A friend says her secret wish is for some very old distant relative, who she’s never met and won’t miss, to die and leave her a fortune. Waiting for rain this summer is a lot like that—only less realistic.
In what threatens to be our third virtually rainless summer, I watch the ten o’clock news religiously, waiting, for the weather. We pop a cork over hundredths of an inch 100 miles east of here, 60 miles west, just across the river, in a backyard on the south edge of town. When we’re lightly splattered on our back porch (it doesn’t happen often) we pick up what we’re doing, rush inside—and a dozen drops disappear in the dust. We feel guilty deepwatering our young trees, but haven’t been ordered to stop yet. We wait as long as possible in the spring to start helping our lawn along, and feel even more guilty about that.
People who have never lived in a rural area, or even in a city in a rural area, have a hard time imagining how anyone but farmers and ranchers are hurt by a drought. (Two early-morning New York City TV news show cohosts were kvetching recently because the city received 2½ inches of rain one day and was due for more the next.) The truth is that even New York, Miami, and Los Angeles will feel the crunch if the Midwest and Great Plains don’t get some rain soon. When there is no rain, crops don’t grow, which means many things: (1) people who eat food, a group that includes most of us, have less of a selection; (2) the food that is available costs more because it’s more scarce; and (3) there’s less grain to feed livestock, who are slaughtered younger, forcing up the price of meat. Range-fed livestock often run out of food, too, after several dry years, and must be shipped elsewhere to graze, or slaughtered prematurely, either of which forces up the price. Everyone spends a little less, because from the seed dealers to the business-owning public, less money is coming in.
The economic downturn during a bona fide drought makes people just plain cranky. According to some experts, the incidence of spouse and child abuse is higher during a serious drought than it is even during a long winter of stir-crazy isolation. We don’t, as a rule, have many murders or muggings in most parts of this region—a purse snatched from an elderly woman outside a Bismarck bingo parlor made the front pages statewide—but during a drought psychologists and counselors see an increase in patients who are having marital problems as a result of their money problems, or who are simply depressed. During an average day there may be little pockets of lightheartedness, to be sure, but the basic mood is one of suffocating lethargy.
A drought makes it hard to have fun. If there is a severe danger of fire, all kinds of camping and hiking are discouraged, if not actually banned. Fourth of July fireworks are outlawed. Lakes dry inward from the edges, leaving swimmers and boaters nothing but scum. Huge, man-made, 180-milelong Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota, formed in the 1950’s when the Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River 50 miles north of Bismarck, was released a little at a time last summer by the Corps. So was Lake Oahe in North and South Dakota. Why? So that Mississippi River shipping could continue (there’s virtually no Missouri River shipping). Owners of cabins and resorts on Sakakawea were forced to extend or move their boat docks inward more than 100 feet in some cases—and the systematic drainage continues this year.
(In addition to downriver flood control, one putative advantage put forth to North Dakotans for the 1950’s construction of the Garrison dam, which pooled Lake Sakakawea over hundreds of thousands of acres of prime farmland, was the provision of cheap, easy water for irrigation. Said irrigation never became a reality, and now, faced with also losing recreation, fishing, and tourism on the lake. North Dakotans are ticked off enough to start a hopeless lawsuit, with other upriver states, against the Corps. North Dakota Attorney General Nick Spaeth is reported to have said that while he couldn’t encourage people to revolt and take over Sakakawea from the Corps, if it happened, those involved could expect a full pardon from him. And former South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow has said that he’d rather fight nature than the Corps, because once in a while it’s possible to get God to change His mind. . . . )
Last December 5, huge and rather frightening percentages of North Dakota voters defeated measures that would have increased the state sales tax, gas tax, and income tax. At the same time, they defeated measures for video gambling, “health” education, a fine for not using car safety belts, retirement benefits for state legislators, and—amazingly, given the understandable “leave us the hell alone” vote on all the rest—the reorganization and streamlining of state government, which “The People” wanted but apparently thought they could accomplish more effectively as a 650,000member task force. Popular wisdom (from the groups who had supported all or some of the measures) had it that “The People” put their collective foot down solely as a result of several discouraging drought years, not because they were fed up with government meddling. Immediately after the election, many North Dakotans thought they could read the handwriting on the wall and started talking about leaving the state and looking for a job in Minneapolis/St. Paul or Denver. My husband and I thought about it, briefly, ourselves. A tangle of official, hurriedly formed “task forces” has begun to look at ways to rejuvenate the state, but , most folks who have chosen to stay here say all our problems would clear up if we just got a little rain, and they’re probably right.