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
"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,
"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
The prosperity of the High Plains grain belt depends on the
Ogallala Aquifer. But wasteful irrigation techniques are depleting
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
"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
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
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
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. …