The Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer Affects Kansas' High Plains

From the mid-sixties to present day, the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer has had a noticable impact on Kansas’ High Plains.

| October 2014

  • The Ogallala Road Cover
    In Julene Bair’s Memoir, “The Ogallala Road,” she discusses the effects that irrigation farming is having on the High Plains due to the large amount of water being pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer.
    Cover courtesy Viking Press
  • Windmill Water Pump
    Because the Ogallala Aquifers is the main source of water for irrigation farmers who live on the High Plains, there is a significant amount of water—approximately 200 million gallons per farming family—being pumped from it each year.
    Photo by Fotolia/Ruud Morijn

  • The Ogallala Road Cover
  • Windmill Water Pump

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.

Remembering the High Plains and Little Beaver Creek

These were called the high plains because they were four thousand feet above sea level. I could feel the altitude in the way the sun sheeted my skin. It was like standing too close to a fire with no means of escaping, unless I dashed back to the car and switched on the air conditioner. Instead, I trudged through wheat stubble that used to be the south end of our pasture, my shoes filling with powdery dirt and my socks with stickers.

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.

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