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1 Introduction Learning to Think about the Ogallala This book aims to inform and persuade. It describes how an inestimable natural phenomenon—the Ogallala aquifer, the largest underground body of fresh water in the United States—came into being. The enormous aquifer, which lies under eight plains states, is groundwater trapped below 174,000 square miles of fertile but otherwise dry plains farmland. Unlike most of the world’s water supplies, Ogallala groundwater is not renewable. It is “fossil water,” drawn over twenty- five thousand years ago from the glacier-laden Rockies before being geologically cut off, perhaps diverted away by the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers.¹ Groundwater replacement trickles down from the surface at a rate of only an inch a year, while pumping is measured in feet a year. Nothing can accelerate that trickle, and artificial replacement remains impossible. More than three billion acre-feet of water was deposited under the plains originally. An acre-foot is a foot of water across one square acre, or 325,851 gallons. One misconception about the Ogallala aquifer (and most groundwater) is that it stands in cavernous lakes or flows in thundering underground rivers. In reality, it trickles slowly southeastward through sandy gravel beds, five hundred to one thousand feet a year, two to three feet a day. These vast, water-saturated gravel beds, fifty to three hundred feet below the surface, are 150 to 300 feet thick. This book also chronicles the repeated failures by the vaunted American farmer to overcome the harsh climate of the plains. The central and southern High Plains remains a region of climate extremes but is most often a parched land buffeted by dry heat, wind, and limited rainfall. This, combined with the arrival of undertooled and undercapitalized frontier farmers, created almost a century of marginal settlement. 2 introduction This book also tells the story of how, by 1960, new pumping technologies created a golden age of irrigation that has persisted into the present. But this irrigation bonanza is now disappearing for wheat, corn, and sorghum farmers on the south central High Plains because the aquifer’s water levels are declining. Between 1960 and 1990, for example, irrigation farmers pumped about one billion acre-feet of Ogallala water, mostly in western Kansas and the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle—and the pumps have kept on pumping. As to alternatives to serve water-demanding crops, there are no major rivers like the Mississippi or Missouri in the region, and rainfall is light. This book predicts a difficult future that most irrigation farmers have already acknowledged but not necessarily resolved, and it offers conventional and alternative ways of thinking about the connections between groundwater, a difficult farming region, the agriculture it produces , and the types of farming on the High Plains. A Faustian bargain was struck with the water. Today the other end of the bargain is coming due. This book describes the groundwater, the bargain, and the fleeting opportunity to move beyond a pyrrhic mastery toward an accommodative, sustainable strategy. Does Climate Still Matter? Not many modern workplaces are still directly affected by the weather. Protection from the vagaries of climate has long been one of the major objectives of human toolmaking and the industrial revolution. Jesse H. Ausubel writes, “Humans do not wait guilelessly to receive an impact [on climate], bear the loss, then respond with an adaptation. Rather they attempt to anticipate and forestall problems.”² Modern technological society has learned to protect itself well against cold and heat, rain and snow. Nevertheless, climate still influences construction, transportation , communications, fisheries, forestry, and tourism. Agriculture was, and still is, the human activity most vulnerable to climate—rain, sun, wind, heat, and cold.³ In the long run, climate, extremely fluid and fickle, is still the part of the environment that humans find the most difficult to control or modify. Ninety years ago, the loudest noise on the plains was not pump motors but the maddening wind of recurring dust storms that had introduction 3 burdened the region for hundreds of years. The plains farmer, his family laboring at his side, lived as close to the blowing soil and blistering sun as did the original pioneers. It seemed he was doomed to a frontier-like, substandard way of life. The soil was rich, but it mattered little when the spring and summer went rainless and scorching. Occasional seasons of rain merely fooled and teased. Mistakes were made and good people sacrificed...


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