When I was a kid, I used to get tired of hearing my dad say that no matter how much rain or snow had fallen, South Dakota is never more than three weeks away from a drought.
Out where we lived, just west of the Missouri River near Medicine Butte, he said it a lot. After we moved to town for school years, I sometimes wondered if the other kids in my class had fathers who said the same thing. I mean, these kids’ dads were auto mechanics and butchers and eye doctors and lawyers and insurance agents. Would they be the kind of people who lived with one eye on the sky and both ears tuned to the weather reports from WNAX Radio in Yankton?
I never asked any of my friends, not even my closest buddy whose dad drove a cattle truck from area farms to the stockyards in Sioux Falls on a regular basis. The question had Major League Nerd written all over it. I’d been pegged as a nerd about five minutes into my first day of third grade in town. No sense making it worse with questions about what dads told their kids, especially what they told them about drought.
I’ll bet farm kids had dads who talked about drought a lot. Out where we lived, rainfall and dry spells were always on people’s minds. It goes with the territory, you might say, and when I was growing up on the farm, the whole territory depends on rainfall for crops and for water in the stock dams and creeks. I can’t remember when I began to see center pivot systems in corn fields, but it was many years after I left the farm for good.
Like all of the neighbors I knew about in Lyman County, my dad and Uncle Frank were dry land farmers. They were awfully hard workers, and they were good at what they did. But they still farmed dry land, and whether or not a crop came in depended on the moisture that fell on the land. While Dad talked about impending drought a lot, he never, ever talked about a bumper crop, not until it had been harvested and sold or stored in the granary.
I’m not a Bible scholar but I know (probably from playing rhythm guitar in the pit band when the Pierre Players performed the musical “Godspell’’) somewhere in the Gospel of Matthew it says the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Out in our country, I can tell you drought sure fell on everyone alike.
I got to thinking about the old days of dry-land farming this week when I read the latest update on conditions in the Missouri River basin as spring moves toward summer. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers publishes an online river-basin update each week. It’s a pretty handy resource, not only for the immediate information about the river and its reservoirs but also for the links to past reservoir levels, discharge rates and so on. The Corps takes a lot of heat, a fair amount deserved, I suppose. But they’ve learned to provide a lot of public information if people will seek it out.
Anyway, the latest status report, released on Tuesday, said the total amount of water stored in the six upper basin reservoirs is 55.5 million acre feet. I have only a vague notion of how much that is. I know that one acre foot is enough to spread 12 inches of water over one acre of land. You do the math from there. It’s kind of a big number.
Present storage is down from a week ago. The Corps says: “System storage is normally increasing. However, system storage has been decreasing since March 23.’’ It also says April inflows to the Missouri in the upper basin are much below normal and mountain snowpack is below average. And it adds: “Severe to extreme drought conditions are persisting in the upper basin.’’
I’m no alarmist, but that sounds worrisome. My dad might say – well, no question, he would say - we’re only three weeks away from a drought.