Publications by Author: Hornbeck, Richard


The 1930s American Dust Bowl was an environmental catastrophe that greatly eroded sections of the Plains. The Dust Bowl is estimated to have immediately, substantially, and persistently reduced agricultural land values and revenues in more-eroded counties relative to less-eroded counties. During the Depression and through at least the 1950s, there was limited relative adjustment of farmland away from activities that became relatively less productive in more-eroded areas. Agricultural adjustments recovered less than 25 percent of the initial difference in agricultural costs for more-eroded counties. The economy adjusted predominantly through large relative population declines in more-eroded counties, both during the 1930s and through the 1950s.

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Agriculture on the American Great Plains has been constrained by historical water scarcity. After World War II, technological improvements made groundwater from the Ogallala aquifer available for irrigation. Comparing counties over the Ogallala with nearby similar counties, groundwater access increased irrigation intensity and initially reduced the impact of droughts. Over time, land-use adjusted toward water-intensive crops and drought-sensitivity increased; conversely, farmers in water-scarce counties maintained drought-resistant practices that fully mitigated higher drought-sensitivity. Land values capitalized the Ogallala's value at $26 billion in 1974; as extraction remained high and water levels declined, the Ogallala's value fell to $9 billion in 2002.

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NEBR Working Paper #17625.
Co-Author Pinar Keskin is a Professor of Economics at Wellesley College.