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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Historic drought ravaging Southwest


Meanwhile the town of Payson, Ariz. commits a 49-year
supply of potable water to a gated community's golf course


By Sherwood Ross 

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, leaving 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," JohnKeating, 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.”

(Sherwood Ross is a public relations consultant for
good causes who formerly reported for the Chicago
 Daily News and wire services. Reach him at
sherwood.ross@gmail.com)

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