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180  A Tale of Seven Water Conservation Districts Farmers typically refuse to treat water as a regular economic good, like fertilizer, for example. It is, they say, a special product and should be removed from ordinary market transactions so that farmers can control conflict, maintain popular influence and control, and realize equity and social justice. | Arthur Maass and Raymond L. Anderson, 1980 The paradox of High Plains irrigation is how to have one’s cake while also gulping it down. As the water disappears, there will be a ripple effect on so-called externalities.¹ Americans really have no concept of how far-reaching the loss of Ogallala water might be. Suppliers of irrigation equipment will be shut down. Bankers will be forced to foreclose on irrigated land turned dryland. Limited supplies of grains will inflate consumer prices of bread and beef. American foreign policy, in turn, might have no grain surpluses to influence needy nations. Almost thirty years of “water on demand” between the late 1950s and the 1980s created a lulling security that masked the enormity of the historically strenuous struggle to grow abundant crops under Dust Bowl conditions. Americans have no concept of how difficult it is for farming to prosper in this region. Whatever their pious claims in favor of conservation, the first objective of the seven agencies described in this chapter is the profitable consumption of groundwater. The oldest, dating from 1951, is the regional Texas High Plains Underground Water Conservation District No. 1. The North Plains Groundwater Conservation District opened in 1955, followed by the Panhandle Water Management District in 1956. In 1972 the statewide Oklahoma Water Resources Board began operating , as did the Western Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 1. Four years later, the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management a tale of seven water conservation districts 181 District No. 3 was established, followed in 1977 by the Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 4. On the High Plains, groundwater management is still a surrogate phrase for economic development. Today, even with well-meaning local control, groundwater mining still uses five to ten times any natural recharge. That is one key reason why modern Cassandras speak badly about the prospects of the plains. In 1984 California law professor Frank J. Trelease wrote, “Only two states [New Mexico and Colorado] on the fringes of the [Ogallala] aquifer have recognized that irrigation use of this water is a mining process, and that when the water is exhausted (or fallen too deeply) the overlying farmland must revert from irrigated crops back to dryland wheat or cattle grazing.”² Earlier, in 1977, a federal General Accounting Office report describing “ground water overdrafting ” on the Texas High Plains predicted that irrigation would fall from almost 8 million acres in 1975 to 2.2 million in 2020, leading to “significant social and economic dislocations.” So might a “return to dryland farming”: it “could substantially reduce the income of the farmers in the area [whose] per capita income was less than the national average and was projected to decline over time.”³ All the farmers interviewed for this book admitted that the end of widespread irrigation was inevitable. Still, the High Plains have a distinct advantage over other waterneedy parts of the country. Agriculture is by far the highest consumer, taking 90 percent of plains water. The old Dust Bowl region of the High Plains—southwestern Kansas and the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle— has no major metropolitan cities or major water-consuming industries to compete for water. Lubbock and Amarillo in Texas, Guymon in Oklahoma , Liberal and Garden City in Kansas are unlikely to become a new Denver, Phoenix, or Tucson. Elsewhere in the West, the uncontrolled growth of cities brought on water wars (depicted in the movie Chinatown ) in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Outside the plains, western water, historically applied to farm fields, is more and more being shifted to crowded populations who can pay a thousandfold more than farmers. Sixty-two miles north of Denver, for example , water supplied by the Big Thompson Project is being transferred from “underutilized” farm use at $40 an acre-foot to urban use at more than $1,200 an acre-foot.⁴ 182 a tale of seven water conservation districts Irrigators were for a long time tranquilized by the size of the Ogallala . The three billion acre-feet of water in the aquifer’s gravel beds, which allowed hundreds of thousands of gallons to be pumped daily from...


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