Irrigation Nation

September 19th, 2016  |  Source: PS Magazine

How an esoteric piece of farm equipment created America’s breadbasket—and threatens to destroy it.

Rick Hammond turned a yellow dial until it locked into place with a hollow clank, and a high-pressure hum filled the air. Across the windswept field, a light started blinking atop a metal contraption that stretched a quarter mile from end to end, adorned with an array of dangling hoses and sprinkler heads. With a humped metal spine and rib-like trusses, it looked like the skeleton of some sort of robotic brontosaurus.

Hammond tipped his cowboy hat back with his thumb to get a closer look at the display on the sky-blue control panel emblazoned with the logo for Valley Irrigation. He checked the readouts for speed and pump pressure and then pointed to the flashing light. “That means everything is on. Then you start it walking,” he said. And with the push of a button, the enormous center-pivot irrigation system lumbered to life, the twinned drive wheels under each triangular tower creeping slowly clockwise.

“What we’re shooting for on this level of ground is about an inch,” Hammond said over the wind and roar of the pressurizing wellhead. “It won’t run off with an inch. That takes approximately three and a half days.” In a good growing season, he hoped to put just three to four inches of water on this 160-acre field in York County, Nebraska. That doesn’t sound like much, but Hammond showed me the meter. “Look at that,” he said, pointing to the small lettering under the spinning numbers gauge. “Gallons times one hundred. We’re talking millions of gallons of water,” all of it pumped straight from the Ogallala Aquifer.

Those millions of gallons are starting to add up. A recent study of United States Geological Survey data compared the depths of more than 32,000 wells nationwide over the last two decades. The results were alarming. Across the country, water levels have fallen in 64 percent of all wells, with an average decline of more than 10 feet. In the Ogallala Aquifer system, which supplies groundwater for crop irrigation to eight states from Texas to South Dakota, the declines are especially pronounced. In much of southwestern Kansas, wells are down to 25 percent of the water that existed when the aquifer was first tapped less than 70 years ago. In the southern High Plains of Texas, near the edge of the Ogallala, water levels have fallen more than 100 feet in places, leaving many farmers without any water at all.

Two years ago, the State of Texas published a report on water level changes since groundwater irrigation began on a large scale. “Since the 1940s,” the report stated, “substantial pumping from the Ogallala has drawn the aquifer down more than 300 feet in some areas.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture went on to invest over $70 million in the Ogallala Aquifer region, “to help farmers and ranchers conserve billions of gallons of water.” But the Great Plains was soon plunged into a multi-year drought, and, instead of declining, water usage shot up dramatically.

Finding water to grow food has been the central challenge of life on the Great Plains since the earliest days of white settlement. In its zeal to displace Native Americans and “tame” the prairies, the U.S. government passed the first Homestead Act in 1862 and platted a patchwork of one-mile squares, which were then subdivided into quarters of 160 acres each. A “quarter-section” could be claimed by any free citizen of the U.S., man or woman, native-born or immigrant, with just one major catch: You had to live on the land and farm it for at least five years. This not only meant concocting some way of building a home on the treeless prairie, but also finding enough fresh water to sustain crops.

On the semi-arid plains of Nebraska, where surface streams often ran dry during the summer months — right when water for irrigation was most needed — farmers had little choice but to dig wells, with nothing more than shovels and picks at their disposal. Soon, windmills were erected, allowing farmers to pump groundwater and divert it to the wide furrows of their fields or into catchment ponds. Life on the hardscrabble plains was arduous, and often hand-to-mouth. Nevertheless, by 1890, the Homestead Act had settled some two million people on nearly 375,000 farms.

But in the years that followed, just as cities like St. Louis, Omaha, and Denver were turning into bustling metropolises built on income from livestock and grain exchanges, the entire Great Plains was devastated by drought and blistering heat. By the harvest of 1894, one newspaper reported, nearly 38 percent of acres planted with corn in the middle states were either destroyed or abandoned. In Nebraska, where high temperatures were accompanied by scorching winds, the smell of parched corn filled the air. Many farmers packed up and left, making their escape, according to another paper, “while they had something to do it with.” The drought revealed that raising enough grain for a farm family to thrive would require greater land allocations than the Homestead Act had originally provided — and a lot more water.

In western Nebraska, groups of farmers banded together to dig miles of irrigation canals, diverting water from the North Platte River, but they still didn’t have enough to expand their fields and sustain those crops through the summer. So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered a survey of sites where dams could be built in the foothills of the Rockies, and the USGS simultaneously commissioned a study of groundwater resources on the Great Plains.

In 1897, working at a spot west of Ogallala, Nebraska, government geologist N.H. Darton surmised that the abundant wells of southwest Nebraska had tapped a great storehouse of ancient water held in place by an enormous underlying layer of limestone. “Extending from Kansas and Colorado far into Nebraska,” Darton wrote, “there is a calcareous formation of late Tertiary age to which I wish to apply the distinctive name Ogalalla formation.”

Unfortunately for the early settlers, there was no efficient way to convey those groundwater resources to the surface. A single windmill could only pump enough water to irrigate five acres or provide for 30 cattle — hardly enough to get farmers through the dry years. In 1928, the Nebraska Agricultural Extension Service lamented that “the underground water supply is abundant,” but there were insufcient means of “lifting it to the surface and applying it to the land.”

As the country struggled through the Dust Bowl and the wartime food rationing that followed, agricultural engineers grew determined to find some way to make use of that untapped resource.

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