Saturday, March 19, 2011
Ogallala Dust Bowl
When you can see the end of the rainbow, it is pretty hard to be upbeat. Irrigating dry land farming that relies on lifting water from a finite source is slowly ending.
The fix is actually rather surprising. It is technology on a scale never imagined. I have posted on both the
Eden machine and the application of static
generators as in the Persian Gulf.
Wind mill engineering has taken us almost there. Make them over into static generators and we produce down wind thunderstorms. Use the
machine and support trees and you begin to march the forests into the dry lands
and causing respired water to be used over and over again. Eden
In time this moist body of air can be pushed up against the mountains and far to the north. The windmill will also produce huge amounts of power while they are charging the air and possibly charging the
machines that are
engineered to water individual trees. Eden
This can all be available inside this decade.
US farmers fear the return of the Dust Bowl
For years the Ogallala Aquifer, the world’s largest underground body of fresh water, has irrigated thousands of square miles of American farmland. Now it is running dry
The town of
Happy, , sits on top of the rapidly depleting
Ogallala Aquifer. Its population is dwindling by 10 per cent a
year. Photo: Misty Keasler Texas
by Charles Laurence 7:00AM GMT 07 Mar 2011
There is not much to be happy about these days in Happy,
. Main Street is
shuttered but for the Happy National Bank, slowly but inexorably disappearing
into a High Plains wind that turns all to dust. The old Picture House, the
cinema, has closed. Tumbleweed rolls into the still corners behind the grain
elevators, soaring prairie cathedrals that spoke of prosperity before they were
abandoned for lack of business. Texas
Happy's problem is that it has run out of water for its farms. Its population, dropping 10 per cent a year, is down to 595. The name, which brings a smile for miles around and plays in faded paint on the fronts of every shuttered business – Happy Grain Inc, Happy Game Room – has become irony tinged with bitterness. It goes back to the cowboy days of the 19th century. A cattle drive north through the Texas Panhandle to the rail heads beyond had been running out of water, steers dying on the hoof, when its cowboys stumbled on a watering hole. They named the spot Happy Draw, for the water. Now Happy is the harbinger of a potential Dust Bowl unseen in
since the Great Depression. America
'It was a booming town when I grew up,' Judy Shipman, who manages the bank, says. 'We had three restaurants, a grocery, a plumber, an electrician, a building contractor, a doctor. We had so much fun, growing up.' Like all the townsfolk, she knows why the fun has gone. 'It's the decline in the water level,' she says. 'In the 1950s a lot of wells were drilled, and the water went down. Now you can't farm the land.'
Those wells were drilled into a geological phenomenon called the Ogallala Aquifer. It is an underground lake of pristine water formed between two and six million years ago, in the Pliocene age, when the tectonic shifts that pushed the
Rocky Mountains skywards were
still active. The water was trapped below the new surface crust that would
become the semi-arid soil of the Plains, dry and dusty. It stretches all the
way down the eastern slope of the Rockies from the badlands of South Dakota to the Panhandle. It does not replenish. Texas
Happy is the canary in the coalmine because the Ogallala is deepest in the north, as much as 300ft in the more fertile country of
In the south, through the panhandle and over the border to Kansas , it is 50-100ft. And around
Happy, 75 miles south of New Mexico ,
it is now 0-50ft. The farms have been handed over to the government's
Conservation Reserve Programme (CRP) to lie fallow in exchange for grants:
farmers' welfare, although they hate to think of it like that. Amarillo
The first ranchers, and the Plains Indians before them, knew of water below the ground from the watering holes that sustained buffalo and then cattle far from any river. The white man learnt to drill, leaving primitive windmills on top of wooden derricks silhouetted against Wild West horizons.
But it was only in the 1940s, after the Dust Bowl (the result of a severe drought and excessive farming in the early 1930s), that the
Geological Survey worked out that the watering holes were clues to the
Ogallala, now believed to be the world's largest body of fresh water. They were
about to repeat the dreams of man from the days of Ancient US Egypt and Judea to turn the desert green, only
without the Nile or .
With new technology the wells could reach the deepest water, and from the early
1950s the boom was on. Some of the descendants of Dust Bowl survivors became
millionaire landowners. Jordan
'Since then,' says David Brauer of the
Agriculture Department agency, the Ogallala Research Service, 'we have drained
enough water to half-fill Lake Erie of the Great Lakes.'
Billions upon billions of gallons – or, as they prefer to measure it, acre-feet
of water, each one equivalent to a football field flooded a foot deep – have
been pumped. 'The problem,' he goes on, 'is that in a brief half-century we
have drawn the Ogallala level down from an average of 240ft to about 80.'
Brauer's agency was set up in direct response to the Dust Bowl, with the brief of finding ways to make sure that the devastation never happens again. If it does, the impact on the world's food supply will be far greater. The irrigated Plains grow 20 per cent of American grain and corn (maize), and
'industrial' agriculture dominates international markets. A collapse of those
markets would lead to starvation in America Africa and
anywhere else where a meal depends on cheap American exports. 'The Ogallala
supply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm,'
Brauer says. 'That is beyond reasonable argument. Our goal now is to engineer a
soft landing. That's all we can do.'
Estimates vary, but with careful conservation, less wasteful irrigation and seeds for corn, cotton, wheat and sorghum genetically engineered for drought conditions, farming may yet go on for 60 years. That would be over the deepest stratum of the Ogallala. But the husbanding of water, soil, minerals or anything else has never been the Texan way, and without it the dust will start blowing in as few as 10 years.
Water – not oil – has always been the most valuable resource in the West. Wars have been fought over it, feuds maintained, and fortunes won or lost. Apart from the Ogallala, the main source remains the Colorado River, flowing west from the Rockies, its annual bounty of snow melt providing the drinking water for Las Vegas, irrigation for California's Central Valley, and the swimming-pools of Los Angeles. No one is surprised that the mighty
now runs dry
before it reaches the Pacific, nor that climate change, with falling rain and
snow levels, spells potential disaster for the Sunshine States. There are at
least public controls over most of this water, even if it is actually owned by
corporations and very rich people with 'water rights'. Colorado
true to its self-conscious style of 'rugged individualism', has no such legal
controls. It maintains its Wild West-era laws of 'right to capture'. This means
that if you have water under your land, or in a river running through it, you
can take and use as much of it as you like. You can water the corn or the cows,
or you can make a buck by selling it to the nearest thirsty suburb. If you want
to drain your land into desert, you may. Texas
With the American 'can-do' faith in technology, Brauer's own hopes are for the 60-odd years of reduced but viable farming. 'We don't want it to be a bust,' he says. 'We have to be optimistic.'
In Happy, that sounds more like wishful thinking. The early December sun sinks towards the winter solstice at a few minutes after six, leaving
Main and its crossroads with the railway tracks in
darkness but for a few street lights. A miniature suburban-style housing grid
stretches between Main and the high school on
the eastern edge of town. The football team is the Happy Cowboys, their
cheerleaders the Happy Cowgirls. Old pick-up trucks in the car-park denote an
away match, their drivers piled into yellow school buses for the trip. Most of
the houses are still lived in, valued at about half the average. Some are dilapidated, their
gardens planted with rusting detritus, others spruce with the Stars and Stripes
flapping in the breeze. Nowadays, the working population drives an hour or so
north or south to small cities where they find employment. Texas
The temperature drops below freezing. Kay Horner sits in My Happy Place, her diner on Highway 87, hoping for traffic and customers. She has moved back from
snapping-up a Arkansas Main Street
store for only $10,000 to turn into her home. 'There used to be 50,000 head of
cattle, now there's 1,000,' she says. 'Grazed them on wheat, but the feed lots
took all the water so we can't grow wheat. Now the feed lots can't get local
steers so they bring in cheap unwanted milking calves from and turn them into burger if they
can't make them veal. It doesn't make much sense. We're heading back to the
Dust Bowl.' California
Less than 20 miles south, towards
the next town down Interstate 27, Barry Evans is still farming. His 2,200 acres
came from his great-uncle Freeman, who watched it turn to dust in the 1930s.
Evans's father, in his eighties, still works the farm next door. Evans has sunk
new wells to make up supply as old ones dry from producing 1,000 gallons a
minute to 100, but the aquifer is deeper here and they have enough Ogallala
water left to pump and make a profit. They want to make it last, their eyes
fixed on the future so that Barry's son, Eric, can take over for a fourth
generation. He is in his last year at high school and is raising four pigs of
his own for the 4H (young farmers) competition at the County Fair. It will not
be easy, but at 48 Evans has taken himself to the cutting edge of farm
technique and technology. If there is a future for Ogallala farming, it depends
on men such as Evans. Lubbock
'You have to see this as a business like any other,' he says. 'To earn a living, to stay on the land, you have to maintain the margin between cost and product value. Our water level is 10 per cent of what it was 30 years ago, and we have to make up for that by technique. That means looking for more yield from less water.'
Evans went to the local university for an agriculture degree, and stayed on to complete half a master's in business. He does not own a cowboy hat, and pulls on a winter coat bearing the logo of a seed company, a salesman's gift, as he sets out to tour his 'sections', fields of a square mile each. At ground level the rows look faintly curved, but from the air you can see that the fields are circles, and from passenger jets at 30,000ft they look like the crop circles of Salisbury Plain. They are ugly and alien on the wide-open land, but they have become the landscape of Ogallala agriculture because they are cut to fit the sweep of the enormous arm of a pivot irrigator, turning like the hand of a clock, a hand a half a mile long. They cost $180,000 each.
Evans stops by a well. There is no derrick, only a concrete block sprouting heavy pipes, because nowadays the pump is at the bottom of the well. Inside a steel box is a computer: it controls the pivoting arm to lay down an average of an inch in eight days. Every drop counts. On many farms you can see the effects of drought from the air as a quarter or a third of the land is left dry to burn brown in the sun. 'During the 90s, I really thought it would never rain again,' Evans says. 'But with a bit of luck, we get eight to 10 inches a year, and we have learnt to capture it. I aim for half-and-half, half rainfall and half aquifer.' He can now grow crops using five acre-inches a year, rather than acre-feet. 'That's a big difference,' he says.
He strides into the field along the line of the pivot arm, 12ft over his head. Every few yards a spray nozzle dangles on a hose, low enough to spray below the canopy of the crops. That is one way to minimize waste through evaporation. Next, he stoops to the soil to show the flattened stubble of last year's crop, and of the year's before that. He no longer ploughs – nothing dries the surface to turn the soil to dust like ploughing. Instead, the old stalks hold down the soil, keep the moisture in, and rot down to nutrients. The seeds, themselves 'engineered', are dropped below the surface by a machine that opens a narrow channel in front of the dispenser, and closes it behind them.
Then there is the choice of crops. Evans has switched from corn, wheat and cattle to cotton and sorghum, which makes oil and ethanol for fuel, alternating them around his circular fields. They use less water, and he has got rid of the cattle altogether. 'I don't want to drill more wells,' he says. 'Why would I want to own a desert?'
At the Ogallala Research Service's experimental farm just west of Amarillo, soil scientist Steve Evett nods his approval and says, 'The smart, educated farmer survives: the ones that fall behind do not.' He is out in his half-sized 'pivot' field, showing off the next generation of irrigation systems. This one is fully automated and, with a bit of luck, may save another drop or two. It starts with a new nozzle, a 'sock', which drips the water right on to the ground by each root. Between each dangling pipe is a cable with a sensor at one end, and a computer relay at the other. It measures the amount of moisture in the canopy, and takes a light-spectrum scan of each plant to determine its health, just as the gardener judges the colour of his leaves. This information goes back to the computer mounted at the well-head for even finer metering.
In another field, there is what might become the last resort: a system buried underground, watering only individual roots, with evaporation limited to any that might reach the surface. 'We are already seeing much less water used,' Evett says, 'and there is going to be less and less to use. Things will get harder and harder, but we can use technology to offset the drying for as long as we can.'
All may come to nought in the face of a threat that has nothing to do with corn or beef, but everything to do with the American devotion to making money at any cost. The
oil billionaire and corporate raider T Boone Pickens is after their water. He
is proving to be the ultimate test of their free market gospel of the 'right to
Ten years ago Pickens concluded that the prophets of climate-change may well be right, and if they were, that water would become more valuable than the oil that had made his fortune. He formed a company called
Water, and began buying up Panhandle
land with water rights over the Ogallala. He is now the largest individual
water owner in Mesa ,
with rights over enough of the aquifer to drain an estimated 200,000 acre-feet
a year, at least until the land goes dry. That is 65 billion gallons a year,
or, to put it another way, 124,000 gallons a minute. The plan? Ninety-five per
cent of Ogallala water is now used for agriculture, but Pickens plans to pipe
it 250 miles to Dallas, expected to triple in size in 30 years, with a demand
for water far exceeding supply. Pickens is making the hottest of climate-change
bets: that water's value will rocket as it runs dry. One man's thirst is
another man's fortune. Irrigation farming would simply follow gold mining,
open-range ranching and oil drilling in the traditional cycle of boom and bust.
'There are people who will buy the water when they need it. And the people who
have the water want to sell it,' Pickens has said. 'That's the blood, guts, and
feathers of the thing.' America
'Obviously it would be a disaster for the Panhandle,' Steve Walthour, manager of the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, says. 'But if there are no limits, he can take all he wants. That's the law of capture.'
Texas conservatives, at the core of
culture, root for Pickens. Brent Connett, a policy analyst for the Texas
Conservative Coalition Research Institute, pushes the view that trading farming
for selling water is a 'right' upheld by 100 years of Texan law, and can only
bring new prosperity. 'The water business, if allowed to bloom,' he believes,
'can be the advent of another multi-billion-dollar business that will
tremendously benefit all Texans, especially those who hold the rights to the
water in the Panhandle.' America
Connett does not offer a count of winners versus losers. But a group of landowners in the far north of the Panhandle could certainly be winners. Taking advantage of another quirk of
law, they have voted against joining Walthour's Conservation District. That was
their democratic right even as it defied the attempts of their fellow farmers
to protect water supplies for the benefit of all. The other Ogallala states all
have some form of government controls metering water use. Texas has the
Conservation Districts instead, with the local farmers voting their own
restrictions. The problem is that these are voluntary. 'The idea,' Walthour
says, 'is to balance individual water rights with the common interest. It's the
best thing to do. Otherwise the biggest pump wins – and everyone goes dry.' Texas
Will Allen, among the 'opt-out' owners with a 'spread' close to the
not see it that way. 'In Oklahoma Kansas, the state
owns the water – not so in ,'
he says. 'We own it, and we don't see why we should give up our right to
capture. We would be giving away property that belongs to us.' His family
settled here in 1905 and he holds to their belief that the aquifer is less of a
lake than a series of 'pockets', private to the land immediately above. Only
the prospect of Pickens draining the water from underneath him seems to dent
Allen's stand-alone verities. Would he chase him out of town? He chuckles, a
little uncertainly. 'Well, I wouldn't want him as a neighbour,' he says. 'But
if he takes out water he owns, that is his right.' Texas
There is an air of fatality hanging over the farmers of the Panhandle. At the Elk Junction Restaurant in
a crossroads village 70 miles north of Happy at the heart of the 'opt-out'
district, a group of half a dozen farmers has gathered to gossip over pies and
coffee. Most are retired, or planning to quit, handing over to their sons if
they want the land. Not all do. These men are mostly losing the struggle for
water and the slender margins of profit that can keep them on the land. They
have worked long and hard through often brutal weather, farming vast tracts
with a couple of sons until they quit for college or city jobs. The land they
have hung on to is worth a pension, as long as there is still some water for
irrigation, but their real reward is their pride. To a man they loathe Pickens,
while defending his 'right to capture'. This is Stratford , and they are Texan. Texas
The water boards would like to stop him but they know that state government would not dare challenge individual rights to ownership. Their only real chance is to persuade the county authorities to stall on 'zoning' permits when he starts to build his pipeline, and that is an outside chance.
'The heart of the Dust Bowl was here, you know,' says Wayne Plunk, whose great-great-grandfather came over from
. He is big and round,
strong as an ox in his day, but now he looks a good 10 years older than his 69
years. 'When I was six I was asking my dad for a $1 umbrella against the sun
for the tractor I drove all day. He said no, and bought me a 25-cent hat
instead.' He has not stopped working since. He went to college to train as a
teacher, and for 25 years taught at local schools while farming in the
remaining hours. 'We are drying up. People don't learn from history, and if we
keep breaking the ground and run out of water, it'll happen again.' Germany
Plunk believes that one way or the other, farming the High Plains will have to end. Like the farmers of Happy, he has handed his land to the CRP to let it return to the Plains that nature intended. He misses the life. 'I used to go out on the land before dawn when I worked at school,' he says, 'and I would always plough to the east. I ploughed into the rising sun, and I knew there was a God.' He pushes back his cap, and stares into the distance.