A sign posted in the 1800s on an abandoned sod hut in the treeless, heartless heart of America tells of terrible times:
"90 miles to wood, 20 miles to water. Gone back East to wife's family."
A westbound migrant, aglow with thoughts of the future on the High Plains, wrote: "This would be fine country if it just had water."
A bitter sodbuster replied: "So would hell."
Little did any of them know that only a few feet below the dusty ruts from their wagons lay an underground ocean, one of Earth's great resources. It is called the Ogallala aquifer.
In its sand and gravel strata is enough fresh water to inundate all 50 states, equal in volume to all of Lake Huron and 20% of Lake Ontario.
The Ogallala underlies an area reaching from South Dakota and Wyoming south through Nebraska (which overlies two-thirds of its volume), Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and into parts of Texas and New Mexico.
Once this land was just The Great American Desert. Modern irrigation has transformed it into an 800-mile-wide greenbelt made possible, in effect, by upside-down rain.
The Ogallala region today produces up to 40% of America's beef, between 20% and 25% of its food and fiber, notably feed grains and cotton. This output that helps feed and clothe the nation was worth upward of $20 billion in 1989, and fuels an ancillary economy that may amount to $50 billion.
Without irrigation, Nebraska state Sen. Loran Schmit said, his state's gross product would drop 70%.
During the Dust Bowl period, haggard farmers watched, red-eyed, as their topsoil blew away in the sleepless wind. Salvation lay but a pipe's length beneath their feet, but they didn't have the tools to reach it. They do now.
Irrigated acres can be three to four times as productive as dry-land farms. The Ogallala was found wealth. Pumping on a grand scale began in Texas, and the High Plains became a mammoth cotton plantation.
Envious farmers peered over their fences at what their irrigating neighbors were doing, and the practice moved inexorably northward. In one region of southwest Nebraska where 111,600 acres were irrigated in 1950, 973,000 acres were under irrigation by 1970. In Yuma County in northeast Colorado it was 11,000 acres in 1959, 446,000 in 1987. Around Lubbock, Tex., the number of irrigation wells rose from 3,627 in 1953 to 46,906 in 1989.
Between 1940 and 1980, 400 million acre-feet of the Ogallala's 3.6 billion acre-feet of water were pumped through the thirsty wells. (An acre-foot, or 325,848 gallons, covers an acre 1 foot deep.) The result was predictable.
The water table fell by as much as 200 feet below Texas, which had used up 23% of the water by 1983. Kansas has pumped 38% of its water by one estimate. Kansas farmers pumped 4.4 million acre-feet in 1985. About 40 million acre-feet remain underground. In Kit Carson County, Colo., water tables have been dropping by as much as 5 feet a year.
Good rainfall, the skyrocketing costs of fuel and power, state regulation, federal farm programs and a growing concern for conservation all have helped to slow depletion. Ground-water use declined 19% between 1980 and 1985.
Grain farmer Ed Ediger of Hampton, Neb., said: "Let's leave some for our grandchildren."
Keith Lebbin, state water district manager for west-central Kansas, described the water situation in Scott City as "bleak." Agriculture there is beginning to suffer from the side effects of technology.
New techniques and irrigation devices are coming from, of all places, Texas. Where farmers once irrigated in a Texanly style, innovations now promise to set a pattern that might allow the aquifer to be a self-sustaining resource, or at least prolong its future for Ed Ediger's grandchildren's grandchildren.
"Today's farmer is much better educated about water," Bill Kastner, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, said.
It took eons for geology and climate to form this natural treasure, yet in less than one lifetime irrigation has pumped some of it dry. Since World War II, technology has drawn forth a flood far, far beyond nature's ability to replace it drop by drop.
The Ogallala ranges in depth from a few feet under Kansas and Colorado to 1,300 feet under Nebraska's Sand Hills. The average depth is 200 feet. Perhaps 11% of the aquifer has been pumped since the late 1930s. The maximum decline by 1980 was 200 feet in Floyd County in the Texas Panhandle. By one estimate, a quarter of the aquifer will be gone by 2020.
The aquifer has been both mindlessly squandered and utilized with great intelligence, foresight and self-restraint.
In places now, it is slowly being contaminated. In 1987, Nebraska farmers and ranchers put 775,000 tons of fertilizer on their land, 16,500 tons of pesticides and uncounted tons of herbicides. Cows and hogs produced an additional 235,000 tons of manure. Gradually, some of these leached downward toward the water.
Can the Ogallala survive the chemical onslaught? To be cautiously Delphic, maybe yes, maybe no. It depends on whether what can be done will be done. It is past high noon atop the Ogallala, but it is not, in most places, too late.
Aquifers are not readily identified or easily understood once discovered. A pioneer in Nebraska Territory could, and did, hit water by digging a posthole. He can be forgiven for crediting good luck, the deity or a dowser's stick. His mind-set was local, hardly geological. Wiser heads than his had dismissed the region's farming potential.
Maj. Stephen H. Long explored the High Plains in 1819-20, then uttered an all-time wowser in the annals of soothsaying:
"In regard to this extensive section of the country, I do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation and, of course, uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture for their subsistence."
The High Plains are dry, not barren. The 10 inches of rain that falls annually in the west and the 30 inches that falls in the extreme east are enough to sustain native grasses and cottonwood trees in river bottoms. The Sand Hills are rolling. The Kansas plains are so flat you could slide a steel shuffleboard disk until it dropped over the edge of the horizon.
One of the first explorers to put his ear not to the ground, but below it, was the Swiss geologist Jules Marcou. In 1854, he was making a survey of the Texas Panhandle for the Army. Ground water "may be found everywhere," he said accurately. Sand Hill immigrants found that you could poke a stick into the soil and the end would come up wet.
Post-Civil War pioneers were misled because they settled in during abnormally wet years. The myth of The Great American Desert was replaced by another--the myth of the garden.
In 1888, the Tascousa Pioneer in the Panhandle reported: "Wagons and wagons, rope-bottom chairs, towheads, brindle cows, yellow dogs and a pervading air of restlessness have poured through this week in the direction suggested by Horace Greeley."
Boosters and fast-buck speculators urged men young and old to follow journalist Greeley's advice and go west, to a "veritable paradise." Land promoter Charles Dana Wilber promised that "Rain follows the plow." It doesn't.
Drought hit western Kansas in 1886, and hung on. Blizzards in 1887 drove out cattlemen in droves. In 1889, there were dust storms. When they were done, there were 55 farms in Floyd County, Tex., instead of 176. The population of western Kansas was halved.
"In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted," became a truism.
The importance of water in settling the plains is underscored by the names of some of the towns: Big Spring and Sweetwater in Texas; Shallow Water, Kan.; Broadwater, Neb.; Cheyenne Wells and Last Chance (for water), Colo.
Wells, once dug, brought forth bounteous flow and produced another myth--that the water came from an underground river of limitless flow that lay somewhere up near Yellowstone. That enduring myth of inexhaustible supply bode the Ogallala no good.
Meanwhile, homesteaders came and went with each cycle of rain and drought. Noted one observer: "Every such wave left behind it a mass of human wreckage . . . broken fortunes, deserted farms and ruined homes." The search for water took every expedient, wrote historian Walter Prescott Webb, "from prayer to dynamite."
When Greeley finally took his own advice and visited the West in 1858, he said of the plains: "A desert indeed!"
But technology was at hand. In 1854, John Burnham took the idea of a self-governing windmill to Daniel Halladay, a mechanic in Connecticut. The result became a ubiquitous landmark of the plains. The eternal wind was harnessed to fill shallow stock tanks, to irrigate a few rows of fruit trees and a garden, to supply the Saturday night bath.
As late as 1890, John Wesley Powell, head of the U.S. Geological Survey and explorer of the Colorado River, could say that all the artesian wells in the Dakotas couldn't irrigate a single county.
Down in the Panhandle, however, was land agent D. L. McDonald, a former druggist and automobile salesman from Pennsylvania who had been advised to work out of doors for his health. He was as "amazed as Moses" to see water gushing out of the ground through an irrigation pipe. By 1909, he had hooked a steam engine to a wellhead and was known as "the father of irrigation." The Amarillo News huzzahed that there was enough water under Deaf Smith County to "float the navies of the world."
McDonald's pump, along with the discovery of oil in Texas, started a flood of irrigation via gasoline pump. Excursion trains brought in prospective farmers from all over the country. Lubbock County's population in 1900 was 293; 20 years later, it was 11,906.
After World War II, with war bond money in their jeans, a devastated Europe to be fed and the development of an efficient deep well turbine pump, farmers rode a crest of irrigation. In 1948, enter Frank Zybach.
Early irrigation methods required naturally flat or leveled terrain to be watered by ditched furrows. It was wasteful. A lot of water ran off the fields. Pipes and siphon hoses had to be constantly moved, which required manpower, but cheap pump fuel came from oil and gas wells that were sometimes right alongside the well in the same field, so who cared?
He invented the water pivot, that thing on wheels that resembles a monster centipede and swings around the wellhead. From the air, they make Nebraska appear to be wearing polka dots. Circles of fortune they're called.
What the pivot could do was put down 2 inches of water on 133 acres in a 72-hour cycle. It could traverse hill and dale, thereby opening up millions of unflat acres to irrigation. Greatest thing since the tractor, farmers said.
In 1950 there were 1.86 million acres under irrigation in the Texas High Plains. This doubled in four years. There were 8,356 irrigation wells there in 1948. Nine years later there were 42,225. In the entire Ogallala region, less than 4 million acre-feet of water were pumped from the aquifer in 1949; 20 years later, it was 15 million acre-feet.
Ignorance sometimes fouled the water. "We had farmers pouring fertilizer down the well to pump out through the pivot," recalls Ron Milner, water district manager for the Upper Republican River in southwest Nebraska.
"Farmers are not chemists," said one.
"We didn't know what the hell we were doing," said Wayne Wyatt, district water manager in Lubbock.
Underground Reservoir For The High Plains Boundary between areas draining east into aquifers or rivers that feed the Gulf of Mexico, and west to the Pacific Ocean.