It’s tornado season, the springtime tempest, which means the Big Empty of the United States will get another cameo on the nation’s stage. Prepare for the annual montage of heartbreak and houses tossed to the wind, of schools scalped of their roofs and trailer parks reduced to rubble.

What most of us know about the heartland barely extends beyond Dorothy’s house in Kansas, or Sarah Palin pablum about “real Americans.” That’s a shame, because there are two big stories shaping the Great Plains — one of steroidal growth and disruption in the energy boom, the other of the slow death of small-town life. Incongruent as it seems, both are going on at the same time, in the same states.

The oil and natural gas bonanza has made housing in places like Minot, N.D., as competitive as rent-controlled apartments in Manhattan. Of the nation’s 10 fastest-growing metro areas last year, six were in the greater Great Plains, according to the Census Bureau. That includes Fargo and Bismarck in North Dakota and Odessa and Midland in Texas, for those of you seeking full employment in the industrial flatlands.

For all of that, a record one in three of the nation’s counties are dying off — more deaths than births. The emptying of America is happening in Maine and West Virginia, in Michigan, western Pennsylvania and upstate New York. But the most depopulated area is right down the midsection of the United States. An hour’s drive from a boomtown with a spaghetti tangle of pipelines is a ghost town with a grade school that hasn’t seen a kid in 50 years.

If you follow the journey of the befuddled old coot played by Bruce Dern in the movie “Nebraska,” from Billings, Mont., to Madison County, Neb., you go through this landscape of the vanishing. It’s a place of lonely bars and empty diners, of crowded cemeteries and Main Streets where a dogs sleep away the afternoon. In Phelps, Frontier, Gosper or Gage counties, all in Nebraska, there are fewer people now than there were 110 years ago. Farther north and east, a majority of Michigan counties lost population last year.

No amount of homilies to a bygone age will bring people back to these little farm towns on the prairie. More than ever, we are an urban nation — at least three-fourths of the people reside in areas matching that designation — even in the Midwest.

The impulse is either to write off the dying counties as flyover country and a buffalo commons, or to further turn them into a vast oil- and gas-producing zone. But there are other ways to a livable (and that overused word “sustainable”) tomorrow. This future is just below ground level, and at the border’s edge: water and immigration.

The water is the Ogallala Aquifer, a great lake beneath parts of eight states, with enough volume to flood the entire United States in a foot of ancient liquid. And while that sounds like a lot of fresh water, it’s disappearing, because of heavy irrigation. At the current rate, 70 percent of the aquifer will be depleted by 2060, according to a study released last year by Kansas State University.

Oil may seem like the most valuable commodity of the American midsection, but it’s not. Take away water from the Ogallala and you take away life itself. Depopulation, slow now, would accelerate, even beyond the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s. This is not idle speculation. Even those in the fact-denial camp of climate change, people who get their science from Rush Limbaugh, know that the Ogallala is being sucked dry. Shallower parts of the aquifer are now empty in parts of the Texas Panhandle.

We can’t make water. But we can slow down the rate at which we use it. The solution would involve sacrifice, and resting croplands that are now saturated with water drawn through straws in the Ogallala. The mess of state and local laws makes a single remedy — say, from Congress — all but impossible. It will take the people who live in the area now and use its water — applying piecemeal conservation but on a broad scale, similar to what is now done with soil conservation districts — to make sure there is life for their grandchildren.

The other resource is people. Without immigrants, many of them illegal, huge parts of the prairie would be left with nothing but the old and dying. “Please come here,” said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, after the census report on depopulation was released last year. “Immigrants are innovators, entrepreneurs, they’re making things happen.”

In Snyder’s Republican Party, that kind of talk can get you in trouble if you don’t also follow it with a hateful blast at illegals. Look at what happened to Jeb Bush last week. He said many undocumented immigrants come to America as “an act of love” and “an act of commitment” to their families. His comments were thoughtful and truthful. But judging by the reaction among fellow Republicans, you would think he just said something nice about President Obama. Like it or not, immigrants are the only positive population dynamic at play in hundreds of dying counties.

In a year’s time or less, the men and women who want to be the next president will troop out to Iowa, for an inordinate amount of time. The press will parse every poll, deconstruct every gaffe. Seventy of Iowa’s 99 counties are losing people, but you won’t hear anything about that on cable’s news wasteland. So, which is worse: a heartland in trouble, or a system where the big issues — water, land and new blood — are not even part of a democracy’s most important contest?