Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Draining the Ogallala: Overcoming the Burdens of Nature

The Midwest and the Great Plains are distinctly different places but their subjective borders make it difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins. Nebraska is a wide state far from the Mississippi River, the City of Chicago, and the decaying Rust Belt cities. However, Lincoln, Nebraska has been graciously welcomed into the Big Ten family, an organization defined by its Midwestern roots. Still, in forgotten corners of Iowa and Minnesota, under a vast blue sky, one may easily mistake the landscape for the prairie grasslands of Kansas or Nebraska. Perhaps the tell tale characteristic is the presence of the center pivot irrigator. While the name may be unfamiliar to many here in the Midwest where rain is either plentiful or sparse, anyone who has looked upon the earth from the window of an airliner is familiar with its appearance. As one traverses the “fly over” states, the ground below quickly transitions from comely patches of corn and soybeans to a series of congruent dark circles filled with lush green leaves absorbing the merciless sun. The circles below bare sharp contrast to the brown earth tones of prairie grass which are attuned to the cycles of sparse prairie rain. To children and curious explorers on Google Earth these circles are a point of intrigue. You can find them outside of Las Vegas and in the Texas Panhandle. It’s not hard to speculate that these artificial landscapes are perhaps part of something more sinister than meets the eye.

Center pivot made its appearance in 1948 and was quickly adopted throughout the Great Plains. With not too distant memories of the devastation wrought by the Dust Bowl, center pivot irrigation represented the ability to out-engineer the fickleness of Mother Nature. No longer would farms be subject to irregular rains. Now water could be dependably delivered every three days to a quarter mile wide swath of land. Since its introduction millions of acres have been transformed from the seas of grass they once were. The irrigated land now produces an array of crops ill-suited for the natural environment of the Great Plains; crops such as corn, soybeans, beats, and feed grains. It’s fascinating to consider how quickly modern techniques have been able to subdue the vast stretch of land known as the Great Plains. It was during the height of the Dust Bowl that Pare Lorentz managed to capture film of a man who still kept a team of horses and plow for the documentary film, The Plow that Broke the Plains. Taken by itself, the images of a farmer breaking the prairie grass with the farming techniques that soon proved disastrous, could easily be mistaken for a homesteader. The images taken for this film were captured not all that long ago. The machinery which looks strange compared to modern farm equipment was manufactured and employed just 70 years ago. In other words, we are not as far removed from our past as may believe.

It is only in recent times that we’ve convinced ourselves that we are masters of all. Our role now is to remain superior in every aspect. We have the best agriculture and have been tasked with feeding the world. This mantra has replaced Manifest Destiny and justifies the continuation of the unsustainable agricultural techniques that have drained the Ogallala Aquifer. Although Hugh Bennett managed to ebb the flow of the soil with the efforts of the Soil Conservation Service, large portions of the land still remain intensively farmed for grain crops. The aquifer bought us time, which appears to have been squandered. A mere 70 or so odd years later, the Great Plains are facing a similar doom. While we recognize that the original settlers plowed their way to ruin, it appears that we are still unready to accept the fact that despite our technology we are fallible. Furthermore, the idea we would conserve and grow agriculture products attuned to the space and scale of the Great Plains is incompatible with the modern economy.

As a recent article in the New York Times details, the amount of water in the Ogallala Aquifer is rapidly declining. This “slow motion crisis” isn’t a perfect storm of a decade long drought combined with ravenous agricultural techniques, but rather a crisis of addiction. Michael Wines spent time with Mr.Yost a farmer in Haskell County, Kansas, and as the article details this impending crisis has been decades in the making. Mr. Yost’s grandfather originally developed a well that produced 1,600 gallons a minute in 1964 and it subsequently declined to 1,200 in 1975, 750 in 1976, and finally, 500 in 1991. A replacement well which initially produced 1,352 gallons per minute now manages to draw a meager 300 gallons per minute along with plenty of sand and grit. Despite the decades of data which have shown that the water resources are being exhausted, policy and the economy have purposefully and inadvertently mandated the continued use of the aquifer. As Wines explains in his article the type of crops growing in Kansas fields have been influenced by a government mandate to produce biofuels. While we may have temporarily lessened our dependence on foreign energy we’ve done so at a great cost. According to information collected by MIT for the 2012 Mission, “Groundwater is not like a river that is constantly flowing and bringing new water, it is instead a collection of mostly ancient water from glaciers, held under ground for millions of years that will take an extremely long time to refill once depleted.”

Policy can’t refill the aquifer. But it can help change behavior. Refilling the aquifer is something that will require us to use the land in a less intensive manner, perhaps not that dissimilar from the condition when it was first found by settlers. As this crisis illustrates, we’ve yet to become, "native to this place". Despite the t-shirts, the bumper stickers and vanity plates, being born by pure circumstance does not give us the authority to call ourselves indigenous. Our presence on the prairie is predominantly one of convenience. Without the wealth of the water below the surface, the communities of the Great Plains face an uncertain future. Our mission on the Great Plains is no different than that which motivates the development of tar sands or hydraulic fracking. We are here to extract a resource.

Without a change in behavior there is no reason to assume or suspect that the water levels within the Ogallala will go back up. The land that had almost become a desert is ironically in danger of doing so again. Will importing desalinated water simply become a new cost of doing business on the Plains? After all, we’ve been farming here for over a century. Why should we be expected to stop? Where else can we go? There is no new frontier for us to discover on this planet.

Or perhaps a canal is the solution. If only we could get a little bit of that liquid gold from the Mississippi over to the Texas panhandle. Think of the possibilities; a bounty of jobs would be created, flooding would be eliminated, and profits to be made from growing corn and soybeans. We would need bigger ships to call on new growing markets, people would move here, they would invest, they would bring a Starbucks and perhaps a second Subway for when the line gets too long. Our prayers have been answered!

The residents of the Great Plains are concerned for the future of their homes and rightfully so. Without the benefits of irrigation, many jobs cease to be sustainable, or even relevant. The towns, many of which have not recovered from the mass exodus of the Dust Bowl, will likely continue to confront the challenges of population loss. Given the context of the current predicament it appears the high price of draining the Ogallala has been squandered. We’ve re-established large swaths of grass land but left millions of acres exposed to the intense sun and high winds of the Great Plains. No amount of aesthetic enhancements will change the fact that industrial agriculture doesn’t mesh with the Great Plains, but rather removes what took millions of years to become native to the land. If there has been one constant over the last 70 years, it’s that industrial agriculture hasn’t shown restraint in jeopardizing the future of communities, regardless of their local economies or geography.

Meanwhile, we’ve been indifferent to the facts, the trends, and the tell tale signs of our impending crisis. At what point do we acknowledge this tragedy? It is not the fault of nature, but rather our own reluctance to admit that it is nature which has dominion over us.

(Image obtained from Flickr under the Creative Commons)
(Image obtained from Flickr under the Creative Commons)