Ogallala Dust Bowl

When you can see the end of therainbow, it is pretty hard to be upbeat. Irrigating dry land farming that relies on lifting water from a finitesource is slowly ending.

The fix is actually rathersurprising.  It is technology on a scalenever imagined.  I have posted on boththe Eden machine and the application of staticgenerators as in the Persian Gulf.

Wind mill engineering has takenus almost there.  Make them over intostatic generators and we produce down wind thunderstorms.  Use the Edenmachine and support trees and you begin to march the forests into the dry landsand causing respired water to be used over and over again.

In time this moist body of aircan be pushed up against the mountains and far to the north.  The windmill will also produce huge amountsof power while they are charging the air and possibly charging the Eden machines that areengineered to water individual trees.

This can all be available insidethis decade.

US farmers fear the return of the Dust Bowl

For years the Ogallala Aquifer, the world’s largest underground body offresh water, has irrigated thousands of square miles of American farmland. Nowit is running dry

The town of Happy, Texas, sits on top of the rapidly depletingOgallala Aquifer. Its population is dwindling by 10 per cent ayear. Photo: Misty Keasler

by Charles Laurence 7:00AM GMT 07 Mar 2011

There is not much to be happy about these days in Happy, Texas. Main Street isshuttered but for the Happy National Bank, slowly but inexorably disappearinginto a High Plains wind that turns all to dust. The old Picture House, thecinema, has closed. Tumbleweed rolls into the still corners behind the grainelevators, soaring prairie cathedrals that spoke of prosperity before they wereabandoned for lack of business.

Happy's problem is that it has run out of water for its farms. Itspopulation, dropping 10 per cent a year, is down to 595. The name, which bringsa smile for miles around and plays in faded paint on the fronts of everyshuttered business – Happy Grain Inc, Happy Game Room – has become irony tingedwith bitterness. It goes back to the cowboy days of the 19th century. A cattledrive north through the Texas Panhandle to the rail heads beyond had beenrunning out of water, steers dying on the hoof, when its cowboys stumbled on awatering hole. They named the spot Happy Draw, for the water. Now Happy is theharbinger of a potential Dust Bowl unseen in America since the Great Depression.

'It was a booming town when I grew up,' Judy Shipman, who manages thebank, says. 'We had three restaurants, a grocery, a plumber, an electrician, abuilding contractor, a doctor. We had so much fun, growing up.' Like all thetownsfolk, she knows why the fun has gone. 'It's the decline in the waterlevel,' she says. 'In the 1950s a lot of wells were drilled, and the water wentdown. Now you can't farm the land.'

Those wells were drilled into a geological phenomenon called theOgallala Aquifer. It is an underground lake of pristine water formed betweentwo and six million years ago, in the Pliocene age, when the tectonic shiftsthat pushed the Rocky Mountains skywards werestill active. The water was trapped below the new surface crust that wouldbecome the semi-arid soil of the Plains, dry and dusty. It stretches all theway down the eastern slope of the Rockies from the badlands of South Dakota to the Texas Panhandle. It does not replenish.

Happy is the canary in the coalmine because the Ogallala is deepest inthe north, as much as 300ft in the more fertile country of Nebraskaand Kansas.In the south, through the panhandle and over the border to New Mexico, it is 50-100ft. And aroundHappy, 75 miles south of Amarillo,it is now 0-50ft. The farms have been handed over to the government'sConservation Reserve Programme (CRP) to lie fallow in exchange for grants:farmers' welfare, although they hate to think of it like that.

The first ranchers, and the Plains Indians before them, knew of waterbelow the ground from the watering holes that sustained buffalo and then cattlefar from any river. The white man learnt to drill, leaving primitive windmillson top of wooden derricks silhouetted against Wild West horizons.

But it was only in the 1940s, after the Dust Bowl (the result of asevere drought and excessive farming in the early 1930s), that the USGeological Survey worked out that the watering holes were clues to theOgallala, now believed to be the world's largest body of fresh water. They wereabout to repeat the dreams of man from the days of Ancient Egypt and Judea to turn the desert green, onlywithout the Nile or Jordan.With new technology the wells could reach the deepest water, and from the early1950s the boom was on. Some of the descendants of Dust Bowl survivors becamemillionaire landowners.

'Since then,' says David Brauer of the USAgriculture Department agency, the Ogallala Research Service, 'we have drainedenough water to half-fill Lake Erie of the Great Lakes.'Billions upon billions of gallons – or, as they prefer to measure it, acre-feetof water, each one equivalent to a football field flooded a foot deep – havebeen pumped. 'The problem,' he goes on, 'is that in a brief half-century wehave drawn the Ogallala level down from an average of 240ft to about 80.'

Brauer's agency was set up in direct response to the Dust Bowl, withthe brief of finding ways to make sure that the devastation never happensagain. If it does, the impact on the world's food supply will be far greater.The irrigated Plains grow 20 per cent of American grain and corn (maize), and America's'industrial' agriculture dominates international markets. A collapse of thosemarkets would lead to starvation in Africa andanywhere else where a meal depends on cheap American exports. 'The Ogallalasupply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm,'Brauer says. 'That is beyond reasonable argument. Our goal now is to engineer asoft landing. That's all we can do.'

Estimates vary, but with careful conservation, less wasteful irrigationand seeds for corn, cotton, wheat and sorghum genetically engineered fordrought conditions, farming may yet go on for 60 years. That would be over thedeepest stratum of the Ogallala. But the husbanding of water, soil, minerals oranything else has never been the Texan way, and without it the dust will startblowing in as few as 10 years.

Water – not oil – has always been the most valuable resource in theWest. Wars have been fought over it, feuds maintained, and fortunes won orlost. Apart from the Ogallala, the main source remains the Colorado River,flowing west from the Rockies, its annual bounty of snow melt providing thedrinking water for Las Vegas, irrigation for California's Central Valley, andthe swimming-pools of Los Angeles. No one is surprised that the mighty Colorado now runs drybefore it reaches the Pacific, nor that climate change, with falling rain andsnow levels, spells potential disaster for the Sunshine States. There are atleast public controls over most of this water, even if it is actually owned bycorporations and very rich people with 'water rights'.

But Texas,true to its self-conscious style of 'rugged individualism', has no such legalcontrols. It maintains its Wild West-era laws of 'right to capture'. This meansthat if you have water under your land, or in a river running through it, youcan take and use as much of it as you like. You can water the corn or the cows,or you can make a buck by selling it to the nearest thirsty suburb. If you wantto drain your land into desert, you may.

With the American 'can-do' faith in technology, Brauer's own hopes arefor the 60-odd years of reduced but viable farming. 'We don't want it to be abust,' he says. 'We have to be optimistic.'

In Happy, that sounds more like wishful thinking. The early Decembersun sinks towards the winter solstice at a few minutes after six, leaving Main and its crossroads with the railway tracks indarkness but for a few street lights. A miniature suburban-style housing gridstretches between Main and the high school onthe eastern edge of town. The football team is the Happy Cowboys, theircheerleaders the Happy Cowgirls. Old pick-up trucks in the car-park denote anaway match, their drivers piled into yellow school buses for the trip. Most ofthe houses are still lived in, valued at about half the Texas average. Some are dilapidated, theirgardens planted with rusting detritus, others spruce with the Stars and Stripesflapping in the breeze. Nowadays, the working population drives an hour or sonorth or south to small cities where they find employment.

The temperature drops below freezing. Kay Horner sits in My HappyPlace, her diner on Highway 87, hoping for traffic and customers. She has movedback from Arkansas,snapping-up a Main Streetstore for only $10,000 to turn into her home. 'There used to be 50,000 head ofcattle, now there's 1,000,' she says. 'Grazed them on wheat, but the feed lotstook all the water so we can't grow wheat. Now the feed lots can't get localsteers so they bring in cheap unwanted milking calves from California and turn them into burger if theycan't make them veal. It doesn't make much sense. We're heading back to theDust Bowl.'

Less than 20 miles south, towards Lubbock,the next town down Interstate 27, Barry Evans is still farming. His 2,200 acrescame from his great-uncle Freeman, who watched it turn to dust in the 1930s.Evans's father, in his eighties, still works the farm next door. Evans has sunknew wells to make up supply as old ones dry from producing 1,000 gallons aminute to 100, but the aquifer is deeper here and they have enough Ogallalawater left to pump and make a profit. They want to make it last, their eyesfixed on the future so that Barry's son, Eric, can take over for a fourthgeneration. He is in his last year at high school and is raising four pigs ofhis own for the 4H (young farmers) competition at the County Fair. It will notbe easy, but at 48 Evans has taken himself to the cutting edge of farmtechnique and technology. If there is a future for Ogallala farming, it dependson men such as Evans.

'You have to see this as a business like any other,' he says. 'To earna living, to stay on the land, you have to maintain the margin between cost andproduct value. Our water level is 10 per cent of what it was 30 years ago, andwe have to make up for that by technique. That means looking for more yieldfrom less water.'

Evans went to the local university for an agriculture degree, andstayed on to complete half a master's in business. He does not own a cowboyhat, and pulls on a winter coat bearing the logo of a seed company, asalesman's gift, as he sets out to tour his 'sections', fields of a square mileeach. At ground level the rows look faintly curved, but from the air you cansee that the fields are circles, and from passenger jets at 30,000ft they looklike the crop circles of Salisbury Plain. They are ugly and alien on thewide-open land, but they have become the landscape of Ogallala agriculturebecause they are cut to fit the sweep of the enormous arm of a pivot irrigator,turning like the hand of a clock, a hand a half a mile long. They cost $180,000each.

Evans stops by a well. There is no derrick, only a concrete blocksprouting heavy pipes, because nowadays the pump is at the bottom of the well.Inside a steel box is a computer: it controls the pivoting arm to lay down anaverage of an inch in eight days. Every drop counts. On many farms you can seethe effects of drought from the air as a quarter or a third of the land is leftdry to burn brown in the sun. 'During the 90s, I really thought it would neverrain again,' Evans says. 'But with a bit of luck, we get eight to 10 inches ayear, and we have learnt to capture it. I aim for half-and-half, half rainfalland half aquifer.' He can now grow crops using five acre-inches a year, ratherthan acre-feet. 'That's a big difference,' he says.

He strides into the field along the line of the pivot arm, 12ft overhis head. Every few yards a spray nozzle dangles on a hose, low enough to spraybelow the canopy of the crops. That is one way to minimize waste throughevaporation. Next, he stoops to the soil to show the flattened stubble of lastyear's crop, and of the year's before that. He no longer ploughs – nothingdries the surface to turn the soil to dust like ploughing. Instead, the oldstalks hold down the soil, keep the moisture in, and rot down to nutrients. Theseeds, themselves 'engineered', are dropped below the surface by a machine thatopens a narrow channel in front of the dispenser, and closes it behind them.

Then there is the choice of crops. Evans has switched from corn, wheatand cattle to cotton and sorghum, which makes oil and ethanol for fuel,alternating them around his circular fields. They use less water, and he hasgot rid of the cattle altogether. 'I don't want to drill more wells,' he says.'Why would I want to own a desert?'

At the Ogallala Research Service's experimental farm just west ofAmarillo, soil scientist Steve Evett nods his approval and says, 'The smart,educated farmer survives: the ones that fall behind do not.' He is out in hishalf-sized 'pivot' field, showing off the next generation of irrigationsystems. This one is fully automated and, with a bit of luck, may save anotherdrop or two. It starts with a new nozzle, a 'sock', which drips the water righton to the ground by each root. Between each dangling pipe is a cable with asensor at one end, and a computer relay at the other. It measures the amount ofmoisture in the canopy, and takes a light-spectrum scan of each plant todetermine its health, just as the gardener judges the colour of his leaves.This information goes back to the computer mounted at the well-head for evenfiner metering.

In another field, there is what might become the last resort: a systemburied underground, watering only individual roots, with evaporation limited toany that might reach the surface. 'We are already seeing much less water used,'Evett says, 'and there is going to be less and less to use. Things will getharder and harder, but we can use technology to offset the drying for as longas we can.'

All may come to nought in the face of a threat that has nothing to dowith corn or beef, but everything to do with the American devotion to makingmoney at any cost. The Texasoil billionaire and corporate raider T Boone Pickens is after their water. Heis proving to be the ultimate test of their free market gospel of the 'right tocapture'.

Ten years ago Pickens concluded that the prophets of climate-change maywell be right, and if they were, that water would become more valuable than theoil that had made his fortune. He formed a company called Mesa Water, and began buying up Panhandleland with water rights over the Ogallala. He is now the largest individualwater owner in America,with rights over enough of the aquifer to drain an estimated 200,000 acre-feeta year, at least until the land goes dry. That is 65 billion gallons a year,or, to put it another way, 124,000 gallons a minute. The plan? Ninety-five percent of Ogallala water is now used for agriculture, but Pickens plans to pipeit 250 miles to Dallas, expected to triple in size in 30 years, with a demandfor water far exceeding supply. Pickens is making the hottest of climate-changebets: that water's value will rocket as it runs dry. One man's thirst isanother man's fortune. Irrigation farming would simply follow gold mining,open-range ranching and oil drilling in the traditional cycle of boom and bust.'There are people who will buy the water when they need it. And the people whohave the water want to sell it,' Pickens has said. 'That's the blood, guts, andfeathers of the thing.'
'Obviously it would be a disaster for the Panhandle,' Steve Walthour,manager of the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, says. 'But ifthere are no limits, he can take all he wants. That's the law of capture.'

Texas conservatives, at the core of America's faith-and-businessculture, root for Pickens. Brent Connett, a policy analyst for the TexasConservative Coalition Research Institute, pushes the view that trading farmingfor selling water is a 'right' upheld by 100 years of Texan law, and can onlybring new prosperity. 'The water business, if allowed to bloom,' he believes,'can be the advent of another multi-billion-dollar business that willtremendously benefit all Texans, especially those who hold the rights to thewater in the Panhandle.'

Connett does not offer a count of winners versus losers. But a group oflandowners in the far north of the Panhandle could certainly be winners. Takingadvantage of another quirk of Texaslaw, they have voted against joining Walthour's Conservation District. That wastheir democratic right even as it defied the attempts of their fellow farmersto protect water supplies for the benefit of all. The other Ogallala states allhave some form of government controls metering water use. Texas has theConservation Districts instead, with the local farmers voting their ownrestrictions. The problem is that these are voluntary. 'The idea,' Walthoursays, 'is to balance individual water rights with the common interest. It's thebest thing to do. Otherwise the biggest pump wins – and everyone goes dry.'

Will Allen, among the 'opt-out' owners with a 'spread' close to the Oklahoma border, doesnot see it that way. 'In Kansas, the stateowns the water – not so in Texas,'he says. 'We own it, and we don't see why we should give up our right tocapture. We would be giving away property that belongs to us.' His familysettled here in 1905 and he holds to their belief that the aquifer is less of alake than a series of 'pockets', private to the land immediately above. Onlythe prospect of Pickens draining the water from underneath him seems to dentAllen's stand-alone verities. Would he chase him out of town? He chuckles, alittle uncertainly. 'Well, I wouldn't want him as a neighbour,' he says. 'Butif he takes out water he owns, that is his right.'

There is an air of fatality hanging over the farmers of the Panhandle.At the Elk Junction Restaurant in Stratford,a crossroads village 70 miles north of Happy at the heart of the 'opt-out'district, a group of half a dozen farmers has gathered to gossip over pies andcoffee. Most are retired, or planning to quit, handing over to their sons ifthey want the land. Not all do. These men are mostly losing the struggle forwater and the slender margins of profit that can keep them on the land. Theyhave worked long and hard through often brutal weather, farming vast tractswith a couple of sons until they quit for college or city jobs. The land theyhave hung on to is worth a pension, as long as there is still some water forirrigation, but their real reward is their pride. To a man they loathe Pickens,while defending his 'right to capture'. This is Texas, and they are Texan.

The water boards would like to stop him but they know that stategovernment would not dare challenge individual rights to ownership. Their onlyreal chance is to persuade the county authorities to stall on 'zoning' permitswhen he starts to build his pipeline, and that is an outside chance.

'The heart of the Dust Bowl was here, you know,' says Wayne Plunk,whose great-great-grandfather came over from Germany. He is big and round,strong as an ox in his day, but now he looks a good 10 years older than his 69years. 'When I was six I was asking my dad for a $1 umbrella against the sunfor the tractor I drove all day. He said no, and bought me a 25-cent hatinstead.' He has not stopped working since. He went to college to train as ateacher, and for 25 years taught at local schools while farming in theremaining hours. 'We are drying up. People don't learn from history, and if wekeep breaking the ground and run out of water, it'll happen again.'

Plunk believes that one way or the other, farming the High Plains willhave to end. Like the farmers of Happy, he has handed his land to the CRP tolet it return to the Plains that nature intended. He misses the life. 'I usedto go out on the land before dawn when I worked at school,' he says, 'and Iwould always plough to the east. I ploughed into the rising sun, and I knewthere was a God.' He pushes back his cap, and stares into the distance.

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