Farmers' Use of Water Is High Plains Dilemma

Dry-land wheat farmer Melford DeWald gazes from his backyard across parched fields and stone fence posts to Highway 96, the flat, dusty road leading so many people out of this sleepy western Kansas town.

``The future of Bazine?'' says Mr. DeWald, shoving his hands in the pockets of his worn blue overalls and looking down at his boots. ``It's a dying town.''

About 100 miles to the southwest, agribusinessman Steve Irsik smiles as he plucks a hardy green sprout of winter wheat from one of his thousands of acres of irrigated fields outside Garden City, Kan.

``I think we're going to see tremendous growth here in western Kansas,'' Mr. Irsik says, striding across the moist, furrowed soil toward his shiny pickup. ``I'm very optimistic.''

Depending on whether you stand in bankrupt Bazine or booming Garden City, western Kansas and the rest of the High Plains seem either to be withering into dust-blown desolation or flourishing with king-sized, corporate agriculture.

At the root of the starkly contrasting landscape is a vital resource: underground water. With surface water gone from much of the semiarid region, farmers on the High Plains rely heavily on ground water for irrigation, using about 30 percent of all irrigation water pumped in the United States.

Virtually all of that water comes from the Ogallala Aquifer, the main deposit of ground water on the High Plains. With minimal replenishment, however, what is pumped from the ancient Ogallala is essentially lost. The prosperity of the High Plains grain belt depends on the Ogallala Aquifer. But wasteful irrigation techniques are depleting it.

Rapid depletion of the Ogallala has lowered the water table by more than 100 feet in some areas, raised pumping costs, and forced many farmers in recent years to abandon irrigation and revert to dry-land farming.

``Ground water depletion is a critical issue in the High Plains,'' wrote Kansas State University geographers David Kromm and Stephen White in a 1990 study for the Ford Foundation. ``Take away the water and the whole economy would falter.''

At stake are the livelihoods of millions of Americans, a significant sector of the US economy, and the survival of thousands of farming communities on the High Plains - a region stretching south from the Dakotas to Texas and bordered by the Rocky Mountains. Covering only 6 percent of the nation's land, the region produces more than 15 percent of the value of US wheat, corn, sorghum, and cotton, and 38 percent of the value of livestock. Kansas, for example, is the nation's top wheat grower and a leading producer of cattle.

``It is time to recognize the dilemma we are facing,'' warned a report issued last year by the Kansas Agriculture Ogallala Task Force. ``The philosophy that assures the availability of water and encourages development no longer exists. The Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted, and everyone will be affected.''

Yet because the Ogallala water is unevenly distributed, the impact of its decline varies dramatically from one community to another.

In prosperous Finney County, Irsik's lush crops and optimism are watered by one of the thickest parts of the aquifer. (Finney County and other parts of southwest Kansas sit over more Ogallala water than anywhere except Nebraska.) In neighboring Ness County, by contrast, DeWald has lost harvests and hope amid dry, thirsty fields.

In Finney County, 58 percent of the cultivated land is irrigated, compared with only 6.5 percent in Ness County. The value of an average farm is $802,000 in Finney County, but only $335,000 in Ness County, according to the recently published 1992 Kansas agriculture census.

Scientists see end of irrigation

As farmers continue to draw upon the Ogallala, however, scientists predict that oases like Finney County will eventually dry up. Whether this year or decades from now, they say the ground water will drop to the point where highly productive, irrigated agriculture is no longer feasible across the High Plains.

Heading west from Wichita on Highway 50, one can imagine the trepidation of 19th-century settlers as they drove their wagons from the central Kansas lowlands onto the desolate, wind-swept tableland of the High Plains.

Trees almost disappear from the vast horizon. Yucca, cacti, and short prairie grasses grow along the road. The nights grow crisper, the days hotter, and the climate more fickle, with sudden cloudbursts amid long dry spells. The population is sparse, and people rarely come into view. Houses sit marooned in oceans of pasture and fields.

Ever since the late 1800s, when pioneers first attempted to colonize what they called the ``Great American Desert,'' doubts have persisted about the long-term viability of farming the region. Over the decades, as settlers struggled against droughts, dust storms, and clouds of crop-eating grasshoppers here, some of the most dramatic booms and busts in American history were played out.

In the 1880s, tens of thousands of people rushed to western Kansas as the first major irrigation experiments on the Arkansas River and other waterways promised to transform the area into an ``opulent civilization'' comparable to ancient Egypt. But a disastrous drought in the 1890s left the Arkansas dry, causing widespread crop failures. The population of Finney County, which had swelled 10-fold to 13,600 during the 1880s, plummeted to 2,000 in 1891.

In the 1910s and `20s, above-average rainfall in Kansas nourished large-scale wheat farms and a growing economy that some considered the most vibrant in the nation. The boom ended abruptly, however, when the worst sustained agricultural disaster in US history struck the High Plains: the 1930s drought and depression known as the Dust Bowl.

A revolution in irrigation technology in the 1950s resurrected the High Plains from the ``dirty thirties'' of the Dust Bowl. The invention of the centipede-like center-pivot sprinkler opened up the Ogallala water for much easier irrigation, generating higher yields and more-stable harvests. By the 1970s, the High Plains were hailed as ``the land of underground rain.''

Thriving agribusinesses

Off Highway 50 at a juncture between Dodge City and Garden City, a dirt road leads through a vast patchwork of irrigated fields to Steve Irsik's sprawling, ranch-style home.

Mr. Irsik, a grain farmer and cattleman with so many thousands of acres that he prefers not to see the number in print, has amassed a fortune in the ``new Corn Belt.'' He channels his corn, wheat, milo, and cattle into his family's local feedlot business, the 12th largest in the United States.

Nourished by the Ogallala, thriving agribusinesses like Irsik's have created the basis for an economic uptick for nearby Garden City. With plentiful grain, cattle, and feedlots, in recent years the city and surrounding areas have emerged as the world's largest beef-packing center.

Garden City's population has surged from 14,800 in 1970 to more than 24,000 today. Immigrants from Mexico and Southeast Asia have flooded in to work in packing plants and other agricultural industries. Finney is the fastest-growing county in Kansas, with a population rise of 41 percent between 1980 and 1990.

Local officials and agribusiness leaders like Irsik hope that an influx of corporate hog and dairy farming will fuel more expansion.

``With people pressure in California and the Midwest,'' Irsik says, ``these industries need somewhere to go, and they are looking very seriously at the High Plains.'' He points to the sunshine and low population densities of the High Plains as valuable assets for corporate hog, cattle, and dairy farming.

Ultimately, however, such livestock industries depend on the huge, inexpensive supply of feed grains produced with Ogallala water. As a result, a chief goal of Irsik and others is to extend the life of the Ogallala through conservation and advanced irrigation techniques, while continuing to draw from it.

On a field of sprouting winter wheat, Irsik demonstrates a new irrigation system, known as LEPA (low-energy precision application). Tubes connected to center-pivot sprinklers lower the water nozzles from 10 feet to six inches off the ground, thereby reducing evaporation, saving water, and cutting energy costs.

Nevertheless, conservation is less a priority than a last resort for most farmers, studies show. Farmers wait until their wells drop to the point where rising pumping costs force them to install water-saving systems. Consequently, the waste of Ogallala water continues.

Nearly half the farmers in Finney County, and 58 percent in southwest Kansas, still use wasteful flood irrigation. Although the deepest Ogallala basins may not reach critical depletion for up to 100 years, every year the failure of wells on the thinner basin edges compel many farmers to revert to dry-land farming, says Steven Frost, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Ground water Management District.

Still, even Mr. Frost and other officials see no alternative to what they call the ``planned depletion'' of the Ogallala.

``I don't see any reason to save the aquifer if saving it means devastating the economy,'' Frost says.

Where the aquifer ends

Crossing from Finney County into adjacent Ness County, verdant fields straddled by giant, gangly sprinklers quickly give way to overgrown acreage, deserted farmsteads, and ghost towns. Where cultivation exists, the crops seem sparse and uneven. Lacking the rich Ogallala underfoot, the dry land farmers of Ness County depend on rain.

Ness City, the county seat with a population of 1,700 people, stands out for its quiet contrast to the boom-town honky-tonk of Garden City. Here, the main landmark is a cavernous limestone bank building, a solemn relic of grander days.

Eleven miles to the west, Highway 96 passes through the dot on the map called Bazine, a tiny outpost of 370 people.

In a small house set on a plot of dry brown grass, Melford DeWald sits in an easy chair as his wife, Ruthie, cooks meatballs for a potluck at one of Bazine's six churches.

``A lot of people have already sold their farms. When they can't make a living, they go elsewhere,'' says Mr. DeWald, a former schoolteacher who has struggled to till his family's 960-acre farm since 1976.

In the 1980s, a dry spell destroyed crops and left DeWald and many Bazine farmers deeply in debt. ``If Lou Ann hadn't helped out with the payments, we would have lost the land,'' says DeWald, referring to his grown daughter.

Today, DeWald and other local farmers rely heavily on federal aid to stay out of the red. In 1989, DeWald placed about one-fifth of his land in the government's 10-year Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), designed to take highly erodible land out of production. In return for replanting native grasses and leaving the land fallow, DeWald receives yearly payments of about $6,000 that keep him solvent.

Still, DeWald would take on an extra job, if he could find one, rather than depend on aid. ``We're encouraging people not to work,'' he says. ``I don't like it. But if I'm going to be able to live, I have to accept it.''

Bazine's fortunes have largely paralleled those of its financially strapped farmers. In 1990 the town's only bank failed. Last year, the only grocery store, Bob's Market, shut down. Residents must drive to Ness City to shop. With virtually no local jobs, most of Bazine's young people leave town to find work. As a result, the population continues to shrink and age. The big two-story brick high school behind DeWald's home was built for hundreds of students but now has only 40.

Bazine's plight typifies that of thousands of rural towns on the High Plains as the farm population drops and small farms go under. Overall, the US farm population decreased by 21 percent, to 4.6 million, between 1982 and 1992. In Kansas, the loss of people from agricultural communities was traumatic. In 1990, 43 of the state's 105 counties registered their lowest population since the frontier days a century ago. Ness County has lost half its population in the last 30 years.

The shortage or absence of ground water, competition from highly mechanized corporate agriculture, and other factors are significant causes of the population decline, experts say. (Unlike other regions in the US, the high Plains have so far not seen the selective rural population growth enjoyed by some counties in the early 1990s. City dwellers, aided by modern information technology, are mainly moving to rural areas that offer recreation and natural beauty.)

``Agriculture is all we have, but it's not enough,'' DeWald says.

A few innovative residents, unable to survive on farming, have started small enterprises in order to stay in Bazine.

``We want to stay in the country. We want our kids to grow up in a safe environment,'' says Twylia Sekavec, mother of two boys. ``Our friends who left for Kansas City, Dallas, and the West Coast are fighting traffic and lines and paying off 40-year mortgages - the grass is not greener.''

In 1990, Mrs. Sekavec and her husband, Marvin, started a used-tire-disposal business. They dug huge pits in 30 acres of the family farm and are filling them with tons of quartered rubber tires. Despite local jokes about their ``black bales,'' the Sekavecs' venture has thrived, enabling the couple to hire a dozen employees, buy two large semitrailers, and purchase a $69,000 home. ``Larger towns like Ness City have more progressive people and a better chance,'' says Mr. Sekavec, ``but Bazine probably won't survive.''

Unwelcome reminder of the 1930s

While larger, municipal ``oases'' like Garden City may continue to thrive for years to come, the disappearance of communities like Bazine foreshadows the future for much of the region, some scientists and scholars say.

As the depletion of Ogallala water forces farmers to again rely on the vagaries of rain, some scholars predict a new Dust Bowl. Dust storms are more likely, they say, because of the environmental harm caused by extensive irrigation, which has destroyed vegetation and protective belts of trees and left hundreds of miles of rivers dry.

A dust storm struck western Kansas on March 14, 1989, after months of drought. The storm reduced visibility to one block in Garden City, forced the closing of Interstate 70 for 150 miles from the Colorado border to Hays, Kan., and disrupted air traffic as far away as Kansas City.

For ecological and economic reasons, some scholars propose replanting the High Plains in native grasses and repopulating it with herds of bison to recreate the ``buffalo commons'' of the early 19th century. ``Over the next generation the Plains will, as a result of the largest and longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in America, become totally depopulated,'' assert Frank and Deborah Popper of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The Poppers' proposal has drawn sharp criticism from Kansans, who are not giving up. ``Abandonment,'' writes geologist White, ``is a regional development policy that looks good only if you are a buffalo.''

* Tomorrow: Looking to the prairie ecosystem for a solution to sustaining High Plains agriculture.

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