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Terrible Drought

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Too much or too little water are extremes North Dakota knows all too well. Terrible droughts and destructive floods dot the state’s history. On the wet side, there was the historic 1897 Red River flood and the mammoth rains of the 1990s that swelled Devils Lake. On the dry side, nothing tops the Dust Bowl, when temperatures soared into the triple digits, wind blasted away soil, and farmers and ranchers were left in ruins.

The drought of 1988 also brought North Dakota to its knees. Farmers lost more than $1 billion. Federal aid reduced those losses to about $700 million. Crop insurance helped, too. Three-quarters of the state’s wheat, barley and oats were lost in the drought.

The U.S. agriculture secretary declared a disaster that year, which opened the door for some federal aid. Governor George Sinner asked President Reagan twice for a presidential disaster declaration; calling the drought “the worst natural disaster in our state’s history.” Sinner postponed and restricted hunting seasons, banned woodcutting with certain tools, and restricted vehicle traffic to certain roads.

An agricultural meteorologist described the situation as an “utter and complete disaster.” By mid-June, wind had blasted away more than 450,000 acres of topsoil. Bismarck in 1988 logged 12 days at or above 100 degrees, the most since the record of 14 days set in 1936. Cities and counties across the state banned the sale and use of fireworks due to the fire danger.

On this date in 1988, the Bismarck Tribune reported on wide ranging effects. Eleven Kidder County farmers cut 18,000 square bales of hay in Idaho to ship back to Steele, North Dakota, by train.

Wildlife also suffered due to the heat and lack of rainfall. Hungarian partridge broods declined. Sharp-tailed grouse reproduction dropped. The Game and Fish Department reduced the daily limit for sharptails from three birds to two.

Students and researchers at North Dakota State University had to delay some crop experiments. About 15 students postponed their graduation so they could collect more data for their crop projects.

1988 went down as one of the driest and warmest years for Bismarck, Dickinson and Jamestown. News editors and broadcasters ranked the terrible drought as the top North Dakota story of 1988.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, June 18. Page 5

The Record. 1988, June 24. Page 7

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, June 22. Page 2

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, June 25. Pages 1, 12

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, July 1. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, August 13. Pages 1, 12

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, September 8. Pages 1, 12, 22

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, September 10. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, September 15. Pages 1, 6.

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, September 21. Pages 1,

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, October 13. Page 25

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, October 14. Page 9

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, October 19. Pages 1, 10

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, December 26. Page 15

The Bismarck Tribune. 1988, December 27. Page 17

National Weather Service Bismarck: weather.gov/bis/climate_bis

Ekstrom, B.L.; Leistritz, F.L.; T.L. Mortensen; J. Wanzek. (1989). Economic effects of the 1988 drought in North Dakota: A 1988 update of the financial conditions of farm and ranch operations. North Dakota State University: Fargo, ND

Aakre, D.; Leholm, A.; Leistritz, L. (1989). Impacts assessments in the policy process: Estimating the impact of the 1988 drought on North Dakota’s economy.

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