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Our Turn At This Earth: The Water That Could Last Forever

Colorado State University
Sugarbeets, one of the first crops irrigated on the Central Plains.

In the mid-1980s, when I returned to western Kansas after a sixteen-year absence, I was shocked by the changes irrigation had brought to our once dry-land wheat farm. Many of the wheat fields and pastures of my childhood had been replaced by irrigated corn. The water that made this more lucrative, but very thirsty, crop possible came from the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies western Kansas and portions of seven other states.

We hadn’t begun using the center pivot sprinklers that rotate through circles of corn, soybeans, and cotton on the High Plains today. We still flooded our fields out of eight-inch, gated pipes. As my father’s “floodman,” it was my job to go out to the fields each morning and evening and change the irrigation sets. When I opened the gates in the pipe, the water would gush out in beautiful arcs that I loved to slice my hand through. But I had come back to Kansas after living in the Mojave Desert, and living in the desert had sensitized me to the value of water. I couldn’t send that precious Ogallala water coursing down the furrows without feeling that I was participating in the demise of an aquifer that no one, including my own family and plains ancestors, could have survived there without.

I understood why my father and his neighbors had seized upon this new technology. With it they could water their fields at the touch of a switch on an irrigation engine, whereas before, they had been solely reliant on the whims of weather. But I couldn’t understand how they could watch water pour out of those pipes and not worry that the aquifer would dry out eventually. Scientists had been issuing warnings to this effect since 1901, when Willard D. Johnson, a government geologist sent to survey the High Plains, reported that, quote, “the withdrawal of an amount sufficient for irrigation would rapidly result in exhaustion of the stored supply.”

Today many farmers have run out of water. If withdrawals continue at current rates, most others will run out by the middle of this century. News reports quote some farmers as saying that when their parents or grandparents first tapped into the aquifer for irrigation, they thought that the water would last forever. If so, those irrigation pioneers did not avail themselves of the evidence that Johnson and virtually every geologist and hydrologist who came after him provided. 

As children of the semi-arid plains, they must have known in their bones that any story of water that could last forever was a fairytale. But when it is expedient to do so, we humans have this tendency to ignore science and our own bone-deep knowledge. Eventually, and inevitably, problems that go unaddressed become too big to ignore. Our choice at that point is to throw up our hands and resign ourselves to the loss or finally, and at long last, resolve the problem. I hope that farmers and other plains citizens will choose to resolve rather than resignation and save what remains of the Ogallala Aquifer before it is too late.