In the early years of the drive to develop irrigation in Nebraska and the plains, water from surface sources dominated the scene. People knew there was water under the dry land and sometimes the water was very near the surface. But well drilling rigs were primitive. The holes they dug were relatively shallow and not very large in diameter.
And then there was the problem of getting the water to the surface. Early European settlers dug wells by hand and hauled water up bucket by bucket. Later, windmills turned in winds that averaged over 15 miles per hour over a third of the time. That turning operated a pump at the base of the mill, but provided only enough power to irrigate a few acres or water a few cows.
In the 1930s – in part because of the drought and in part despite it – groundwater irrigation technology began to overtake surface water irrigation systems in the number of acres watered.
The drought made a reliable supply of water essential. New hydraulic well drilling rigs were being introduced. As more wells were dug and went deeper, scientists discovered that there was a huge underground aquifer beneath the Great Plains. What they eventually found was that one, interconnected formation of sand and gravel lay below 174,000 square miles in eight states. The Ogallala Aquifer contains over 3 billion acre-feet of water – that’s over 978 Trillion gallons. Through most of its range, the aquifer is 50 to 300 feet below the ground, and the water and sand layer is between 150 and 300 feet thick.
So, despite the drought and Depression, farmers began looking for ways to hire well drillers, put in new higher powered pumps, level their ground so the water would flow down the rows evenly and dig the ditches to deliver the water. Some bankers saw that one year of drought could wipe out an entire crop, so they were willing to lend money for groundwater irrigation. Other bankers didn’t see the economic logic yet.
Cliff Peterson and Carla Due are brother and sister. Their father dug the second irrigation well in York County. Even though he was a kid,
Cliff knew the well was important, and he knew they could rely on crops after it was dug.
Yet it was a difficult decision for their father. He was so worried
he asked Carla’s husband Bernard whether he should go ahead and borrow the money for the well. Bernard said, “I think you should.”
But the Ogallala Aquifer – like all aquifers – is a limited resource. The Ogallala was formed between 25 and 10 million years ago when glaciers covered the Rocky Mountains. Melting glaciers ran into the sandy soils to the west and those were then covered by sedimentary rock. The Ogallala contains “fossil water,” and the only way to put more water into it is from the top through several layers of soil and rock.
For the farmers who were able to begin irrigating – despite the drought and Depression – an irrigation well gave them a sense of security against the unpredictability of nature. Beginning in the 1930s, underground irrigation wells began to catch up to and then enormously surpass the number of surface irrigation systems. One distinct advantage of groundwater irrigation is that one farmer could install his or her own system without having to form a cooperative with neighbors and go through the political fights it took to build large surface systems.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.