The Ground We Are Losing

February 1934

Saving the Good Earth

The Mississippi Valley Committee and Its Plan

by Harold L. Ickes
Secretary of the Interior and Public Works Administration

THE "inland empire" is one name for the twenty-seven states drained by the river system that stands like a great tree in the center of a map of this country, its roots in the Gulf of Mexico, its topmost twigs across the Canadian border. This region, one of the chief agricultural areas of the earth, shared less than other sections in the late "prosperity" and feels with peculiar force the burden of the depression. Its problems lie deeper than financial structure or over-developed factories. They spring from the soil itself and involve the irreplacable treasure of natural resources. Though these states differ so widely in landscape, in population, in the variety of their crops, their common problems bind them together into a natural regional unit.

To give impetus and direction to the effort to deal with these problems, President Roosevelt recently authorized the setting up, under the Public Works Administration, of a Mississippi Valley Committee. Its chairman is Morris Llewellyn Cooke, a consulting engineer and an authority on power and public works. Its membership includes Harlan H. Barrows, a geographer, head of the geography department at the University of Chicago; Herbert S. Crocker, a civil engineer of Denver, Colorado; Henry S. Graves, dean of the Forestry School at Yale; Charles H. Paul, a civil engineer of Dayton, Ohio; Sherman M. Woodward, civil engineer and a professor at the University of Iowa, and Major-general Edward M. Markham, chief of engineers, US Army, ex-officio.

This committee has a dual mandate: first, to review all projects for immediate execution in the Mississippi Valley under the PWA; second, and this is its great task, to draft a plan for the Mississippi Valley.

This article is not a report of accomplishment, nor an outline of procedure, but a glimpse of what such a committee might and it is hoped, will accomplish. Sometimes when a bridge is to be built the engineer begins by using, instead of drafting-board and precision instruments, colored chalks to make a free sketch-lines which can be shifted and modified so long as the scheme preserves a logical relationship to its location. By this means the main outlines of the structure are determined though the detail is changed a hundred times before the final drawings are made. It is not a blueprint but a chalk sketch that is submitted here.

To try to picture twenty-seven states at once is a confusing operation. Let us begin by considering one Mississippi Valley farm and, viewing what has happened there, attempt to define the most urgent problems of the area.

A farm, that used to be known as Point Pleasant, lies in the bend of a stream in a Dakota valley. The square mile of land with the little river on its west and north sides, was made up, thirty years ago, of 520 gently rolling cultivated acres and 120 acres of woodland. Its artesian well gave a constant flow for domestic purposes. The fertile soil yielded twenty-five to thirty-five bushels of wheat to the acre and other crops in proportion. The woodland supplied fuel, pasturage for a herd of dairy cattle and sheltered the farm from the worst effects of blizzards, hail and dust storms. A water-wheel in the river filled the barnyard drinking-trough. The river also was used for fishing, swimming and canoeing in the summer, and ice was put up each winter.

Point Pleasant and what has happened there since the turn of the century is typical of the depression hat began, long before the "boom" broke, to creep over the Mississippi Valley drainage area. The well has run dry. The river, once a swift stream four to twelve feet deep, thirty feet broad, may be crossed on stepping-stones except for a few weeks in early spring. The woods are dead timber, rapidly being cut off for fuel, leaving the farm exposed to the full force of the prairie winds. The fields, instead of their once abundant harvest, yield ten to fifteen bushels of wheat to the acre. The farm's most important crop„the young generation„is gone, unwilling to face the life of hard, ill-paid toil and the lack of all modern conveniences.

On this farm, once beautiful and prosperous (and it is a story that could be repeated all up and down the Valley) "hard times" have deepened in the general depression, but their primary causes were a failing water supply, decreased soil fertility and lack of electric power which would enable the farmer to share in a rising standard of living.

Clearly the essentials in any plan for the region are the conservation, use and control of water, and, inevitably linked with this, the conservation and wise use of the soil. And while is desirable to have all PWA projects for the area passed on by one agency, the primary responsibility of the MVC is not projects but such a plan. The committee has, first of all, a coordinating function. It will not engage in research. Rather, it will gather together, correlate and interpret existing data, and having thus obtained a picture of the Valley, its assets and liabilities, it will be ready to prepare the blueprint of a long-term scheme, drawn in units of five-year or ten-year orts.

Paralleling the growth of the plan must go schemes for its interpretation. The MVC has accepted as a major responsibility the development of a graphic method of statement and interpretation. This committee does not propose to submit a learned report which will quietly gather dust in the departmental archives. "The engineering of human consent," to borrow George Soule's excellent phrase, is essential planning in a democracy. The MVC seeks ways of sharing its vision with the Kansas wheat-grower, the Louisiana planter, and making its figures "come alive" to them through their "sweet reasonableness." In drawing its plan, the MVC must, of course, determine how radical are the required if the goal is to be attained, and the cost of these steps in dollars and cents as well as their rewards in social terms; but it has also to show that the steps are suited to the technique of a democracy. For throughout the recovery effort, it must be borne in mind that it is one thing to plan and proceed under a dictatorship, but quite another where the rights of free people are respected. If the progress I hope for is made, it may be possible to have ready for the reopening of the Chicago Fair a bird's-eye view of plan and procedure.

AS a first step, the MVC has broken down its task, broadly speaking, into six parts: erosion, forestation, flood control, agriculture, navigation and power. Let us follow the Committee's lead in keeping in mind these factors and try to see their relationship to one another and to the central idea„a plan that will conserve and wisely use the water and the soil of the "inland empire."

Great maps have been spread before the Committee by the Department of Agriculture, showing land little suited or completely unsuited to modern farming. There are twenty types of these marginal and submarginal lands„exhausted acres, dry farming areas, rocky slopes, swamps and so on. Using a "planimeter," an instrument which measures an area, however irregular its shape, experts, are working out the total area of the watershed regardless of state boundaries and the amount of unfertile land and at the same time compiling figures from the census reports to show the population of the good and bad sections. The MVC has found that the population of the million and a quarter square miles making up its field of operations totals about 49 million. The percentage living in the less desirable areas is believed to be relatively small. If 3 out of 49 million people are trying to support themselves on exhausted, rocky or semi-arid lands, that is one problem; if there are 15 million, the problem would of course be different. The committee cannot begin to plan without such basic figures as these. For the same reason, an allotment of $285,000 has been made "for construction, repair and replacement of river measurement stations," to maintain reliable records of the flow of the Mississippi and its main tributaries. A recommendation has been made for an appropriation for studies of existing data on rainfall and "runoff," with particular attention to the relationship between the two and to the factors that determine the percentage of rainfall absorbed by the soil, as well as the percentage that goes to swell the Mississippi floods.

In the Dakota drought area, which takes in all or parts of several states, studies based on Weather Bureau records reveal fluctuation in rainfall from year to year, but no change in the average amount over the period since 1890. And yet the area shows progressive symptoms of drought: decreasing crop yields per acre, falling water levels in rivers and lakes, scarcity of bird life. The change, it is pointed out, is in the use of the water, not in its amount.

There are three unrelated water levels in this region, which geologists term the ground level, the gravel level (100 to 200 feet down) and the artesian level. The artesian level is a great sandstone bowl, approximately 1000 feet below the surface, which holds the water that pours down from the Montana heights. Many communities have tapped this water with driven wells. The story of such wells is in most instances typical of our national wastefulness. Pipes have been left uncapped, allowing water to pour forth continuously, with ditches to carry off the surplus not immediately required. The supply of artesian water is definitely limited, and an increasing number of wells are tapping it as other sources fail. North Dakota has passed legislation regulating artesian wells and prohibiting the waste of their waters. It would seem reasonable that no state which is not similarly safeguarding existing water supplies should be given federal aid in developing new sources.

Though some relief for water famine can be obtained by these deep-driven wells, agriculture's main dependence is on ground water. Devil's Lake, North Dakota, is one of the most dramatic examples of the recent disappearance of ground water. The level of the lake has been steadily falling since the region was opened up to settlement and cultivation. A hotel that some years ago was on the margin of Devil's Lake is now four miles from the water. There are three ways by which surface water is distributed. E. Kiefer, an agricultural authority of Burlington, N. J., has conveniently termed these flyoff, runoff and sinkoff. The sinkoff is, of course, the absorption of the water by the soil, the process that the MVC seeks to facilitate. Flyoff, the loss of surface water through evaporation, is many times more rapid with cultivated crops than with native (prairie) grasses. Once the sod covering is broken with the plow, capillary attraction draws the water to the surface where it evaporates. Various mechanical means have been suggested to reduce the flyoff that results from cultivation. Many of them are still experimental. All efforts to conserve ground water have an important bearing on soil conservation.

The problem of runoff is also the problem of erosion, the washing away of the fertile topsoil by wasted rainfall. It is well known that sod and woodland are nature's conservators of soil and water. The amount of water lost in runoff, the acreage despoiled by erosion, increase as we shift from prairie and forest to cultivated fields. South Dakota had over 3 million acres more in five crops (wheat, rye, oats, barley and corn) in the 1932 drought than in that of 1923. With none too plentiful rainfall in any year, consider the effect of accelerated evaporation and runoff on the added 5000 square miles planted to these crops.

.As a nation, we are not yet "erosion conscious." Twenty-five years ago, the late Prof. N. S. Shaler, one of the great geographers of all time, warned us: If mankind cannot devise and enforce ways of dealing with the earth which will preserve this source of life [the soil] we must look forward to the time„remote, it may be, yet clearly discernible„when our kind, having wasted its greatest inheritance, will fade from the earth because of the ruin it has accomplished.

The typical attitude toward the whole matter was expressed by a well-informed acquaintance who laughingly said, when I commented on our reckless misuse of the land, "If the Chinese have farmed their land for two thousand ears, I guess we can go on for a few centuries." He overlooked the fact that the soil to which he referred is an aerial deposit, accumulated through countless ages from 60 to several hundred feet thick and does not have hard-pan or rock within several feet as in our case. Our ills can rarely be measured in feet, being usually from 6 to 16 inches in depth. True, in China the soil has no organic matter in the deeper reaches. Further, the Chinese not only use commercial fertilizer but they do not waste a handful of anything in the cities that might be used for that purpose. With us, soil once lost can be restored only through nature's slow processes to be measured by centuries, not seasons.

The extent of our reckless destruction of the soil is revealed by Erosion Service estimates, which reveal that 3 billion tons of good earth are washed out of fields, pastures and temporarily idle land every year. To haul these 3 billion tons off the land and dump them into the oceans and valleys would require the continuous loading of a fleet of trucks, 6000 abreast, simultaneously every minute of every day and night the year around.

But this loss of soil is not the end of the story. Erosion and runoff work together in a vicious circle. Once the sod or woodland cover is gone, erosion planes off the rich, humus-charged topsoil leaving unproductive sand, stiff clay or rock. The hidden conduits of the soil, the veins made by earthworms and insects and plant roots are destroyed. In fact, since insects and worms exist on organic matter in the soil they do not penetrate to great depths in the subsoil. The subsoil is hard and smooth. Not being able to penetrate-the surface, the rainwater runs off, gullying the slopes and, in some regions, burying fertile lowland fields under sterile sand and clay.

In human terms, the tragedy of erosion is the tens of thousands of hard-working families trying to till land that cracks and bakes, and gives meager yields of poor crops in return for weary toil. The homes of these farmers and the yards around them bear the unlovely stamp of poverty. Men and women and children live narrow, dreary lives on these farms that have been despoiled of both soil and water by our prodigal misuse of the land. No one unless he personally has gone off the beaten paths can have any conception of the existing deplorable conditions. In the last ten years, more than 30 million acres of American farmland have been abandoned because of erosion. If an enemy army with big guns and trenches laid waste these once fertile farms we would be filled with horror and dismay. But since it was done by our carelessness in letting rainwater run wild, for some strange reason it strikes us as nothing to worry about.

With an allotment of $10 million from the PWA, the Erosion Service, recently established in the Department of the Interior, is laying out several impressive projects, working whole watersheds of 100,000 acres or more, employing every practical erosion-control measure that conforms to the needs and nature of the land. Farmers who will cooperate with the Erosion Service are to be given CCC aid. The Service will not only apply the best methods known, but will devise and experiment with new methods.

In almost every instance, an attack on erosion is also an attack on drought. "Contour plowing" follows the levels of the land, making ridges that hold the water instead of channels to carry it away. "Strip farming" puts narrow fields of sod crops-alfalfa, clover and the like-between such crops as corn, tobacco and cotton, conserving both moisture and topsoil. Fertile slopes can often be terraced to good effect. A field in Texas with a 2 percent grade (almost level) lost 42 tons of topsoil in a single year. Terracing reduced the next year's loss to 19 tons, while a sod field (Buffalo grass) alongside lost only 7 tons. The Erosion Service demonstrations will, it is believed, serve not only as laboratories for testing and devising methods of erosion control, but as convincing educational centers, teaching the importance of conserving our soil and water and the ways and means of fulfilling that great responsibility.

Forestry, which includes the management of existing wooded areas as well as forestation, must hold a big place in any plan for the Mississippi Valley. Forests not only prevent erosion, but by checking runoff in flood periods and increasing the underground water supply, they save the surface water for thirsty farm lands. A first report on forests in relation to water conservation and control has been prepared by Henry C. Graves of the MVC. This report shows that there are left about 250,000 square miles of forest land in the Valley, more than 10 percent of it already stripped or devastated. A little less than half the total is in farm ownership, only 27,000 square miles are public property and the balance is commercially owned The report points out that "the forests have been greatly impaired by cutting, fire, insects, grazing and other destructive agencies." It makes clear the need for an enlarged program of forest-fire protection, and also for the regulation of grazing, "since heavy grazing of forests reduces their value in watershed protection." Though grazing is well managed in public forest reservations, much damage is done by overgrazing in private forests and on the public domain. There are still some 20 million acres of public domain within the Valley. Most of the conservation groups in the country opposed the recommendation of the committee appointed by President Hoover in 1930 which, if adopted, would have transferred this entire acreage to the states. A proposal to place the public grazing-land under federal control, prepared and endorsed by the Departments of the Interior and of Agriculture is contained in H.R. 6462, now before Congress.

LITTLE progress has been made in the handling of private forests. "Commercial timberlands are nearly all cut under the old system of unregulated exploitation." The result is not only destruction of the forests, but soil erosion and drought. The code of the Lumber and Associated Forest Industries contains an article, the details of which are being worked out, committing the industry to proper and intelligent forest practices. This holds a real measure of promise.

Accompanying the committee's first forestry report are maps which show where forests used to be and their extent today. Clearly it would not be advisable to put back to forest s all the land that was once grown estimate indicates that for every 100 trees in the Valley today we must add 20. In making a forestry plan, we have got to think at least in terms of a 20-year program. Among the questions Mr. Cooke and his associates have posed are: How many seedlings do we need year by year? What varieties should they be? Where are we going to get them? Where can they best be grown? For, as Mr. Cooke points out, Any progress in forestation in such an area runs into big figures. You can plan all you want to, but your planning for new forests is no good unless you have the trees to plant, the men to set them out, to supervise their growth, to protect them from fire, to cut and replant as forestry experts, conscious of public responsibility, rather than as lumber dealers, out for big profits.

Closely related to erosion, to surface runoff, to forestry is flood control, the most dramatic problem of the Mississippi Valley. The flood menace is dramatized in the broken levees of the lower Mississippi, but the real flood is a thousand miles north, where the water runs off the fields of Illinois and Iowa. We have tried to "control" the flood waters of the Mississippi by having our Army engineers build the levees higher and still higher in the effort to restrain our wasted water. But the levees have reached their limit as an engineering possibility. Now we must attack the real problem of flood control. We must reverse our practice and prevent floods. This attack is necessary not only to safeguard the plantations and towns of the lower Mississippi, but to save wide areas from the blight of erosion and drought. There are water supplies on every farm, from the Canadian border to the Gulf, that have simply been poured into the Mississippi and its tributaries. These must be dammed and held where they are needed„the streams that flow through ravines and coulees when the snow melts or when there is an unusually heavy rain, the ponds that collect in low places which we have emptied with "drainage ditches." We must go back and fill up a lot of these ditches that carry off both water and topsoil, and we have got to preach the gospel of using the water we have, particularly in low-rainfall areas, not making of it a flood menace for the Delta.

Like our handling of water and our treatment of topsoil, the distribution of farm-land in this country and the uses to which it is put show little evidence of "the American genius for organization." The homesteads and "land drawings" in the North Central states, the glamor and excitement of the "rush" for "locations" when the Cherokee Strip was thrown open, have been typical of our hit-or-miss agricultural development. It is the policy of this administration not to allow a new piece of land to be brought under cultivation through reclamation without withdrawing an area of less desirable acres of equivalent productive capacity. It is with this policy in mind that irrigation and other reclamation projects are studied today. The shift is to be not a restless moving from old land to new, but a change from less desirable to more desirable farming-land. Thousands of acres in the South and Midwest should clearly be put back to forests or otherwise taken out of farming use. Turning under every third crop row is a temporary expedient. Turning land equivalent to every other half-section back into woods would encourage better methods of agriculture, contribute to the upbuilding of the Valley and provide new employment opportunities in scientific forestry.

The time has come when we must take to heart the lessons of the wise and economical agriculturalists of Europe and of the older American civilizations. The careful Danes and Belgians, the French farmers who for seven hundred years, father to son, have tilled and genuinely improved their small farms, the Incas who so wisely treasure their meager water supply and spade back the topsoil that rain washes into the hedges„these husbandmen are all more skilled than we in the great arts of agriculture. We must recognize erosion and drought as national perils, and the need to plan in terms of decades rather than months.

I remember talking with an expert who had been studying the gypsy moth. He showed me his charts and tables and described how, through the methods he and his associates had developed, the pest had been brought under control. True, there was a long, uphill fight ahead. The number of moths would continue to increase year by year for fifteen years, but the final extinction of the gypsy moth was assured. "We have the thing licked," he said triumphantly.

Similarly, facing the realities of the situation and accepting the long-term struggle, we have got to lick erosion. It is fortunate that we have as our national leader today a man who is fully alive to the problems of agriculture and forestry. I am firmly convinced that the backbone of the Republic will be broken before the century is out unless we formulate and put in motion such plans as he envisages for the wise upbuilding of the farm areas. President Roosevelt has given force and direction to all these efforts. He may well be honored by succeeding generations as "the man who saved the land."

The use of the water of the Mississippi Valley for navigation as well as for agricultural and domestic purposes is a part of the plan being shaped by the MVC. In a preliminary way, the committee using data supplied by the Army engineers to make a map showing the flow of the navigable streams of the area and the movement of local and long-distance river traffic. Inland navigation projects to date have been isolated, related neither to one another nor to any coordinating scheme. The "Smith Report" on the railroads suggested the need for comparative data on dollars-and-cents cost of different means of transportation, and Joseph B. Eastman, federal railroad coordinator, is directing studies along this line. It must be remembered, however, that social as well as financial values are involved, and that the type of transportation facilities to be developed in a given locality cannot be determined by money outlay alone. Even so, some fair basis for computing costs is needed.

Another aspect of inland navigation that must be squarely faced is the day-dreaming of many communities situated on rivers we have termed navigable. On many small streams which thread the Mississippi watershed there are towns and cities that look forward to having foreign vessels tie up at their docks. Luncheon-club speakers continue to paint glowing pictures of the activity (and the profits) that will be enjoyed by local enterprises when French and English freighters load and unload at Smithtown or Jonesville. The persistence of such fantasy accounts in some measure for the unsavory pork-barrel character of many of our rivers and harbors appropirations in past years.

In fitting a scheme for river navigation into a vast plan for the Mississippi Valley, the committee recognizes not only the need for railroad and river data, but for facts on highway traffic. All transportation is affected by the coming of pneumatic-tired trucks, long-distance hauling over highways that can be lightly and hence quickly and cheaply built and maintained.

In modern American life, streams probably play a more important part in developing electric power than they do in their ancient role as highways. Even a cursory study of the Mississippi Valley discloses the need to bring electricity to the largest possible percentage of its rural population. In comfort and convenience as well as efficiency, farm living is heavily penalized by lack of this modern Aladdin's lamp. A water pump„to make possible the kitchen sink and the bathroom that the city-dweller takes for granted„electric lights, relief from household drudgery by electric-washing-machine, electric iron and mangle, mechanical refrigeration, electric churn, a continuous supply of hot water„these are only a few of the means to easier and more satisfactory living that electricity could bring to the farm home. And if Ireland, Bavaria, Alsace. Lorraine, Norway and Ontario can take cheap electric current to the farms, then the farmers of the United States can have these modern conveniences too. In the Middle-west, where "hard times" have forced severe economies, the well-equipped farm has usually given up the telephone before turning off its home-made (and relatively expensive) electric lights. This fact often surprises city people, but it surprises no one who knows at first hand the danger and inconvenience of kerosene lamps in an isolated farm home, particularly a home where there are little children.

At present, rural electric rates are almost prohibitive. President Roosevelt is leading the effort not only to make cheap current more widely available, but to lower the cost of its distribution and of the electrical appliances needed for its functioning.

The dominant factor in rural rates has been the cost of the distribution lines. In a city there are thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of domestic customers per mile of line; in a farming country there are almost never more than five. This fact has heretofore made distribution costs prohibitive. Today we can put in pole lines at unprecedentedly low costs for materials, with plenty of local labor available.

President Roosevelt recently set going another experiment in the farmer's behalf when, by executive order, he directed the establishment of the Electric Home and Farm Authority, Inc. This Delaware corporation with capital of a million dollars will extend "cheap credit" to householders within the Tennessee Valley area who wish to purchase electric equipment. The plan is to encourage large orders for appliances which, eliminating unnecessary "gadgets," will be designed for maximum performance and wear. In a press statement, David Lilienthal of the TVA thus explained the program of the new corporation, a scheme that can easily be extended to other areas: The objective . . . is a wider and greatly increased use of electricity in the homes and on the farms.... In order to carry out the program there must be a broad-scale distribution of very low cost, standard quality electricity-using appliances, and concurrently a revision downward of electric rates. The new agency is based on a cooperative program in which the federal government, the electric utilities, both publicly and privately owned, the electric manufacturing industry and dealers will participate.

The federal government, he stated, will participate: By assisting in financing the consumer in purchasing standard electric equipment at very low prices; by securing reductions in electric rates . . . so as to make the use of this equipment feasible for the average householder and farmer, by engaging in educational work and research further to lower the cost of electric equipment and to make it better adapted to the needs of the average home and farm.

The enormous demand for refrigerators, washing-machines, plumbing fixtures, water pumps, electric irons, sewing-machines and so on that will follow should such conveniences actually be put within reach of householders and farmers now lacking them will, many enthusiasts believe, give industry a "boost" similar to that supplied by the expansion of the automobile industry after 1920. But to many of us, and I think that group includes the President, to bring farm and village homes up to a higher standard of wholesome and comfortable living, looms even more important than an increase in business activity. If any such dream is to become a reality, it will be under government leadership and supervision, insuring a development planned and carried out with advantage to the consumer, rather than to the power companies, as the first objective.

In this quick chalk sketch, I have tried to show not the details but the broad outlines of what this vast regional plan will cover, how it will attempt to correlate the common. problems of these twenty-seven states, and the most promising lines of effort for solving them. Like the bridge-builder's profiles of the setting for his bridge, the shape and direction of the committee's work is determined by those first essentials for the Mississippi Valley„the conservation, use and control of its water, and, linked with that, the conservation and use of its soil.

But I shall have failed in the task I set myself in attempting to show how vital is planning to navigation, flood control, erosion, agriculture, power and forestation, unless I have at the same time shown the larger considerations that called the committee into being and that inspire its own effort and the effort of all the governmental agencies cooperating with it, or working along similar lines in other areas. Here we have the reverse of private industrial planning. Here, within the framework of a democracy, we have a tremendous common effort toward a better distribution of the products of our Machine Age, a striving for social as well as economic dividends, for a better basis of life for the men and women of the Mississippi Valley and for their children.





Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the Thirties