|Drought conditions throughout the U.S. Source: droughtmonitor.unl.edu|
Debates still persist about the impact of climate change, but from my perspective, the early results are in. We are now reaching the point where cities, metro areas and states will have to consider taking bold and assertive measures to even maintain their current quality of life levels. And we are also reaching the point at which alternate futures for our cities must be considered.
That future could very well mean fewer people in the dry West and coastal areas of the East and South, and more people in the comparatively water-rich Midwest. And if you’re looking for a historical analogy that could illustrate the change, look no further than the 1930s-era Dust Bowl.
East of the Rockies, and particularly here in the Midwest, the summer has been cool and wet. Meanwhile, all of California has been suffering from severe to exceptional drought conditions, with the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma not far behind. Texas was certainly in the drought bullseye last year, and while conditions have improved the state is not out of the woods yet.
Is this a harbinger of things to come? It’s probably safe to say that exceptional drought conditions won’t stay in California forever, just as conditions have eased in Texas this year. But the persistence of conditions conducive to drought may turn water into an increasing dwindling resource, rather than a renewable one, over time.
I’m no scientist, and certainly no climate expert. But I do know cities, and I have an understanding of the impact that a critical resource like water, or lack of it, can have on a local economy, and prospects for future growth and ultimate viability. And the Rust Belt better get ready.
We’ve seen climate-driven migration before, and it offers clues as to what could happen going forward. California was perhaps the chief beneficiary of the migration generated by the Dust Bowl, as residents of the Great Plains saw their livelihoods disappear in the drought conditions. From PBS’ The American Experience show on the Dust Bowl:
When the drought and dust storms showed no signs of letting up, many people abandoned their land. Others would have stayed but were forced out when they lost their land in bank foreclosures. In all, one-quarter of the population left, packing everything they owned into their cars and trucks, and headed west toward California. Although overall three out of four farmers stayed on their land, the mass exodus depleted the population drastically in certain areas. In the rural area outside Boise City, Oklahoma, the population dropped 40% with 1,642 small farmers and their families pulling up stakes.
The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American history. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states; of those, 200,000 moved to California.
Dust Bowl migration effectively ceased after World War II, as it became evident that drought conditions were intensified by poor agricultural practices. But drought had population implications for the Great Plains for four decades. Look at this chart that documents population change between 1900 and 1970 for the five Plains states most acutely affected by the Dust Bowl, California and the USA overall:
First, I’ll freely admit that there are many things affecting population change for these states over such a long span. The settlement of relatively empty Plains states early in the 20th Century, and the overall aspirational nature of California as a migration destination for much of the century, contribute to higher rates than for the nation as a whole at various points. But it’s clear that the Plains states actually lost population between 1930-40, and only Kansas rebounded to post positive gains by 1950. California witnessed continued growth through the period, and it appears to have been bolstered in part by the influx of former Plains residents.
So what does this mean for today’s drought-stricken areas? It could mean nothing, but it could mean that some drought-related migrations may be in our future.
It could mean that agriculture in the West begins to shrink, and workers become displaced. It could mean that other businesses that are dependent on a consistent and secure source of water for production may start to look for other locations. It could mean that stringent water conservation and water management practices may cause changes in water pricing, and higher prices, combined with greater scarcity, may cause people to look elsewhere. It could mean that the cities of the Rust Belt may become a viable relocation option with its abundant water resources.
This is by no means a slam dunk for the Midwest. In fact, the Midwest will have its own water management issues to deal with. In an era of increased precipitation, the Midwest will have to improve its infrastructure to deal with increased runoff, at the same time the West is dealing with conservation measures. Will Midwestern cities and states be up to the task of finding the resources to manage? That is the critical question. Right now, it looks like Western cities and states have a leg up on addressing conservation issues.
Whatever happens, it appears changes to our climate will force our cities and states to adapt — and we may be just a few short years from seeing the impacts.