the Good Earth: The Mississippi Valley Committee and Its Plan
by Harold L. Ickes
Secretary of the Interior and Public Works Administration
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 ideaa
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 landsexhausted 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 timeremote,
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.
New ways are being devised and tested
to check erosion which in the last decade laid waste to
30 million acres of American farm land
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.