Dust Bowl, and Grandpa Keeping His Job

My Dad told me a story about my Grandpa the other night.  I had heard about him surveying from the top of his station wagon, accidentally hitting his father in the head with a sledge while driving a fence post (and running like the dickens before he woke up), and some other family stories, but not about when he started with the SCS.

Grandpa worked for the Soil Conservation Service in Nebraska as a young man a little before and during the Dust Bowl years, plus a few years in California after that.  His dad, my great-grandfather, grew corn and wheat,

Dust Bowl storm, courtesy of PBS show Legacy by Ken Burns

which grandpa had helped with before striking out on his own.

Horse_plowing_wiki bw
Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

As soil storms began to rage across the land, the SCS was looking for ways to convince farmers to work the land differently.  Farming had started with shallow plowing when horse-drawn plows were all they had.  With their new tractors, farmers were able to plow deeply and get better crop yields.  They could completely turn the dirt, getting the grass on top buried, as they made cost-efficient, straight-line rows across their fields.  As yields quickly increased, and prices dropped, the race was on to plow faster and deeper to compete with other farmers.


So Grandpa’s boss told him that the SCS could not keep everybody working, since their budget was being cut.  However, if he could convince farmers in his area to plow on the contour instead of straight lines, he could keep his job.  This was in late winter, so he still had time to try to convince some folks before plowing began

Grandpa talked to his dad and asked, “Can I plow your field on the contours this year?  If it works, I can get some of your neighbors to do it and my boss will makes sure I still have my job.”  His dad agreed, and so he did.  They planted (my Dad can’t remember if it was corn or wheat), and the afternoon they finished, it started raining.  Hard.

Grandpa stayed out with a dim flashlight watching the furrow at the top of the steepest hill, near the house.  If it overtopped, he knew it would wash down the

Discing and planting on contours, Courtesy of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL)

hill, take out the rest of the furrows, and he would be looking for work.  Just as the water got close to the top of the furrow, the rain stopped.  In the next few weeks their crop came up and the neighbors watched as the seeding Grandpa did on the contours grew 3 times as fast as what they had planted

Corn on contours
Courtesy of The Des Moines Register

in straight rows on their hills.  You can guess, he was able to convince quite a few surrounding farmers to change their practices to plow on contours, and so he kept his job.

What’s this have to do with water rights?  Not a lot directly…but efficient practices that make better use of water can pay off and be more profitable in the long run.  Not to mention, it can keep government agencies and bank loan officers from demanding changes quickly, at a time when there may not be savings to get them done.

Chilean Water Rights at (darn near) the Driest Place on Earth

California seems like a big place to me – I live here.  However, to cover the land surface of earth would take 400 Californias.  There are other places of interest on this celestial ball, like Chile.  What’s amazing about Chile?  The following information comes from various sources and I have not fact-checked it all:

  • 1/3 of all the copper in the world is mined here.
  • Easter Island and its amazing, huge head statues are part of the country.
  • It is a very secure country for residents and tourists.
  • It’s in the Southern Hemisphere (I hope that wasn’t a surprise!)
  • The world’s smallest deer, the pudú, is from there.
  • The people are extraordinarily friendly to visitors.
  • It has the driest “non-polar” desert in the world.  Drier than Death Valley in California??  Yup, it is:  The Atacama Desert in Chile gets 1/25 (0.04″) of an inch of rain per YEAR on average.

It is that last fact, about the Atacama Desert, that makes an amazing story about water rights.  Amazing to me, and hopefully to you, too.

Map of Chilemap_of_chile[1]

In March of 2015, there were very unusual, heavy rains in the desert, and sadly, over 100 people were killed.  Several cities were hit with floods, including the place of interest for this post, the City of Copiapó.

Atacama Desert, by Evelyn Pfeifferimage

The ongoing, increasing problem is not floods, but lack of water.  Of course generations of Chileans have learned to live with that so they have water year-round.  However, recent increases in copper mining have required proportional increases in the use of water as part of the mining process.  (My mining expert friend Mark can correct me here if needed).

Ironically, in 1981, Augusto Pinochet, the formidable dictator, changed the water code so the government has much LESS control, so water rights are much more free market.  Not only can mining companies pay much more, up to $750,000 per acre-foot according to Copiapó city officials, but they can use water than runs on their own properties for free.  [An acre-foot is 43,560 cubic feet of water, or 325,851 gallons – 326,000 gallons near enough, and the amount used by 1 or 2 families per year.]  Given that mining companies have bought a significant chunk of farm land with water rights, that gives the companies the lion’s share.  The increased pumping and new city wells are pulling in more brackish or salty water, at the same time that there is much less water available.

City of Copiapó, ChileCopiapó_atardecer_de_Otoño (1)

In California, city residents might pay up to $4,000 per acre-foot of water, roughly speaking.  I know I’ll get corrected by more than a few people on that.  The highest-profit agriculture might pay up to $1,500 per acre-foot of water.  San Diego’s desalination plant that is being built right now, is expected to cost residents maybe $1,200 per acre-foot of use.

Thankfully, our State’s founders wrote us a good Constitution; it specifies that all water must be used reasonably and beneficially.  Human health and safety are the highest priorities.  Somehow, some way, water gets to 99.99% of people even in a severe drought.  In addition, California is one of the great breadbaskets of the world, even in a severe drought.  Folks, we are blessed in the State of California!  Go see some of the rest of the world, and it will increase your appreciation of our abundance of water, and even thankfulness for our confusing, multi-basis, and to some people “oudated”, water rights system in California.

Dunes of the Atacama, by Evelyn Pfeiffer

The photo above could be of the Anzo-Borrego desert in southeastern California, but it’s from the whole lot drier Atacama Desert in Chile.