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Plains Farmers Learn from Past as Aquifer Depletes

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Plains Farmers Learn from Past as Aquifer Depletes

Plains Farmers Learn from Past as Aquifer Depletes

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

In the spring of 1934, a storm of swirling dust hurtled through the Great Plains and shrouded much of the East in darkness. It dropped an estimated 12 million pounds of choking dust on the city of Chicago - four pounds for every man, woman and child. It obscured New York's skyscrapers in a yellow haze of grime. That's when much of the country woke up to the reality of what came to be known as the Dust Bowl.

Dr. DONALD WORSTER (History, University of Kansas): I think it was one of the worst environmental catastrophes in world history.

ELLIOTT: Historian Donald Worster says a quarter of a million people left the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl era.

Dr. WORSTER: In terms of impoverishing of people, of creating environmental refugees, there's nothing like it in American history.

ELLIOTT: We're going to follow those dust clouds back in time and down into the heart of Dust Bowl country, what early settlers called the Great American Desert.

Through the eyes of one family, we'll learn about the farmers who stayed, the water some hoped would be their salvation, and how, for some, the very source of that water is running thin.

It's part of NPR's series Climate Connections, our yearlong collaboration with National Geographic. We're telling the stories of how people change climate and how climate changes people.

We start in what became the Dust Bowl, an area described in the 1936 documentary "The Plow that Broke the Plains."

(Soundbite of documentary "The Plow that Broke the Plains")

Mr. THOMAS CHALMERS (Voice Talent): (As Narrator) A country of high winds and sun - high winds and sun - without rivers, without streams and with little rain.

ELLIOTT: Native people came and went with the cycles of drought, as did the buffalo, adapting to the unpredictable harsh climate. They left intact the grass whose tangled mat of probing roots evolved over millions of years to hold the earth in place.

But after the turn of the 20th century, the great plow-up began. Farmers plowed and plowed to turn millions of acres of native grass to wheat. Men unwittingly set the stage and nature wreaked the havoc, a relatively modest change in climate. A decade of drought in the 1930s withered the wheat. The land never lay so bare and the dirt started to blow.

Locals like Eunice Mai(ph) recall those days as the Dirty '30s.

Ms. EUNICE MAI (Resident, Sharon Springs, Kansas): Dirt storms are awful. That's all there is to it. They rolled in, just like huge rolls of dust.

ELLIOTT: We visited with two generations of the Mai family recently in the small town of Sharon Springs, Kansas. It's in the western part of the state not far from the Colorado border. We met at the Prairie Village Retirement Community amid the click of dominoes and the rattle of the clean, cold air conditioning.

Mr. ARTHUR R. MAI (Resident, Sharon Springs, Kansas): My name is Arthur R. Mai, the name my mother gave me the day I was born.

ELLIOTT: Arthur is Eunice's husband.

Mr. A. MAI: I was born in Trego County, Kansas, on Christmas day in 1924. So that makes me 82 years old.

ELLIOTT: He remembers what they called the black blizzards.

Mr. A. MAI: The windows literally disappeared. It was that black outside at 4 o'clock in the afternoon.

Ms. E. MAI: Yes, it was scary. You wondered, what is happening. Is this the end of the world or what?

ELLIOTT: Dirt got everywhere. It left the outline of babies picked up from their cribs. It clogged the lungs of children and of livestock. Sometimes, so much dirt seeped into attics that ceilings would collapse. Hard to be a mother during such times.

Ms. MARTHA MAI(ph) (Resident, Sharon Springs, Kansas): I'm Martha Mai. My birthday was April the 19th. I was born in '06.

ELLIOTT: Martha is Arthur Mai's mother. She's 101. She was raising Arthur and two of his brothers at the peak of the dust bowl. Mrs. Mai is reluctant to talk much about those hard times, but she remembers the storms.

Ms. M. MAI: I saw the dust coming. And Vernon(ph) was outside playing. I ran out. I saw that dust coming. We went into the house and the four of us had hold of each other. We didn't eat or drink that night. I could remember.

ELLIOTT: Martha Mai gathered her three sons on the bed and lay huddled with them under a wet sheet.

Ms. M. MAI: It worked. We slept all night. We lived. We're still living.

ELLIOTT: During the darkest of the Dust Bowl, Martha Mai's husband, William, did consider moving his family away, but they made it only 20 miles north -Kansas was home. Their fourth son, Bill, was born during the Dust Bowl and he still lives on the family farm about 10 miles outside Sharon Springs.

Mr. BILL MAI (Resident, Sharon Springs, Kansas): We tried to tell people sometime, this is God's country, but we aren't always sure why. So we asked the question: Is it God's country because it's so bad like in the '30s that no one else wants it? Or is it so good like it is this year that God wants to keep it for himself?

ELLIOTT: Bill Mai takes me to a weedy spot between fields of growing green corn and golden wheat stubble to see what looks like a rusty old truck engine mounted to a frame above the ground. This is the spot where his father first pumped an underground treasure trove - a vast store of clean, fresh water.

Mr. B. MAI: Okay, we're half a mile south of our house where I was born, and it's the first well, irrigation well that was drilled in this part of the county.

ELLIOTT: And when did your father drill this?

Mr. B. MAI: 1948.

ELLIOTT: How much water was coming from it?

Mr. B. MAI: A thousand gallons a minute.

ELLIOTT: Mai says at the time, farmers thought they tapped an underground river - they were wrong. The water was coming from one of the largest aquifers in the world known as the Ogallala.

It's a vast formation of water-soaked sand and gravel that underlies eight states, stretching from South Dakota to Texas. By the mid-20th century, farmers had combustion engines that could power pumps to bring up vast quantities of water. Now, there was rain when you wanted in the Great American desert.

Today, you can see the Ogallala Aquifer at work as you fly over the High Plains. Rich green crop circles stand out on the brown and yellow landscape, circles formed by sprinklers that drip Ogallala water onto the fields.

(Soundbite of running water)

ELLIOTT: We're just outside of Colby, Kansas, in the northwest part of the state with grower Lon Frahm. On this 100-degree day, we stop at the site of one of his 38 sprinklers. Water trickles off the rows of head-high corn, puddling on the side of the dirt road.

Mr. LON FRAHM (President, Frahm Farmland, Inc.): Incidentally, it feels cool. Do you believe that water is 51 degrees, and it varies almost one - only one degree from winter to summer; you can feel it's very cold even on a hot day if you go out there.

ELLIOTT: Some people call this fossil water. The Ogallala Aquifer formed over millions of years. Lon Frahm's center-pivot irrigation system sprinkles Ogallala water at a rate of 600 gallons per minute. You've probably seen these sprinklers in the countryside - large frame structures that resemble a dinosaur skeleton on wheels.

I saw it move.

Mr. FRAHM: Yes. The outside tower sets the pace, and we probably saw it run ahead there for about five seconds. If you'd come back a week from now, the pilot would be roughly in the same place, having made it all the way around.

ELLIOTT: Western Kansas is not part of the Corn Belt. It's a semi-arid zone that gets less than 20 inches of rain a year. Kansas is the nation's top producer of wheat, a much less thirsty crop than corn.

So when Lon Frahm irrigates his cornfields, he's picking up where Mother Nature left off and doubling the amount of precipitation. He even calls the irrigation water rain. Frahm only irrigates 5,000 acres of the nearly 14,000 acres he farms. The rest of his crops grow with only natural rainfall and snowmelt. Still, irrigating a third of his land, the water adds up.

And how much water do you use?

Mr. FRAHM: The State Geological Survey asked me that, and I had to figure it out in gallons. It's two billion with a B.

ELLIOTT: Per?

Mr. FRAHM: Year.

ELLIOTT: Two billion gallons per year.

Mr. FRAHM: Billion gallons per year on my farm.

ELLIOTT: That sounds like an awful lot of water.

Mr. FRAHM: Yeah, it does sound like a lot of water, doesn't it?

ELLIOTT: Lon Frahm can't continue to water like this indefinitely. In Kansas, the widespread use of the Ogallala for irrigation is depleting the aquifer. These days, Frahm's wells are dropping six inches a year, and in some places, he says, he's got half the water he started out with. It's an issue he's working to address as a member of the State Water board and the local Water Management District. The problem is Kansas doesn't get enough rainfall to offset what's taken out of the Ogallala. So the days of irrigation here are numbered.

The story is different in other places, like Nebraska, which has the greatest store of Ogallala water. This is not about drinking water, only large-scale irrigation wells. Some Kansas farmers have as little as 25 years left for irrigation; others perhaps 250 years. Some are already at the end of the irrigation road.

Dr. WORSTER: Every mining economy eventually depletes the resource and you're left with a ghost town. I mean, that's the lesson of the Rocky Mountains.

ELLIOTT: University of Kansas historian Donald Worster.

Dr. WORSTER: We have a mining economy on the Great Plains, wherever we're mining water and we will have ghost towns in the future, ghost farms.

ELLIOTT: Worster fears the race to create wealth from the land, the same race that sparked the Dust Bowl, is now running through the abundance of the Ogallala. And the pace of that race has picked up with the promise of ethanol in $4-a-bushel corn.

But stop using the water now, farmer Lon Frahm says, and you'll have ghost farms today.

Mr. FRAHM: I wrote rent checks to 28 families in January. A lot of the ground I farm is rented. I wouldn't be able to support those amount of families at the level that I am if we didn't have irrigation. I wouldn't have seven good-paying jobs for my employees. And I might not be able to support myself here.

ELLIOTT: There are no big cities in Western Kansas, only small towns, breaking up stretches of farmland and huge cattle operations.

Rex Buchanan of the Kansas Geological Survey says it's not feasible to simply stop using the aquifer.

Mr. REX BUCHANAN (Assistant Director, Publication and Public Affairs, Kansas Geological Survey): You take the water away and the corn goes away. You take the corn away and the cattle go away. You take the cattle away and the feedlots go away. You take the feedlots away and the packing plants go away. And a lot of the economy that's going on out here is based on that.

ELLIOTT: Irrigators have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in wells, sprinklers and land. One sprinkler can cost $50,000. Local banks have made loans. That makes water use a touchy subject.

Mr. BUCHANAN: The standard saying you always hear is whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting. That's really not a joke.

ELLIOTT: And climate scientists say water will likely become an even bigger issue in this dry land as the climate changes. Some people in Kansas believe only a shift away from irrigated agriculture can slow the drain on the Ogallala.

But Rex Buchanan of the Geological Survey says that's a hard sell.

Mr. BUCHANAN: I was talking to an irrigator one day about the issue. This is a guy who had seen declines up in northwestern Kansas at pretty substantial amounts. And when I said, do you think it's a good idea? You're not going to be able to do this forever. His response was, what good is that water doing down there if I leave it alone, okay? Why shouldn't I use this water? Well, if you're going to tell people to make a wrenching change in their lifestyle and change the economy in the state, you better have a damn good answer to that question.

ELLIOTT: But there aren't just two choices here: irrigate or abandon agriculture. Some irrigators have returned to an old way, growing crops with the rain that falls from the sky.

At the Mai family farm near Sharon Springs, the one-time promise of the Ogallala - 1,000 gallons a minute of cold, clean water - had dwindled to 350 gallons a minute by 1999. That's when after a half-century of watering from the Ogallala, Bill Mai weaned the farm from irrigation. He says it was both an economic choice and a moral one.

Mr. B. MAI: What are we going to leave for our grandchildren in the way of water? The water here is probably the most valuable natural resource that we have for every purpose that there is. If you want to look at economic development and we don't have water, you're dead in the water - literally. This water is worth hundreds of times more for uses other than irrigation.

ELLIOTT: Now, Bill Mai and his son have a three-year rotation of dryland crops - one year of wheat, one year of corn and one year to let the fields lie fallow.

Mr. B. MAI: You see right there is a piece of cornstalk. Here are some.

ELLIOTT: In a way, this family that survived the drought and Depression of the 1930s and endured another round of dust storms in the '50s has reverted back to pre-Dust Bowl farming, but with vastly improved techniques.

During the Dust Bowl, farmers tilled the ground clean, but not here. The Mais recently harvested their wheat, but the root and bare stalks remain standing in the field.

Mr. B. MAI: You see the nice thick stand of stubble, or residue. The wind can't get down into there, so it - this can't - we can't lose any soil. If it rains hard, you can see what it's going to hit. It's not going to hit the soil.

ELLIOTT: During the drought of the '30s, the ground was so hard that rain would run off - but not now.

Mr. B. MAI: It breaks up in a kind of a fine spray and then just settles over the soil and soaks in.

ELLIOTT: Soaks in slowly.

Mr. B. MAI: Slowly. Aha.

ELLIOTT: In the spring, the Mais will plant corn seed right on top of the stubble to make use of accumulated moisture and keep the earth intact. When they do till the land, they'll slice through the roots of the stubble, but never plow it under. Dryland farming produces lower yields, but it also carries less risks. No bank loans to buy irrigation systems. It's a good way to sustain a family farm, Mai says.

Bill Mai is 71 years old now and has turned over the day-to-day operations of the farm to his son. But out in the fields, he still marvels at the signs of a promising harvest. He cups browning corn silks in his weather-worn hands and measures the tassels at the top of the stalk.

What is your favorite time of the day to be out in your fields?

Mr. B. MAI: Well, it's always nice in the evenings around sunset. During the dust storms of the '50s, you could have a day where the dust was blowing and it was so terrible that you just couldn't understand why you wanted - anyone wanted to live here. Seven o'clock in the evening, it would be just unbelievably beautiful. Calm and cool and the world came alive. You couldn't believe it was the same day. So that's what keeps you here, I guess.

ELLIOTT: Our story was produced by Kate Davidson. To find out more about the Ogallala Aquifer and surviving the Dust Bowl in western Kansas, go to our Web site, npr.org. You can learn more about climate change in National Geographic magazine.

This is NPR News.

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