I came across an article this week that seems to mirror the challenges we’re having today with implementing conservation practices in the semi-arid Great Plains, and the concern I’ve had that our agricultural leaders are not on the same page about this.

You can read the entire article in The Atlantic by clicking here, but I’ll just share that it features the work of John Wesley Powell, an explorer and geologist who tried and failed to stop the unbridled optimism and headlong land development that lead to environmental ruin and mass human suffering in the West, says author John F. Ross.

Ross writes that many stakeholders attending the Irrigation Congress of 1893 believed irrigation was the magic bullet for the nation’s woes. The congress’s founder, the former Omaha newspaperman William Ellsworth Smythe, would later argue that aridity was actually a blessing, stimulating the civilizing power of irrigation.

One speaker after another at the Congress extolled how new technologies would facilitate the irrigation of 572 million acres of dry public land west of the 97th parallel.

Powell was supposed to deliver a technical paper but pushed it aside and spoke extemporaneously and from the heart, Ross writes, drawing on his experience mapping the American West to describe the region’s inescapable environmental realities.

“When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the springs are used, when all the reservoirs along the streams are used, when all the canyon waters are taken up, when all the artesian waters are taken up, when all the wells are sunk or dug that can be dug in this arid region,” he warned, “there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all the land.”

The congress members rustled in their chairs, thoroughly confused.

“I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands,” Powell continued.  

Ross writes that murmurs turned to shouts, then the boos came. But Powell drove on. A society that could not contemplate reasonable limits would mire in the swamps of unsustainability—shortage, endless litigation, infrastructure costs, fallout from vicious water politics—each one a threat to the democracy, the article shares.

In the 1930s, indiscriminate plowing, excessive grazing and drought had killed off so much plant cover that the wind had simply stolen the region’s soil. Too many settlers had pushed the land beyond its capacity, just as Powell had predicted. The great Dust Bowl would displace some 2.5 million Americans and set off one of the greatest migrations in U.S. history, the article recalls.

Ross says the hardship has driven invention, with no-tilling, cover crops and grass belts helping farmers adjust to dry-farming conditions.

“Yet these technological innovations can act as window dressing that prevents us from tackling more fundamental problems. And human-caused climate change is by no means as easily rectified as the regional conditions that left the West vulnerable to the Dust Bowl,” Ross writes. “The playing field, moreover, is no longer confined to the arid American West, but must be seen as encompassing the planet’s atmosphere, its oceans, and its great polar icecaps.”

Not everyone really agrees with what is causing climate change it to happen or that mankind can really do anything about it, as they argue the Earth’s climate has always been changing.

What does ring true to me is the importance of local discussions about conservation efforts and preserving the Ogallala aquifer for future use. The author is right to point out the irony of Powell’s warnings, but endless thesis papers, lectures and books won’t get the job done.

We need solutions as the ground level, and no-tilling, cover crops and sustainable grazing methods ARE NOT window dressing. They are part of the solution.