Nov 17, 2012

Dust Bowl Revisited | Grist

By Earth Policy Institute

Grist guest contributor

By Janet Larsen

On October 18, 2012, the Associated Press reported that “a massive dust storm swirling reddish-brown clouds over northern Oklahoma triggered a multi-vehicle accident along a major interstate…forcing police to shut down the heavily traveled roadway amid near blackout conditions.” Farmers in the region had recently plowed fields to plant winter wheat. The bare soil—desiccated by the relentless drought that smothered nearly two-thirds of the continental United States during the summer and still persists over the Great Plains—was easily lifted by the passing strong winds, darkening skies from southern Nebraska, through Kansas, and into Oklahoma.

Observers could not help but harken back to the 1930s Dust Bowl that ultimately covered 100 million acres in western Kansas, the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, northeastern New Mexico, and southeastern Colorado. Yet when asked if that was the direction the region was headed, Oklahoma’s Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese was unequivocal: “That will never happen again.”

In the early decades of the twentieth century, earnest settlers of the semi-arid Plains, along with opportunistic “suitcase farmers” out to make a quick dollar, plowed under millions of acres of native prairie grass. Assured that “rain follows the plow,” and lured by government incentives, railroad promises, and hopes of carving out a place for their families, these farmers embraced the newly available tractors, powerful plows, and mechanized harvesters to turn over the sod that had long sustained Native American tribes and millions of bison.

The plowing began during years of rain, and early harvests were good. High wheat prices, buoyed by demand and government guarantees during the First World War, encouraged ever more land to be turned over. But then the Great Depression hit. The price of wheat collapsed and fields were abandoned. When the drought arrived in the early 1930s, the soils blew, their fertility stolen by the relentless wind. Stripped of its living carpet, freed from the intricate matrix of perennial prairie grass roots, the earth took flight.

Clouds as tall as mountains and black as night rolled over the land. Regular dust storms pummeled the homesteaders; the big ones drew notice when they clouded the sun in New York City and Washington, DC, even sullying ships hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic. Dunes formed and spread, burying railroad tracks, fences, and cars. “Dust pneumonia” claimed lives, often those of children. People fled the land in droves.

In The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan describes the topsoil loss, how a “rich cover that had taken several thousand years to develop was disappearing day by day.” The sodbusters had quickly illuminated the dangerous hubris in the 1909 Bureau of Soils proclamation: “The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted; that cannot be used up.” The rechristened Great Plains looked like it would revert back to its original name: the Great American Desert.

When a series of dust storms reached far-flung Washington, DC, in the spring of 1935, a reluctant Congress was finally convinced to allocate resources to help stabilize the soil. With government subsidies and direction from the newly created Soil Conservation Service, practices were introduced to help hold down the earth. Grasses were replanted; shelter belts of trees were planted to slow the persistent winds; contour farming or terracing was used to farm in line with the natural shape of the land; strip cropping was used to leave some protective cover on the soil; and crop rotations and fallow periods allowed the land to rest.

While some of the Dust Bowl land never recovered, the settled communities becoming ghost towns, many of the once-affected areas have become major food producers. By 1933 wheat production in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado was slashed by nearly three-quarters from its 1931 high of 411 million bushels, taking until 1947 to reach that level again. In 2012, the wheat output of these four states exceeds 700 million bushels, a third of the U.S. wheat harvest.

After World War II, well-drilling and pumping technologies allowed farmers to tap into the Ogallala aquifer, a vast reservoir of water beneath the Plains, stretching from southern South Dakota through the Texas Panhandle. Irrigation expanded, with center-pivot sprinklers creating the green circles overlain on brown squares that are familiar to anyone who has flown over the central United States.

In recent decades irrigation has allowed the traditional Corn Belt to move westward onto drier lands. Kansas, for instance, sometimes called “the Wheat State,” harvesting one-sixth of the U.S. crop, now produces as much corn as it does wheat. The wheat is primarily rainfed, but more than half the corn is irrigated.

As extraction of the underground water has increased, however, water tables have fallen. The depletion is particularly concerning in the Central and Southern Plains where there is virtually no replenishment of the aquifer from rainfall, foreshadowing an end to the use of this finite resource. In the former Dust Bowl states, irrigation had its boom, but in many areas it is beyond its peak. With wells going dry, some farmers have returned to the more-common rainfed wheat farming, which typically yields far less than with irrigation; others have gotten out of wheat all together.

In Kansas the average drop in the water table is 23 feet (7 meters), but some farmers have seen drops of 150 feet or more have been reported. The fall in water tables is even greater in the Texas Panhandle. Statewide, Texas’ irrigated area is down more than 20 percent from its high nearly 40 years ago. Only recently, after the water table fell fast during the back-to-back droughts, have limits been placed on withdrawals from individual wells there to slow the depletion.According to scientists at the University of Texas at Austin and the U.S. Geological Survey, if current rates of extraction continue, irrigation over a third of the southern High Plains will be untenable within 30 years.

Beyond the farm, climatologists are making it clear that the recent droughts are exactly the sort of event predicted to come more frequently as the planet heats up. So rainfed crops are in trouble, too. Models agree that with the global warming in store absent dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, much of the western United States—from Kansas to California—could enter into a long-term state of dryness, what physicist Joseph Romm has termed “dust-bowlification.”

With soil conservation measures in place, when drought revisited the Plains in the 1950s, the mid-1970s, the early 2000s, and again in 2011-2012—when Texas and Oklahoma baked in their hottest summers on record—a full-blown Dust Bowl did not develop. But will the ground hold forever? The United States is by far the world’s leading grain exporter; thus the fate of the nation’s “breadbasket” matters for food prices, and food security, around the globe.

While our understanding of and respect for the soil is greater now than it was at the turn of the last century, erosion still exceeds new soil formation on most acres. The combination of higher temperatures, prolonged drought, and irrigation limitations turns the prospects for continued large-scale crop production on the Plains grim. In case going through the worst recession since the Great Depression was not enough to remind Americans of hard times in the country’s past, climate change and the pressures of population and consumption growth pushing farmers to produce ever more food on limited land will make it harder to avoid a repeat of history.

Nov 15, 2012

Ken Burns: Before Sandy, There Was the Dust Bowl | Mother Jones

By James West
Thu Nov. 15, 2012

The filmmaker talks about the worst man-made ecological disaster in US history, and what it teaches us about future climate catastrophes.

As the East Coast licks its wounds from superstorm Sandy, many in New York and New Jersey are still without power, wondering how on Earth it got this bad. Ken Burns, the great innovator of the American documentary, thinks this the perfect time to seek some wisdom from generations past.

His new film, The Dust Bowl, tells the story of the the worst man-made ecological disaster in US history. For it, Burns and and his team tracked down the last remaining survivors of the catastrophic dust storms of the 1930s and matched their intimate stories (most were children at the time) with lush archival footage.

When I caught up with Burns in New York City, he drew comparisons between what happened then and what is happening now—and how we can prevent future Dust Bowls and Sandys.

The Dust Bowl airs November 18th and 19 on PBS.

Hines Farm Fall 2012 Image

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Nov 14, 2012

Glenn Greenwald: While Petraeus Had Affair With Biographer, Corporate Media Had Affair With Petraeus

Guardian columnist and blogger Glenn Greenwald

Petraeus Affair Lesson: The Army Is Better at Planning Soirees Than Wars | Mother Jones

By Adam Weinstein
Tue Nov. 13, 2012


Among the many strange details emerging from the story of retired Gen. David Petraeus' affair with his biographer, there's this: US Central Command seems to have prepared more thoroughly for its military parties than for the war in Iraq.

News of Petraeus' marital peccadilloes came to light after Jill Kelley, a Tampa socialite and friend of Petraeus, complained to her FBI friend about receiving harassing emails... which turned out to originate from Petraeus' paramour, Paula Broadwell. Kelley, too, is alleged to have sent "hundreds" of flirtatious emails to another general, Marine Gen. John Allen, who's currently overseeing the war in Afghanistan.

Kelley's involvement in the affair has shed light on the military's robust social calendaring at MacDill Air Force Base, Central Command's Tampa headquarters. Tampa has long been known for its gritty night scene—its main drag of strip clubs is literally up the street from MacDill's gates, a straight shot north on Dale Mabry Highway—and Kelley was noted for hosting military VIPs during the city's pirate-themed springtime Gasparilla Festival. She also was a VIP invitee to the service's biggest party of the year, the annual Army Ball, in 2011. It was a party with an exacting military plan that might raise a few eyebrows.

Every Army officer is well-acquainted with the five-paragraph "operations order," the basic memorandum format in which military maneuvers are written up—from major war campaigns to small intelligence-gathering trips. But it might shock some war veterans to learn that CENTCOM's Army Ball that year was organized to the smallest detail in a whopping 17-page official op order with 13 appendices. Marked "UNCLASSIFIED," the memo details how CENTCOM worked with the Pentagon's Special Operations Command "to allow area Army personnel and friends to celebrate the 236th birthday of the United States Army and to promote beneficial public relations in the greater Tampa Community."

Under Section III, "Execution," the Army Ball's executive committee chairman—Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel—noted that "[t]here will be five phases of the operation." These included Phase IV, "Execution," and Phase V, "Recovery," in which the party's organizing team "salvages what resources are practical and usable for future balls, performs an After Action Review, and transitions the resources available to the 2012 Army Ball Committee."

Here's the thing: That's more planning and direction than CENTCOM put into postconflict reconstruction in Iraq. When planning for the war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, then-CENTCOM commander (and recent Romney adviser) Gen. Tommy Franks put together a slideshow presentation for President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, among others, that summarized their Iraq strategy. On every slide detailing every option for how to start the war, info on how the war would end—called "Phase IV, Post-Hostilities" in military parlance—was marked by a single word: "UNKNOWN."

Here's what that looks like:

Is it really possible that one of the Army's major combatant commands put more thought into its annual soiree than how to manage post-war Iraq? Of course, there were plenty of military personnel working on the Iraq question, even if their work never filtered up to the operation's slide-writing deciders. But as l'affaire Petraeus demonstrates, every good party needs a planner.

Nov 13, 2012

David Petraeus: A US war hero?

A scandalous affair has brought down a man referred to by many as one of the greatest generals in US history. But how successful have David Petraeus' strategies really been in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Until a few years ago, few people had heard of Petraeus. But in Washington DC, he has been long revered.

"If you ask the families of the 2,000 US service people who were killed in Afghanistan, it was bound to be a fool's errand. Or if you ask the people who were killed in Iraq unnecessarily, if you talk to the people who were tortured in Iraqi prisons with Petraeus looking the other way, you would get quite a different answer."

- Ray McGovern, an ex-CIA officer

He has been compared to the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, the man who led the allied forces to victory in World War II.

His counter-inserguency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan have been hailed as great sucesses.

And as he accepted his assignment as head of US central command in 2008, his boss at the time, Defence Secretary Robert Gates referred to him as "the pre-eminent soldier-scholar-statesman of his generation".

But his critics say, the legacy of his career is not that stellar and deserves far more scrutiny than the US media and politicians are willing to give it.

Earlier this year, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis released a whistleblower report on conditions in Afghanistan.

He said that Petraeus consistently gave glowing and inaccurate accounts of US military progress and that Petraeus built a so-called "cult of personality" around himself.

"A message had been learned by the leading politicians of our country, by the vast majority of our uniformed service members, and the population at large [that] David Petraeus is a real war hero - maybe even on the same plane as Patton, MacArthur, and Eisenhower .... But the most important lesson everyone learned [was to] never, ever question General Petraeus or you'll be made to look a fool!"

"There is a great irony in Petraeus' role in Iraq because the fact is that he never believed in that war in the first place. He told a friend of mine in 2005 that it was too late to try counter-insurgency in Iraq, that the damage had already been done ..."

- Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist

In his report, Davis was scathing in his assessment of US military commanders:

"Senior ranking US military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the US Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognisable.

"This deception has damaged America’s credibility among both our allies and enemies, severely limiting our ability to reach a political solution to the war in Afghanistan."

So, is David Petraeus really the American war hero he has been portrayed as?

To discuss this, Inside Story Americas, with host Kimberly Halkett is joined by guests: Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist and historian; Larry Korb, the former assistant Secretary of Defence; and Ray McGovern, a retired CIA officer.

Related links:
Petraeus out of step with US top brass - Asia Times Online 2007 article - General Fallon derided Petraeus as a "sycophant" and told him to his face that he considered him to be "an ass-kissing little chickenshit.”

Never did like this guy...  Monte & Eileen