Huge, federally funded water projects, dams and irrigation systems built mostly during the 20th century turned the deserts of the American West into oases of life and the bread baskets of the world. The once mighty Colorado River, for example, has been so dammed and diverted that, most years, its water no longer reaches the sea. The river trickles out in Mexico before reaching the Gulf of California. Instead, the water gets dammed in Utah, Arizona and Nevada, diverted through aqueducts to the farms of California or the house of Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Hundreds of dams and water projects were built in the West costing the federal taxpayers millions of dollars and providing thousands of farmers cheap water for their cash crops. Today, the number of free-flowing rivers in the West can be counted on two hands.
One writer has called this and other water developments the “miracle” of irrigation. But in recent years, developers have realized that the there may not be any more dam sites that could be easily developed, environmental laws have been strengthened and federal funding for more, big irrigation projects has dried up (no pun intended).
In 1993, Daniel Beard, the Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – the agency responsible for most of the federal water development – announced a dramatic departure from his agency’s 91-year mission of building dams. In his document, Blueprint for Reform, Beard said, “Federally-funded irrigation water supply projects will not be initiated in the future. This decision reflects the marginal national economic benefit from new irrigation investment and the need to focus limited Federal funding on increasing efficiency and remediating adverse impacts of existing projects.”
Since then, there have been a few local projects proposed, but most of those have run into the same limitations and opposition. The era of big new water projects may be over.
One of the other reasons for this dramatic shift is that agricultural technology has produced more efficient irrigation systems. In the 1950s, center pivot irrigation systems were developed that could draw groundwater up from underground aquifers and distribute it evenly over huge crop circles and, later, squares. Pivots have their own set of challenges, including high initial cost that’s bourn by the farmers and the danger of mining the aquifer. But for much of the semi-arid West, pivots are proving attractive alternatives to surface water irrigation systems.
York County Nebraska farmer Troy Otte (left) says that surface water irrigation is just not as efficient as center pivot systems are. “We have two issues, really, battling there,” Troy says. “First is the timing of the [water] event, when you want to irrigate. Gravity irrigation takes a lot of time to complete the same amount of work that you get with a pivot… [Second] if you see a rain coming you can shut the pivot off, whereas the gravity irrigation, a lot of time, you just can’t.”
Mark Kaliff (right, also of York) agrees that pivots are just more efficient. “In 12 hours, it can water 40 acres versus maybe not even a couple of acres with the gravity system.”