Farmers' Use of Water Is High Plains Dilemma

Article excerpt

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. …