In southern Illinois, farmer Jim Unverfehrt steered his pickup beside a corn crop already lost, then hopped out to search for the soybeans he planted six weeks earlier.
He paced in disbelief.
I know theyre here somewhere, he said, before finally finding a few withered sprouts, fragile as cobwebs.
In Missouri, crews at the Mark Twain National Forest have battled blazes at a time of year when the areas humidity and moist vegetation usually keep flames from spreading.
Dispatches from the 2012 Drought Belt, where Kansas City bakes pretty much in the middle, attest to how months of dryness leave different places cooked in different ways.
And yet, on a recent road trip covering 3,200 miles, The Kansas City Star found people in the crosshairs raising similar questions.
What can anyone do about this? How should we adjust? When will it end?
The good news, and this may seem a reach, is that the country is facing a truth so simple and yet, in many regions, taken for granted: Everyone, most everything, needs water.
We just cant always expect it to be there, not as the worlds population grows and its moisture content stays the same.
This years drought is a great opportunity to look at the plans in place and better prepare for the next drought, said Michael Hayes, executive director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska -Lincoln.
For now, boaters in central Kansas can only stare as the Kanopolis Lake reservoir recedes hundreds of yards from boat ramps.
In Arkansas, homeowners are helpless to battalions of grasshoppers leaping from parched pastures into lawns.
And in the Oklahoma panhandle, a Dust Bowl historian compares the current drought, which reaches back to last year, to the horrible dirt storms that struck the Plains in the 1930s. If not for decades of soil conservation, she believes the Dust Bowl would be back.
In The Stars travels through seven Midwestern states call it the Drought Route we met with those closest to the crisis: farmers, beef producers, worried weather experts, park managers, policy wonks. Just as each had a unique take on the extent of the summers damage, each offered up different ideas for averting some of this pain down the road, if it can be averted.
All, however, agreed on the best fix right now for the nations midsection:
Rain, for sure.
If the rains dont come?
Sell off your cattle many have, once and for all for wont of green grass to nourish them. File for crop insurance payments so you might eek through the winter. Give up your gardens to the heat and grasshoppers.
And, everybody, open your wallets.
Agriculture losses alone are expected to top $12 billion nationwide. Grocery bills next year could jump 6 percent, estimates the U.S. government, which on Friday projected the lowest average corn yield in more than 15 years.
All of it spells further distress for American households struggling with flat-line incomes in a stalled economy.
The philosophical question is, poses the drought expert Hayes, since drought is a normal part of our climate cycles, are we going to sit back and just let it happen again, over and over? Or should we be taking steps that might reduce the impacts?
Its a question of our mindset: Shouldnt we all regard water as a precious resource that needs protecting?
Climatologists and meteorologists resist swift conclusions about whether or not this drought now covering, in varying stages, more than half the nation is any indicator of many dry, blazing summers to come.
Many will note, however, that climate-change models foretell a greater frequency of extreme conditions across the weather spectrum, be it drought or flooding, high heat or deep freezes.
The drought mitigation center says all but two states have written policies for confronting drought, though most states take action only during the longest dry spells. Both of the states lacking plans, Arkansas and Wisconsin, this summer have endured some of the worst drought in the nation, while Missouri and Kansas have what the center calls response-based plans rather than pro-active ones.
Hayes and other scholars prefer a year-round approach to conserving water even when streams, reservoirs and farm ponds are full. They count California among the states most dedicated to this mindset.
Households there since the 1970s have been urged to live by the not-so-discrete toilet mantra, If its yellow let it mellow; if its brown flush it down.
Most municipalities in the Kansas City area, even this summer, insist that water supplies are in fine shape. Johnson County water officials suggest residents in some areas stick to certain days for outdoor watering, as a means to easing stress on the infrastructure, but they dismiss any risk of running out.
Across the Drought Belt, communities are learning that the less rain that falls, the more water we demand. Just when we ought to let up, we usually dont.
Public appeals for voluntary restrictions commonly go unheeded.
In places such as Warrenton, Mo., and Ellsworth, Kan., town leaders imposed mandatory limits on lawn watering and car washing because guidelines that carried no fines had no effect.
The city attorney, according to the local newspaper, told the Ellsworth City Council: We really dont have a choice, do we?
Theyre saying much the same thing everywhere a drought map shows a hot blotch of red.
Drier than dry
Unverfehrt, of rural Washington County, Ill., expressed a widely-shared view one recent morning in his dying corn field.
Droughts have been going on forever. Doesnt the Bible refer to a seven-year drought? the grower said. Its just something you have to live with.
In his corner of corn country, however, seasons without precipitation are uncommon events. In the spring of 2011, in fact, federal emergency management authorities headed to flooding where the Ohio River spills into the Mississippi.
This spring, many farmers expected some of the best corn yields in Illinois history. Unverfehrt, instead, may get a tenth of his normal harvest all due to the lack of rain during the critical weeks of pollination.
When pollen drops from the tassels and lands on healthy silk from the cob, kernels form behind the corn husks. Without rain, ears may not produce kernels not even in this day crops genetically tweaked to withstand far more duress than just a generation ago.
Unverfehrt shucked one ear and broke out laughing. Not one kernel.
Ha ha! he said. Ive never seen anything like that.
In the little town of Madison, Mo., about three hours northeast of Kansas City, some customers recall seeing row upon row of corn like that back in 1954.
Farmer Mike OBannon was born the summer of that drought, when some nearby communities charted highs of 118 degrees the hottest ever recorded in the state.
OBannon and the rest of the morning crowd at Nelsons Old Town Kafe said theyd been having dreams about the sky opening up. Sometimes a real clash of thunder would bolt them out of bed and spur them to check the radar on their computers, maybe for a couple of hours, only to see storm cells drift by and find dusty rain gauges outside.
The farther south and west you travel, drought cuts deeper, ground gets harder.
• Charred hillsides dot southern Missouri, scorched from the stray sparks of passing trains or from lawnmowers clearing roadside ditches.
• In late July, swarms of flying grasshoppers shot out in a fluttery cloud around Formosa, Ark., resident Donna Matthews with each step she took across her yard.
They ravaged her flower beds, one yummy stem at a time, jumped the driveway and tore into her yucca plants.
Extension agents called the grasshopper infestation extreme, and it wasnt because drought spawned the hordes. Dry weather just kept fungal and bacterial enemies from developing enough to cut into grasshopper populations.
Youll see them sitting on a fence post, waiting for a blade of grass to grow, said University of Arkansas-Fayetteville entomologist Kelly Loftin.
• The farms ponds get shallower as you cross into Kansas.
In Coffey County and elsewhere, cows have dropped dead after gulping algae blooms. Several public lakes have closed because of the toxic threat, which can cause severe nausea or earaches in humans. The warning signs posted by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment do not mince words:
Harmful Algae Present Keep out of Lake, urged those posted around Harvey County East Lake Park two weeks ago. Clean fish well and discard guts.
• Farther west, a single lightning pass can trigger four or five grass fires in and around Kanopolis State Park.
One blaze took out 600 acres despite the more than 120 volunteer firefighters who fought back.
Its not all bad, noted ranger Rick Martin. Fires can help the natural grasses by clearing out these woody plants and non-native species.
The same assurances cant be made of depleted Kanopolis Reservoir. It is down about six feet from normal, due both to the reduced flow of the Smoky Hill River that feeds it and releases of water to distressed communities downstream.
Not knowing how long these conditions are going to keep up, it could very well lead to a crisis, Martin said. The reservoir isnt like a bathtub where you can turn a spigot and fill it up.
• In Trego County, Kan., small beef producers are selling out.
Out and done, said extension agent R. Scott Bronc Barrows. No grass to eat and skyrocketing hay prices are sending cattle to feedlots earlier and much lighter than theyd otherwise go.
When drought conditions developed in the last half of 2011, we sold off a third of the cow crop. Without that production, how do make your mortgage payments? asked Barrows. How do you make a land payment?
We cant. Thats the problem.
• In Lamar, Colo., the irrigation canal that normally carries water from the Arkansas River to Dale and Glenda McWilsons alfalfa crop is empty.
For the first time that many farmers in southeast Colorado can recall, flows in irrigation channels for miles around hit official readings of zero, in cubic feet per second, before the end of June.
The lack of winter snowpack from the Rocky Mountains started the great dry-up of the Amity canal, which borders the farm that has been in Glenda McWilsons family since 1886. The subsequent lack of rain or even a decent east wind to carry moist air out of the mountains made things worse.
You can see the difference its made to her field. The crops that benefited from irrigation produced 130 bales in the first cutting. Now comes the third cutting and we may get 12 total, Glenda says.
The plants crunch underfoot as her husband steps around.
Like walking on potato chips, he says.
A river doesnt run through it
Circling back through Kansas along U.S. 83 south of Garden City the summer of 2012 kept reveals itself in crazy ways.
Peer off the side of the bridge over the Arkansas River and try locating even a hint of a stream. Or a puddle anything damp.
The river here is all sand. Its current trickles below ground before resurfacing a few counties downstream.
This lack of surface flow is not a new problem for the Arkansas in southwest Kansas. But months of drought make this summers sand look and feel worse, crustier and coarser, than ever.
Now pull over a few miles south.
A splashy symphony of sprinklers keeps the putting greens at Buffalo Dunes Municipal Golf Course a deep emerald color.
The 18-hole course for 40 years the pride of Garden City ranks among the top public courses in the Midwest. And its water seems unlimited, pumped through wells to which the city owns rights.
What gives? A dry river sitting beside lush, jet-sprayed links?
The people of Garden City have grown accustomed to their river running dry. Most upstream water gets sucked up by Colorado farmers, miners and cities before reaching Kansas.
In a summer as hot and arid as this one, the shortages come earlier and hit harder.
Whatever water Garden City can legally claim as its own in the case of Buffalo Dunes, pumping rights came with the donated property the locals are content to use for making golf prettier. (And not even that may save all the greens.)
Suppose Garden City took conservation to the wildest extremes, by shutting down all municipal uses, industrial taps and recreational spaces, including the golf course, and rationing the townsfolk to no water at all?
That, City Manager Matt Allen said, would cut the areas total usage by just six percent.
The rest of the water goes to agriculture.
What weve got in Kansas, said Craig Volland of the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, are too many farmers wanting to raise corn for ethanol or feeding the big animal factories. Its wasting water.
The ancient Ogallala Aquifer, on which much of Kansas and other states sit, dipped about three feet last year at Wichita and Great Bend.
Even a soggy year wont replenish the aquifer by more than inch. During drought, the groundwater depletes not for lack of rain but because we tap more of it.
The state this year passed a series of laws designed to extend the aquifers life, ditching a use it or lose it policy that drove some farmers to irrigate when they didnt really need to, just to hold on to water rights.
Another measure establishes Locally Enhanced Management Areas, or LEMAs, allowing communities to decide their own water destiny with conservation plans that serve local goals.
If the LEMAs actually work, said Rex Buchanan of the Kansas Geological Survey, which monitors the Ogallala, they have the possibility of really taking a big step forward.
States are responding to emergencies, as well.
In Missouri, a cost-sharing program ordered last month by Gov. Jay Nixon has already granted more than 3,700 applications from farmers seeking to make water-supply improvements to their operations. The state will cover 90 percent of the costs of deepening a well or connecting a farm to a rural water system.
Sometimes it takes a drought for states and municipalities to revisit conservation plans, said Renee Bungart of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR helped devise the Missouris drought-response plan in 2002, in the midst of a comparatively mild dry spell.
In America, where water quality is generally good and supply is plentiful, Bungart said, we can take it for granted.
A better way
Again, all seem to agree on the solution short term.
Rain, for sure. And no amount of planning will make that happen.
We need a toad strangler a strong, four or five inches of rain over a number of days to fill our reservoirs, said Barrows of Trego County.
As for the long term, progress is seen on other fronts.
Desalination technologies, which convert salty waters into something drinkable, have gone in a generation from last-ditch measures that creeped out ecologists to viable options. Desal facilities are costly energy-eaters, but theyve helped meet water needs in the driest parts of the globe.
The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., pursues breakthroughs that would enable farmers to harvest grains from perennial crops, thus eliminating the need for tillage that robs moisture from hard-to-cultivate ground.
Its already developed a perennial wheat grass with roots deep enough to tap subsoil moisture. Yields this summer have been dreadful because of the drought, said Land Institute founder Wes Jackson, but they dont die, so you dont have to replant.
Researchers hope to do the same with corn.
Were trying to build an agriculture based on how the prairie works, Jackson said.
Many in the Drought Belt believe that soil conservation over the last half-century avoided a return of the Dust Bowl.
The similarities in weather conditions astonish Sue Weissinger, curator of No Mans Land Museum in Goodwell, Okla.
Then as now, Plains people saw broiling, consecutive summers of drought about a third of the normal amount of precipitation separated by a warm, dry winter. They puzzled over storm fronts that produced no rains.
The only condition not with us today is the soil, Weissinger said.
Ruthlessly plowed farms of the 1930s were raked by winds, and downbursts of fine dirt buried communities whole. We still have dusty storms, she noted, but its not like seeing a thunderstorm roll in, thinking its dropping rain when its actually dropping dust.
Drought teases. It can torture. But ultimately it teaches.
It took a lot of education and perseverance, Weissinger added, but we learned valuable lessons.
To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.