Woster: I wish there was enough rain to increase the flows in the Missouri-Mitchell Republic

Christmas Eve is only four weeks away, and maybe we should all put plenty of hydration on our wish lists.

It’s dry across South Dakota. It is also dry as far as the Missouri Basin, as indicated by Corps of Engineers reports of reservoir levels and river flows. And while some meteorologists and climatologists speak of humidity coming in the winter, I worry whether snow and rain will be enough in the future to keep agricultural crops growing and other water-based parts of the economy going.

Last week’s drought monitor showed all of South Dakota in at least an unusually dry state. More than 90 percent of the state suffered moderate drought, almost 40 percent severe drought, and 13 percent severe drought. There is no good way to rotate these numbers.

I grew up on a farm long before anyone in our latitudes thought about irrigation. I only knew dry farming. I may not have paid attention to the details of farming, but I knew what drought did to the crops, the grass in the pastures, and the cattle dams our livestock depended on for drinking water.

When I first read the opening pages of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” about the Depression years, I identified with his descriptions of how the earth crumbled without moisture. He described how the rain slowed and stopped, how clouds stopped forming, how the leaves on corn stalks turned brown and brittle, and how the ground dried to dust, with gaping cracks where wet ground should have been.

Here just a brief passage: “During one night the wind rushed faster across the land, burrowing cunningly among the roots of the corn, and the corn fought against the wind with its weakened leaves, until the roots were freed by the inquisitive wind, and then each stalk wearily drooped sideways to the earth, pointing in the direction of the wind.”

Since the drought of the 1930’s, every dry spell where I grew up has been measured against that time in our nation’s history. If the winter snows and spring rains don’t bring enough moisture, we could compare another such dry spell to the worst my parents have ever experienced.

Too much rain has fallen in some parts of the nation. The people of these places would happily trade us several inches of rain if only nature would work on a trading system. Just recently, five and six feet of snow fell in some parts of upstate New York. I imagine folks shoveling their way out of that rush would trade a few blizzards through the winter. That’s not how it works.

Meanwhile, the upper basin of the Missouri River is slowly losing its water. I began paying attention to river behavior in the late 1960s. One of my daily intelligence duties was to collect reservoir readings from the Oahe Dam north of Pierre. Increasingly interested in the ups and downs, I began checking out the other reservoirs – Fort Peck in Montana, Garrison in North Dakota and Oahe, Big Bend, Fort Randall and Gavin’s Point in my home state. It is mesmerizing to see how the snow in the Rocky Mountains and plains of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota refreshes the entire river basin.

Nowadays the big reservoirs are low. Likewise the currents from upstream. The drought monitor shows drought conditions along the river basin up into the mountains. Oahe, for example, is 30 feet below Voll. The amount of water it would take to bring it back up is almost unimaginable. Other reservoirs are in a similar condition.

Since the dams were built, the river has been lower than it is today. It was higher too. Both situations did not make many people happy.

I will not wish for record amounts of moisture. I’d like enough to fill in the cracks in the ground and increase the flows on the Missouri. When I get this I won’t even ask for new socks or an argyle sweater.