Each year, irrigation farmers on the High Plains pump an average of 200 million gallons out of the Ogallala Aquifer per family. In The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning (Viking Press, 2014), author Julene Bair inherits a farm on Kansas’ High Plains and realizes that the plain's only source of water is being rapidly depleted due to her own family’s usage along with many other families on the aquifer. In this excerpt from Section 1, "A Rare Find,” Bair recalls the way the High Plains and Little Beaver Creek has changed since when she was a child.
This western Kansas land had belonged to the Carlsons, my mother’s side of the family. When I was sixteen, my parents traded their share in it for land elsewhere in the county. Like many other successful farmers, they built a new house in town. More than three decades had passed since then. Although I knew there wouldn’t be water in the creek here, I wanted to walk down its dry bed as I had in childhood, picking up every shiny piece of agate I saw, hoping to discover an arrowhead.
In the dry places, men begin to dream, wrote Wright Morris, who grew up north of here, in Nebraska. Where rivers run sand, something in man begins to flow. I thought I knew exactly what he meant. The sandy beds of dry creeks unfurl evocatively into the beckoning distance, inscribing their faint script over the land. They entice the exploring spirit.
But when I arrived at the Little Beaver, I discovered that the creek was now nothing more than a depression. Runoff from all the newly farmed pastureland had filled it with silt. Weeds grew where there had once been smooth sand, vacant and pinkish tan. In my childhood, the sand had poured sensuously through my hands, each granule having its own color, shape, size, sheen.
Our sense of beauty is a survival instinct, telling us that a place can sustain us for generations to come. I’d always known this in my bones, but it wasn’t until many years after I left Kansas and discovered my passion for wilderness that the intuition became conscious. This creek was now ugly. That didn’t bode well for the underlying aquifer’s ability to support life in the future. Rain and snowmelt couldn’t filter into the ground as efficiently through dirt as it could through sand. And sandy creek bottoms were critical to the meager half inch of recharge that the aquifer received each year. It needed all it could get because irrigation farmers were allowed to pump forty times that amount.
At least the north end of the pasture remained in grass. Standing here as a child, I often pretended that this was the original Kansas, “pre-us.” The low-growing grass stitched itself over the ground like a wooly tapestry, accented, especially in the spring, by other pastels. Blue grama grass. Apricot mallow. The yellow and cream waxen blooms of cactus and yucca. Prairie dogs chirped alarms from mounds of whitish clay, and meadowlarks sang from their perches on yucca spires, their notes climbing and dipping like winding ribbons. Instead of cows, I imagined buffalo grazing the hills. The grass had been named after the buffalo because millions of them once thrived on it.
We’d called this our canyon pasture because the creek had carved some cliffs into the otherwise smooth terrain. The canyon was really no more than an “interruption in the earth,” as my mother called it. But it was the wildest topography in this part of the county.
The one-room school that she’d attended—and that my brothers and I also went to, before the farm schools were closed and we started riding the bus to town—used to hold field trips here. The boys would try to throw rocks across the canyon, and in its shadowy ruts and ravines, we caught orange-speckled lizards as they dashed beneath the bayonet-shaped leaves of yucca. I remembered my brother Clark’s hand on my arm, cautioning me to look closely before grabbing. Once, we heard a buzzing sound and jumped back from the bush I’d been about to reach beneath. A tongue-flicking, tail-rattling snake lay coiled at our feet. Its vibrant, diamond-shaped head bobbed in the air, mouth open, fangs bared.
“Why is it wiggling its tongue at us?” I asked.
“That’s how it smells you,” said Bruce. Also my elder, but closer to my age than Clark, he loved nothing more than goading me.
“It can’t strike this far though,” Clark said. “We’re safe."
The Little Beaver made a horseshoe turn here. Our old windmill stood on the spit of land formed by the bend. When I paid visits to the canyon as a child, my father’s ewes and their lambs would be drinking out of the low troughs. They would scatter as I approached, their hooves sounding like water riffling over rock. But today only a few cattle grazed the hill above the canyon, moving in and out of the shadows of cumulus clouds.
I used to climb the windmill and sit up there for what seemed like hours, transfixed by the shadows. They might have been cast by lily pads or boats on the bottom of a lake. From that height, I could also see our big house’s red roof rising above a shelterbelt of elms. But if I climbed the windmill’s narrow ladder today, I knew too well that I would not see our roof or even the trees.
My grandfather Carlson had built the house high on a knoll. With stately trees and a huge red barn beside it, it had been a landmark, visible for miles around. Now it was as if all evidence of our existence had been erased by the wandlike arm of the center-pivot irrigation sprinkler I’d parked beside. Like all the sprinklers that circled these plains, this one was made from an eighth mile of pipe strung between steel towers. Along the pipe’s length, hoses hung down with spigots on the ends, spraying a uniform mist over a 130-acre circle of six-foot-tall, fully tasseled corn.
I could hear the pump engine’s growl, pulsating on the morning’s mounting heat. It hadn’t been like this in the midsixties, when we left this place. It had been quiet then. But now in this second year of the new millennium, you couldn’t escape that sound on the High Plains. Our current farm, only about ten miles from here as the crow flew, was no exception. We had five irrigation wells, some of which ran all day and all night during the growing season.
We drew the water from the most plentiful source of groundwater in the country. The Ogallala Aquifer was the hope and promise at the center of the nation, the source of life that had made habitation possible for millions of years before the words “United States,” or any words, for that matter, had been coined. On geologists’ maps, it was roughly the shape of a tornado, wide at the top where it lay under parts of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, and narrowing to a funnel in Texas, where farmers had been irrigating longest. The maps indicated depletion rates in colors ranging from blue, in much of Nebraska where water was still plentiful, to brown and almost black in some parts of Kansas and north Texas. Meaning gone. Pumped dry, or at least to below usable levels. Those dark freckles of high decline were spreading like cancers, gradually enlarging and taking over hundreds of square miles.
The windmill’s fan whirred and the well rods creaked up and down, making a tinny, lonely sound. Water spurted from the pipe into a tank. These, not the growl of irrigation engines, were the sounds I equated with water while growing up. The rhythm was systolic, soothing. I washed my arms and face in the transparent rope, which fattened and thinned as the windmill breathed. I drank. “The best water in the world,” Mom used to say. She was right. Going down my throat, it felt as cold and bright as the sunlight was hot and bright.
“Cussed wind!” she also used to say, almost every time she stepped out of the house. But Kansas settlers must have been grateful for the wind. Every drink it pumped must have felt like an answered prayer, relief from the surface realities. Digging a good well would have been like tapping unexpected kindness in a mail-order spouse. Having what you were stuck with turn out to be all right after all.
I removed my cap and put my head under the pipe. When I stood up, ice-cold rivulets ran down my back. I took in the vista, looking north into the neighbor’s pasture, at unmarred distance. Too steep to plow, the hills above the Little Beaver were still simple beauty. Grass and sky. Minimalism at its best. I imagined that the green rolled over the valley’s rim and continued unfenced until it disappeared around the curve of the earth.
Back on the gravel road, I made my way northeast, stopping each time I came to a bridge over the Little Beaver and walking along the bed. After crossing the county line, the land grew craggy with continuous canyons and ravines that were far deeper than our little “interruption in the earth.” This was such classic Indian terrain that the county had been named after the Cheyenne, the last tribe that had hunted and camped here. It was too rugged to farm, and without dirt eroding from plowed fields, the bed of the Little Beaver was again the familiar sand of childhood, large grained with many pink and yellow quartzite beads.
The banks became steeper, and standing in the cool shade on the south side of the bed, I thought I could smell moisture. This, I realized, was what excited my dryland spirit most about rivers that ran sand—the possibility that farther on, if I followed their sinewy curves long enough, I would come to a place where they ran water.
I hoped to discover one of the springs that the Indians and pioneers traveling west to the Denver goldfields had camped beside, and that the county’s first settlers had built beside. Last year, my family had pumped two hundred million gallons out of the Ogallala Aquifer. That was not an unusual amount for an irrigated farm. But there were thousands of irrigators, and all that pumping drew the water table down and robbed what little surface water there once was. I knew that whatever I did or didn’t find would be commentary on my family, an indicator of the price the land had paid for our comfort.
“Please let me find you,” I prayed. “Let you still be here."
Pulling to a stop at yet another bridge over the dry creek bed, I saw the dark green shimmer of a lone cottonwood tree far down the bank. A cottonwood sighting means not only welcome shade but also the possibility of water. I smeared on another coat of sunscreen and retied my shoes. Thinking, Snake, Snake, stay away from me, oh Snake, I stepped gingerly through sunflowers and other thick weeds, spread two loose strands of barbed wire, and crawled between them into the pasture.
Part of the creek bank had caved in, leaving at shoulder level an overhang of buffalo grass sod. On the underside, thick masses of roots hung all the way to my feet. I breathed in the musty, earthen smell, lifted the tresses, let them fall. The creek bottom seemed darker here. Leaning down, I pressed my knuckles into the sand and discovered it was damp!
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, by Julene Bair, published by Viking Press, 2014.