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Saving the Good Earth: The Mississippi Valley Committee and Its Plan

by Harold L. Ickes

Secretary of the Interior and Public Works Administration

February 1934

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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.


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.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003