From Low Tech to High Tech

Everything changed in the technology of groundwater irrigation during and after World War II. The drought of the 1930s made farmers painfully aware of the advantages of irrigation. In states like Nebraska, government organizations began drilling exploratory wells, testing where and at what depth water could be found. By the late 40s, farmers were literally lining up at the Nebraska Conservation and Survey Division’s doors buying maps of underground water aquifers. Their maps took much of the guesswork and superstition out of locating water – the water witch became a thing of the past.

Also, the war effort had spurred new technologies that were put to use.

With most of the surface streams and rivers already dammed and diverted by 1940, individual farmers started looking underground for irrigation water. The technology that developed in the irrigation industry in that decade was a mixture of very low and high tech.

Any irrigation system has to solve a number of problems.

  • First, what’s the source of water? A river or stream? An underground aquifer?
  • Second, how do you get the water to the farm?
  • And third, how do you distribute it equally, in the right amounts at the right times to plants in different parts of the field?

Each step in the process required both old and very new sets of knowledge.

For instance, well drilling rigs made huge technological leaps during the 1940s. New rigs utilized new understandings of hydraulics and engine technology to provide power to the drilling operation. Drillers developed a better understanding of the geology of the soil, rock and sand layers they were drilling through.

Pump technology made huge advances around this time as well. New centrifugal pumps used impellers that were powered by the latest engine technology.

Yet, at the beginning of the decade, the techniques that most irrigators used for delivering the water in the field hadn’t changed much for hundreds of years – dig a ditch and shoot the water down it. Granted they were now using plastic dams and siphon tubes, but the basic techniques hadn’t changed. By the end of the decade, the technology did change, and these advances set the stage for further advances in the 1950s and 60s.

Whatever the technology, Gordon Schmidt says irrigation can produce miracles. Gordon remembers the first time he say irrigated corn fields in semi-arid Nebraska. “I saw water running in the corn rows! I’ll never – I’ll never forget that,” he says with emotion. “That was a wonderful sight.”

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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