Title: Running Dry: West's Farmers Fear Cutbacks in Irrigation as Water Supplies Fall
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/WL00002248/00001
 Material Information
Title: Running Dry: West's Farmers Fear Cutbacks in Irrigation as Water Supplies Fall
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Publisher: Wall Street Journal
Spatial Coverage: North America -- United States of America -- Florida
Abstract: Running Dry: West's Farmers Fear Cutbacks in Irrigation as Water Supplies Fall, May 31, 1977
General Note: Box 10, Folder 12 ( SF Water Rights-Water Crop - 1973, 1976-77 ), Item 12
Funding: Digitized by the Legal Technology Institute in the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: WL00002248
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: Levin College of Law, University of Florida
Holding Location: Levin College of Law, University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.

Full Text

1977 Dow Jones .& Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


C Running Dry

Western Farmers Fear

Cutbacks in Irrigation

As Water Supplies Fall

;They Have to Replace Wells,
See a Slide in Production

If Dry Farming Returns

'Like Those Guys in Texas'

C ~~----
IMPERIAL, Neb.-Nobody expected so
many people to turn out for such a meeting,
but there they were, more than 500 of them
packing into the Chase County High School
gymnasium. The meeting was held in late
March, when most Americans were worry-
ing about the energy crisis.
But another crisis was worrying the peo-
Sple in southwestern Nebraska. They were
more concerned about water than oil.
Gene Haarberg, chairman of the Upper
Republican Natural Resources District, got
right to the point. Studies by the three-
county conservation body, he said, reveal a
"critical threat to the long-range supply of
water in the district .... There seems to be
an inadequate groundwater supply to meet
foreseeable needs."

L _____~ __~

Groundwater-water accumulated over
the years in underground "aquifers" of po-
rous stone and sand-and surface sources,
such as rivers and lakes, provide our water
supplies. In layman's terms, having a
groundwater problem means that the water
I table-the top of the underground supply-is
Declining water tables are by no means
limited. to southwestern Nebraska, or even
to agricultural areas. Many Chicago suburbs
have had to drill deeper and deeper for wa-
ter in recent years; and in April, 18 water-
short communities got permission to turn to
Lake Michigan for water. Phoenix, Ariz.,
one of the largest cities almost completely
dependent on underground water, has long.
been coping with a falling water table.
Long-Range Threat
But in many key agricultural areas, the
Groundwater problem is planting the seeds
of serious future woes. Although geologists
say the East is in fairly good shape, they
warn that the entire Western half of the U.S.
-source of much of the nation's food-is
dotted with areas where the water table is
Declining fast. In addition to southwestern
Nebraska, agricultural areas affected in-
clude at least three other sections of Ne-
braska, the Texas panhandle, eastern Colo-
rado and western Kansas. IThose four.
states, plus neighboring Oklahoma, account
for about 23% of the farm product in the
contiguous 48 states.)

In these and other areas of the Great
Plains and Corn Belt, some wells already
Shave dried up and have had to be drilled
deeper or replaced by new ones. These out-
lays raise the cost of producing foodstuffs.
Even worse, some farmers have had to re-
duce irrigated acreage and thus production.
In recent years; groundwater problems
have been aggravated in these areas by be-
low-normal precipitation. Moreover, declin-
ing water tables could greatly exacerbate
future droughts by reducing alternative sup-
Splies; such is already the case in the current
drought in California, where farmers are
suffering partly because they haven't
enough well water to rely on in times of-
And when the water is gone-and geolo-
gists say it may be gone in much of the'
Plains by the turn of the century-a sizable
.chunk of this country's most productive'
farmland will revert to dryland status. With-
out major innovations in dry farming, that
iland will be able to produce far less.
World-Wide Impact
So the decline in underground water sup-
plies poses a long-term threat to this coun-
try's agricultural output and to the farming
sector's important contribution to U.S. ex-
port earnings. And for the fast-expanding,
hunger4hreatened population of much of the
'world, the impact eventually could be grim
The water problems, which usually had
been regarded as regional matters, have
grown serious enough to attract more atten-
tion from the federal government. While fed-
eral agencies long have provided surface
water for irrigation through their dam-build-
ing activities, the U.S. Geological Survey
currently is focusing on the declining water
tables. For example, it is conducting a $4
million study of the Madison Formation, a
vital aquifer serving parts of Wyoming,
Montana. South Dakota and Nebraska.
What is basically causing these problems'
is the rapid growth of irrigation from wells
in these agricultural areas, geologists say.'
'In Nebraska, for example, the number of
registered irrigation wells more than dou-
bled between 1966 and last Jan. 1 to 56,078.
Nebraska now irrigates more land than any
other state except California and Texas. and
it Is adding eight or nine new sprinkler
Irrigation systems a day.

Facsimile Edition
Transmitted by

t The) effect of such rapid expansion of Irrl-!
S nation: says Thadis W. Box, dean of the Col-
lege of/Natural Resources at Utah State Uni-
versity. "is no different from the oil short-
age; we're dealing with a finite resource,
S and we are mining that resource." Water is
,said to be "mined" when it is taken from
the aquifer faster than the aquifer is re-
S .charged by precipitation.
SConservation Proposal
Suci are the problems facing the people
of Chase. Dundy and Perkins counties in
southwestern Nebraska. where the number
of irrigation wells has surged from only 399
In 1966 to more than 2,300 today. The March
meeting was called to hear testimony on a
Proposal that the state declare the district
,an official "control area." In which strict
water-tonservation regulations must be en-
forced Most of these measures would deal
with curbing irrigation and reducing the
amount of water lost through it.
SThe problems are so difficult to cope with
partly because of the vast benefits that irri-
gation has conferred on Nebraska's agricul-
ture and overall economy. Once primarily a
dryland wheat state, Nebraska now has a
burgeoning livestock industry because irri-
gation, has enabled corn and other feed
grains'to grow well in the once too-dry soil.
And every dollar increase in agricultural
S". Pearse Turn. to Panre 56 Columrti .f
a l

.c ~cl-c~--~-~--`- ---



Running Dry: West's Farmers Fear

Drops in Water Supplies, Irrigation

Continued From First Page
output from irrigation generates nearly $8 in
new business activity in the state, Theodore
Roesler, a University of Nebraska econo-
mist, estimates.
I: However, irrigation consumes water pro-
Sdigiously. Unlike industrial or domestic wa-
ter-using processes, from which 90% or
more of the water can be retained for reuse,
most irrigation water is lost to the local
area. About 20% runs off and away from the
land on which it is applied, and some is lost
through evaporation. The biggest loss, how-
ever, is through plant transpiration. Accord-
ing to one estimate, an acre of corn can ab-
sorb 3,000 gallons of water from the soil
Daily. Most of this moisture escapes through
the plants' leaves as water vapor.
Even with normal precipitation, heavy ir-
rigation drains water from the aquifer
faster than nature replaces it. Such losses
show up in declines in water tables. Mea-
surements at a recorder well near Imperial
indicate that the area's water table was a
stable 57 to 58 feet below ground from 1964
to 1968. By 1975, the table has fallen to 69
feet below ground, and by last January it
was down to 76% feet. "Water is being
mined in the district," Mr. Haarberg says.
Because of the water-table drop, the Nat-
ural Resources District estimates, 60 to 65
local irrigation Wells had to be lowered last
year, and 10 to 12 were replaced. Another 60
to 65 wells providing water for homes had to
be replaced, too.
In view of the obvious problem, most
people in the area. favor some kind of con-
trols on irrigation. What they don't agree on,
though, is the type of controls and where in
the district they should be applied.
Lew Reese, a cattle raiser near Cham-
pion, just southwest of Imperial, says the
sandy soil on his land is "trapping our wa-
ter," and the water table serving his four ir-
Srigation wells hasn't dropped much. So he
testified at the meeting that he doesn't want
controls in his area.
Mr. Reese says that a lot of other farm-
ers at the meeting shared his opinion "that
controls shouldn't be forced down our
throats," but that they didn't speak out be-
cause of the "intimidating" formality of the
hearings. "You had to go up front to a mi-
crophone and say your piece and then stand
there and answer questions from all those
state guys. Farmers don't like that sort of
thing," he says.
Interested Visitors
Among those strongly favoring district-
wide controls are some people who didn't
even live there. They are farmers to the
southeast, around McCook, who get irriga-
tion water from the Enders Reservoir be-
tween Imperial and McCook. They contend
that, because seepage from the aquifer
feeds the reservoir, the big increase in irri-
gation pumping in the district has reduced
the water they are getting from Enders.
The streamflow through irrigation canals
from the reservoir, which irrigates 22,000
acres, now provides only nine inches of wa.
ter per acre, down from 18 inches a few
years ago, the McCook farmers say. They
add that at least a foot of irrigation water is
needed in the summer to grow corn. "So
you've got a lot of fellows who are pretty up-

set," says Willard Schlagel, a.director of
two irrigation districts to the southeast that
rely on Enders. He says the reduced flow
from Enders already has cut back by 20%
the irrigated acreage in his districts.
Nebraska'State Sen. Jack Mills, a Demo-
crat from Big Springs who has sponsored
legislation to deal with the water problems,
says the Enders Reservoir could be dry by
1990 if action isn't taken. But the problem
involves sticky legal areas, he adds, because
Nebraska law deals separately with use of
surface water and groundwater. It doesn't
recognize-as geologists and the farmers be-
low Enders plainly do-the connection be-
tween groundwater levels and the flow of
surface water.
"There's going to be a spasm of legal
suits over water rights in the next few
years," says William Holland, an Omaha at-
torney whose law firm has been hired by the
McCook-area farmers to represent them in
the Enders dispute.
Crop Loss Forecast
In the meantime, says Jack Maddux, who
raises more than 3,000 head of cattle on his
10,000 acres downstream from Enders,
"We're running out of water down here, and
when it's gone we'll just have to go back to
dryland farming." He estimates that an
acre of unirrigated land would yield 25 bush-
els of corn or sorghum, compared with 110
to 125 bushels from good irrigated soil. "We
wouldn't be handling much cattle then," he
"We should have done something about
this 15 years ago," Mr. Maddux contin-
ues. "We've been behaving just like those
guys in Texas."
Everybody discussing water problems
sooner or later refers to "those guys in Tex-
as"-specifically, to irrigators ip that state's
panhandle. It is frequently cited by geolo-
gists as the best example of an area where
irrigation water has performed an agricul-
tural miracle but has been squandered in
the process. The high plains around Plain-
view, Texas, are believed to contain the
largest contiguous block of irrigated land in
the world; one four-county section is more
than two-thirds irrigated. But water surveys
by the U.S. Geological Survey almost rou-
tinely report, as they did in April, that "a
new all-time low. was again recorded" for
the Plainview water table.
"It's a classic case of exploiting re-
sources for short-term gains," Utah State's
Mr. Box says. A few years back, he told a
Plainview Rotary Club the area should con-
sider the implications of using "a nonrenew-
able resource to grow crops that make a few
people rich at the expense of succeeding
generations." That blunt talk didn't go over
very well, Mr. Box says. A local newspaper,
editorializing on his remarks, described him
as "the Communist professor."
Now, some geologists give the Texas pan-
handle 20 to 25 years before it runs out of
recoverable groundwater.
Although the Texas case has been the
most publicized, "There are some areas in
western Kansas that aren't in a whole lot
better shape," says Keith Lebbin, executive
director of the Western Kansas Groundwa.
ter Management District No. 1. Irrigation
-"has created a drastic reduction in our wa-
ter supply," he says, adding that some
areas of the aquifer underlying western
Kansas have been mined of more than 65%
of the original supply ..,. .. s, ,,,


A government 'survey shows that the
western Kansas water table declined an av.
erage of 3% feet last year. At one well in
Grant County, southwest of Scott City, the
water level fell 125 feet between 1966 and
1976. A Scott County well dropped 60 feet in
the same period.
In reaction, the Western Kansas District
has restricted well spacing-new wells must
be at least half a mile from existing ones-
and water runoff. It also is trying other con-
servation measures.
At his desk in Scott City, Mr. Lebbin
looks over an application for an irrigation
permit. The farmer already has drilled the
well and bought irrigation equipment, ap-
Sparently on the assumption that getting the
permit is a mere formality. It once was, Mr.
Lebbin says, "but we aren't doing things
that way anymore." Because the farmer
wants a permit that would violate spacing
regulations, Mr. Lebbin says, "It's too bad,
but I'm just gonna have to recommend we
turn this fella down."
Legal Maneuvers
Around New Hampton, in northeastern
Iowa, there isn't much irrigation, and some
local residents would like to keep it that
way. Last October, Frank Holschlag, attor-
ney for surrounding Chickasaw County, ob-
tained a temporary injunction-later over-
turned-against state issuance of more
irrigation permits there.
"It's a question of giving more water to
some people and preventing others from
having enough," he explains. "Say you're a
farmer with 5,000 hogs that you water from
a 300-foot well," Mr. Holschlag explains.
"Then some guy drills a 320-foot well into
the same water, table you're tapping. If he
draws the table down and your well goes
dry, you're out of luck. You essentially have
to sit there and watch a quarter-million-dol-
lar inventory die on you."
The attorney says such fears have turned
the irrigation controversy in Chickasaw
County into "a small civil war," with neigh-
bors and even family members divided on
the issue.
Kenneth Hurst, a local farmer, was plan-
ning to drill an irrigation well, his wife says,
"but the.neighbors got real upset about it."
So the Hursts withdrew their application.
And when Gerald and Russell Lauers de-
cided to apply for a permit, they unexpect-
edly met resistance from a certain nearby
farmer: their own father, Bernard.
S"Everybody's just worried sick about their
well going dry-that's why my husband was
against it," Mrs. Lauers says. The sons ap-
plied anyway and are waiting for their per-

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