Woster: Wishing for enough rain to raise the flows on the Missouri

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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Christmas Eve is just four weeks away, and maybe we should all put plentiful moisture on our wish lists.

It’s plumb dry across South Dakota. It is dry all the way up the Missouri River basin, too, from the looks of the Corps of Engineers’ reports on reservoir levels and river flows. And, while some meteorologists and climatologists talk about moisture to come during the winter, I worry whether future snow and rain will be enough to keep farm crops growing and other water-based pieces of the economy working.

Last week’s drought monitor showed all of South Dakota in at least an abnormally dry condition. More than 90 percent of the state was listed as in moderate drought, nearly 40 percent was in severe drought and 13 percent was in extreme drought. There is no good way to spin those numbers.

I grew up on a farm, well before anyone in our parts had considered irrigation. I only knew dryland farming. I may not have paid attention to the details of farming, but I knew what drought did to crops in the field, to grass in the pastures and to stock dams that our cattle depended on for drinking water.

The first time I read the opening pages of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,’’ about the depression years, I identified with his descriptions of how the earth fell apart without moisture. He described how rains slowed and stopped, how clouds quit forming, how leaves on stalks of corn grew brown and brittle and how the very ground dried to dust, with gaping cracks where moist soil ought to have been.


Here is just one short passage: “During a night, the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.’’

Ever since the drought of the 1930s, every dry spell out where I grew up has been measured against that period of our nation’s history. If sufficient moisture fails to come through the snows of winter and the rains of spring, we could be measuring another such dry spell against the worst one either of my parents ever knew.

In some parts of the nation, too much rain has fallen. Folks in those places would gladly trade us several inches of rain, if only nature worked on a barter system. Just recently, five and six feet of snow fell on some parts of New York state. I imagine folks shoveling out from that onslaught would trade a few snowstorms through the winter. It does not work that way, either.

Meanwhile, the Missouri River’s upper basin continues to slowly lose its water. I started paying attention to the behavior of the river back in the late 1960s. One of my daily duties with the wire service was to gather the reservoir readings from Oahe Dam north of Pierre. I grew interested in the ups and downs and began to check the other reservoirs – Fort Peck in Montana, Garrison in North Dakota and Oahe, Big Bend, Fort Randall and Gavin’s Point in my home state. It is fascinating to see how snow in the Rockies and across the plains of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota refreshes the entire river basin.

These days, the big reservoirs are low. So are the flows from upstream. The drought monitor shows dry conditions along the river basin as far as the mountains. Oahe, for example, is 30 feet below full. The amount of water it would take to bring it back to the top is almost unimaginable. Other reservoirs are in similar condition.

Since the dams were built, the river has been lower than it is now. It has been higher, too. Neither situation made many people happy.

I’m not going to wish for record amounts of moisture. I would sure like enough to fill the cracks in the ground and raise the flows on the Missouri. If I get that, I won’t even ask for new socks or an argyle sweater.

Related Topics: TERRY WOSTER
Opinion by Terry Woster
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