounts.
The 2011 deluge stemmed from a heavy snowpack, monsoonal rains, and a capitalist ethos that enables farmers and Army officers to take huge environmental risks to secure great financial rewards.
The flood of 2011 inundated extensive areas of the Missouri Valley south of Ponca, Nebraska. At its height, the Missouri’s waters behaved in unpredictable ways. In some areas, powerful currents acted as a scythe, stripping farmland of all vegetation. In other areas, calm, stagnate water suffocated trees and brush. West of Onawa, Iowa, the Missouri burrowed deep holes into the valley’s soft alluvium. At Sioux City, the river dumped sand into the city’s harbor and filled the public boat ramp with muck. At the foot of Sergeant Floyd’s Monument, ten-foot high dunes now straddle both sides of the big river. Wherever the water went, plant life died. The Missouri left in its wake a denuded landscape – bereft of any vegetation.
Prior to the construction of the Dakota and Montana dams, the Missouri annually flooded in April and again in June. These floods came and went in a matter of weeks. Because of the short duration of the floods, vegetation had time to take root and grow after the floods passed downstream. Cottonwood trees, slough grass, and small willow saplings provided an anchor to the valley’s topsoil. But this year, the Army’s managed flood lasted longer than any previously recorded flood. It is only now coming to an end. Because the growing season is over, vegetation will not cover the inundated lands until next April, if then.
Hundreds of thousands of acres of the Missouri Valley from Ponca to Kansas City are now vulnerable to the wind. After weeks of high temperatures and cloudless skies, the once-wet land is bone-dry. On September 29, 2011, gale-force winds ripped down the valley from the Dakota plains. The power of the wind sent rolling clouds of valley soil aloft. A flapping white shroud of dust covered the valley the entire 100 miles from Sioux City to Omaha. Thick clouds of airborne silt hid the Loess Hills (pronounced lus, as in bus) on the Iowa side of the valley.
The Loess Hills formed during the last Ice Age from the wind-borne silts of the Missouri Valley. On this day, the hills were replenished with a thin coating of earth. At Omaha, dust swirled around the Army’s Omaha District headquarters building, home of the organization charged with managing the upstream dams. The city’s skyscrapers stood tall behind a haze of white loam. The occupants of the high rises bore witness to the unfolding of yet another consequence of the 2011 flood – the beginning of the Loess Bowl.