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The Western United States has been facing a long-term, "mega-drought" for approximately 15 years. Some farmers in the California's Central Valley, the country's most productive agricultural region, have responded by selling land or cutting back on farmed acreage, while others dig deeper wells to maintain crop yields. Groundwater in the area has significantly diminished due to over-use. According to National Geographic, scientists warn that this drought will likely worsen in time, transitioning to a "35-year or longer" mega-drought impacting much of the West.


The last mega-drought to hit the United States began in 1934 and lasted ten years. Now referred to as "the dust bowl," that drought impacted three-quarters of the Western United States. Caused by weather patterns, its impacts were exacerbated by farmers who removed the native grasses, which are known for their long and thick roots, to plant crops that were not drought resistant, according to The Dust Bowl, a film by Ken Burns. These thinly rooted crops failed with the lack of rainfall, leaving dusty fields behind. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), approximately 50,000,000 acres of land were affected by that drought. The human and socio-political impacts were significant, creating the largest migration event in U.S. history, as people fled the area. By 1940, 2.5 million people had left the plains states, 200,000 of those went to California, according to an article on PBS, "Mass Exodus from the Plains."



The short film, When a Town Runs Dry, by Joris Debeij, explores the current drought through the eyes of three residents—a farmer, shopkeeper, and a high school football coach—living in the small farming town of Stratford, California. All three men lament the loss of a way of life dependent on a consistent supply of water, and prepare for an uncertain future.



To learn further information about the California drought, take a look at this TED Ed lesson, "California's Extreme Drought Explained" with a video from The New York Times.


Researcher David Sedlak, in his TEDx talk, highlights "4 ways we can avoid a catastrophic drought."


Here is an in depth lesson based on the film "When a Town Runs Dry," including reflective writing prompts and links to standards. 



Additional Resources

Larry Buchanan, Josh Keller, And Haeyoun Park, "Your Contribution to the California Drought." The New York Times.
Water Sense: Kids, "Simple Ways to Save Water." Environmental Protection Agency.
Brian Clark Howard, "Worst Drought in 1,000 Years Predicted for American West." National Geographic, February 12, 2015.
Laura Geggel, "Another Dust Bowl? California Drought Resembles Worst in Millennium." Live Science, October 15, 2014.

"Encyclopedic Entry: Drought." National Geographic.
Water Sense, "Water Use Today." Environmental Protection Agency.





Droughts can be naturally occurring and can also be exacerbated by human activities, such as over-use of groundwater and changes in precipitation due to climate change. The current drought in California is caused largely by natural weather cycles, according to National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

Think about your own home, neighborhood, or town. What changes have you noticed locally? Have you noticed less rain and drought conditions, like many Western states, or more rain and increased storms? In what ways have these environmental changes impacted you, your families, and your community?