Drought Devastates the Plains

Severe multi-year drought across the Great Plains, including South Dakota begins. The long period of inadequate precipitation, high temperatures and strong winds renews interest in damming the Missouri River to aid in the creation of irrigation projects to protect farming.

Starting in 1933 and lasting about seven years, prolonged drought on the Plains dramatically reduced agricultural activity and increased poverty in South Dakota. Popularized as the “Dirty Thirties” and the “Dust Bowl”, the dry spell devastated rural areas in a broad region spanning the middle section of the nation, and inspired a large exodus of residents from that region to the West Coast.

Dust Bowl

South Dakota’s Dust Bowl

It’s no wonder the “Dirty Thirties” deeply influenced people’s thinking about agriculture, water development and life on the Great Plains. The severity of this prolonged dry period was profound and widespread, and the impacts on South Dakota were particularly daunting. Statewide population sharply dropped, from 693,000 to 643,000. No other Great Plains lost a greater percentage of its population due to this drought than South Dakota. Nearly 40% of the people who stayed in South Dakota needed government assistance to survive. As expected, the farm sector was especially hard-hit by the lack of snow and rain. Grain production was meager, including long periods in large areas where no crops were harvested. Livestock numbers plummeted. Half of all the state’s farmers relied on government relief programs to survive.