farmer fixing water irrigationThe drought years of the 1930s reminded farmers of two things they already knew – water was absolutely essential to their crops and livestock, and they couldn’t count on nature to reliably supply it. Interest spiked in irrigation systems that would bring water – either from a stream or from underground – to the crops. And despite the economic hard times, local leaders and national lawmakers found ways to build irrigation systems and develop groundwater irrigation techniques that farmers had dreamed about for decades.



PickrelFarmers like Harvey Pickrel (left) say that artificially bringing water to crops has revolutionized agriculture. Harvey says, “Irrigation has changed the whole country.” Clyde Ehlers (right) says irrigation reduces the gamble that farmers take on natural rainfall. With irrigation, “you know you’re going to raise something… Irrigation was quite a change.”

There are two basic types of irrigation systems – those that draw water from surface sources, like rivers, and those that pump underground water to the surface.

Surface Water Irrigation. The drought and Great Depression prompted what some have called the second great surge of surface water development in Nebraska and the western United States. By 1941, five federally funded projects pulled water from rivers in Nebraska to irrigate a total of 285,000 acres of cropland.

  • The North Platte Project was the first built in 1920. A series of dams beginning in Wyoming irrigate 450,000 acres around Scottsbluff.
  • The Central Public Power and Irrigation District was the largest project and still supplies water to Phelps, Gosper, Kearney and now Adams Counties. It’s also known as the Tri-County project.
  • The Sutherland Reservoir of the Platte Valley District supplies a steam source for the coal-fired generating plant and irrigates 100,000 acres.
  • During the 30s, the North Loup Project received $655,000 in grants and $916,000 in loans.
  • The Middle Loup project received $500,000 in grants and $728,000 in loans. Together the two Loup projects irrigate 55,000 acres.

The need for irrigation alone was not enough to get the projects built. The promoters needed to promise to produce electrical power as well as irrigation to get the diversion dams built. The largest of these projects in Nebraska wasCentral District.

Underground Water Irrigation. Since the earliest settlement times, wells have been dug or drilled to provide water to humans, crops and livestock from under the ground. What early settlers found relatively close to the surface was a huge source of underground water. As the 1930s progressed, technological advances in well drilling and pumps made it more practical to irrigate entire farms. Before that, windmills were commonly used to pump the water up out of the well. But they had so little power that only a few acres or a few cows could be watered.

Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.

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