Let’s talk about the Dirty ’30s and a similar urban/rural divide I see today.

A lot of rural and small town areas of the United States suffer today, though not to the degree they did in the 1930s. The issues now include lack of jobs and opportunity, opioid addiction, and an economy that leaves people behind — a stark difference to the near-starvation faced on the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl. I see a lot of parallels to today, though.

Often, drillers — particularly water well drillers — live in and serve these areas. Jobs, opportunity and hope can come in short supply in vast, rural parts of the U.S. It’s tough finding people to work. Young people move away for college or jobs. They don’t want to stay in the small town to take over the family business. The more who leave, the higher the burden for those who stay. The spiral continues, just like decades ago during the Dirty ’30s. 

Settling down the Dust Bowl took broad-based changes to farming in the Great Plains, but it also took drillers shifting from wildcatting to water. It took rural areas forcing other parts of the States to recognize their plight. It took cooperation from everyone to make a region with little hope viable again.

A Little History

I don’t recall the term “Dirty ’30s” from grade school. I knew it simply as the Dust Bowl. The Great Plains had supported Native American tribes for hundreds of years. They lived on buffalo that, in turn, lived on prairie grasses. U.S. government treaties and policy drove Native Americans from the land, and buffalo were slaughtered by the millions. Incentives in the mid to late 19th century brought settlers by the thousands on the promise of cheap land. Those settlers turned over millions of acres of grass, which had held the soil down. Grain prices crashed. The Great Depression and years of drought came along. Before you knew it, the Great Plains were airborne in vast dust storms.

All the U.S. suffered during the Great Depression, but the epicenter of misery fell on areas of the southern Plains, in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. People went years without a dollar and the area turned into a sand-blasted lunar landscape. Some months, dust storms in the dozens terrorized small farming towns. People coughed and hacked with “dust flu.” Some survived on pickled tumbleweeds.

Back to the Present

Now, we’re far from a Great Depression and, as far as I know, rural Americans haven’t again resorted to eating tumbleweeds. But there’s undeniably a crisis affecting large swaths of the U.S., and a lot of urban and suburban Americans don’t see it (or, at least, don’t experience it in the same visceral way).

I thought about this after a recent interview I did about groundwater policy. A story in last month’s issue (“The Big Picture,” February 2019) talked about lawmakers — mainly urban or suburban folks — being surprised that parts of America suffer from water scarcity. This and other issues, like the opioid epidemic, broadly affect rural areas: small towns with small tax bases. Small towns can dry up if a well fails, a major employer leaves, or a lot of people take themselves out of the workforce due to addiction or depression. But the size of these towns is not indicative of their importance, or of the value of the people there.

And some urban and suburban folks don’t keep that value in perspective. In the 1930s, it took dust storms blanketing New York and Washington, D.C., before the problems of the Great Plains became America’s problems. Industry groups do their part to talk about groundwater, trade skills and other issues important to rural America. National Driller tries to do its part. Are you?

What do you think? Have you had to explain the groundwater industry to city folks brought up on connected water? Do you see an urban/rural divide in your own family? Talk to me. Send an email to verduscoj@bnpmedia.com.

Stay safe out there, drillers.