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AP: Texas farmers race to preserve land in Dust Bowl zone

Farmer Tim Black loads grass seed before sowing the seed on his fields in Muleshoe, Texas, April 19, 2021. The longtime corn farmer now raises cattle, and plants some of his pasture in wheat and native grasses because the Ogallala aquifer, needed to irrigate crops, is drying up. (AP Photo / Mark Rogers)

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Using the Freedom of Information Act and on-the-ground reporting in the Texas Panhandle, global environment team reporter Tammy Webber revealed a new Dust Bowl brewing on farmland above the nation’s biggest aquifer — and the halting efforts to stave it off.

Farmers, communities and researchers have long known that groundwater in the Ogallala aquifer was steadily declining due to irrigation and might not recover. But while researching a story about disappearing prairie grasslands, Webber discovered that both issues were colliding to create another challenge: As climate change is making rainfall scarcer, farmland is blowing away just as it did during the Dust Bowl.

Webber talked to researchers who predicted huge farmland losses and warned that some remaining groundwater would be needed to restore native grasslands before it was too late. Traveling to the Panhandle town of Muleshoe, she told the story of farmers who began planting native grasses to preserve terrain as their wells struggle to produce water. She also reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had identified a Dust Bowl zone where farmers would receive extra money to enroll in grasslands conservation, and spent months prying loose government data showing that not all farmers were embracing the program.

Webber’s comprehensive and engagingly written narrative, with photos by freelancer Mark Rogers, vividly captured the new Dust Bowl threatening an important agricultural region, and the efforts to keep farmers on their land.

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Sand blows from fields, creating a dust storm near Morton, Texas, May 18, 2021, in a photo provided by biologist Jude Smith. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers in a “Dust Bowl zone” that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, to preserve and establish grasslands as the area becomes increasingly dry. – Jude Smith via AP
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