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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Imagine enough water to fill two of the Great Lakes, sitting underground below some of the driest parts of eight states. That was the High Plains Aquifer 60 years ago. Since then, new pumping and irrigation systems have made it easy for farmers to extract billions of gallons of water and use it to grow lucrative crops. An agricultural gold rush of sorts followed, transforming the regional economy.

Well, now parts of the aquifer are drying out, as we hear from Frank Morris of member station KCUR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE)

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Nate Pike has been riding the dry rolling ranch lands south of Dodge City, Kansas for most of his 80 years, sometimes just to visit a spring called St. Jacob's Well.

NATE PIKE: As a young boy, I'd saddle me a horse, put me a little cane pole on it and come down here and fish.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE DOOR AND ALARM)

MORRIS: Pike is not fishing today. The water level has retreated down into this window on the High Plains Aquifer. And it's a sad sight for Pike.

PIKE: And that thing, you know, had a lot of water in it. It never went down, never changed. But as you can see now...

(LAUGHTER)

PIKE: ...I can't believe you can't see the water from up here.

MORRIS: And what do you blame it on?

PIKE: Irrigation.

(LAUGHTER)

PIKE: Pumping the aquifer dry, that's what.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

JESSE GARETSON: Right, now we're running right at a thousand gallons a minute, 24/7.

MORRIS: That's Jesse Garetson standing by one of his irrigation wells near Copeland, Kansas. This one, and about 39,000 others like it in Kansas, pump long and hard in growing season.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATERFALL)

MORRIS: If you want a visual for that much water, picture Niagara Falls.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the actual roar of Niagara Falls...

(SOUNDBITE OF A NIAGARA FALLS)

MORRIS: In 2011, Kansas wells sucked out enough water to keep Niagara Falls thundering full force for three weeks. That's right, three weeks. That calibrated deluge has sprouted a vibrant economy on this arid land. In drought years, like this one, farmers could barely grow anything here. Now, with irrigation, Garetson says, they can grow just about everything.

GARETSON: We've raised potatoes. We've had peaches, cotton, corn, milo, wheat, soy beans.

MORRIS: All the corn grown out here supplies ethanol plants and feeds dairy cows, pigs and cattle. The livestock support a big meat packing industry. All thanks to this one resource...

GARETSON: Water, more precious than gold.

MORRIS: And, like gold, this water is not renewable. Most of that torrent farmers are pumping out sat trapped under the prairie for millions of years.

GARETSON: Yeah, we're mining it because once you hit a gold vein in mine and you get all the gold that's in that vein, you're through with that mine.

MORRIS: Garetson says parts of this water mine are playing out - not evenly but in spots the water table has plunged more than 100 feet, wells are running dry and tensions are rising. Garetson is suing to protect his water rights.

GARETSON: It does nothing but create neighbor problems. We producers perceive as long as there's water we're pumping; it's a free for all.

ANTHONY STEVENSON: I know my neighbor is pumping my water. I'm pumping his water, 'cause we're hooked in the same reservoir. If he don't pump it, I will.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

MORRIS: But Anthony Stevenson, who farms near Ulysses, Kansas, waters more judiciously these days. His irrigation system is efficient, delivering water to the base of his lush, eight-foot tall plants. And this year, Stevenson planted only half his field in corn. His well here produces just half what it once did and the lingering drought isn't helping.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE IGNITION)

STEVENSON: We can't out-pump a drought. We can't out-pump Mother Nature. Our wells aren't big enough.

MORRIS: Stevenson is gradually farming more like people did out here before irrigation, growing more wheat, less corn, and letting dry fields sit fallow a full year between plantings, to collect moisture. His income is taking a serious hit.

The aquifer's decline hasn't gone unnoticed. Wayne Bossert runs one of the state's four groundwater management districts. He says Kansas stopped new development on parts of the aquifer 30 years ago.

WAYNE BOSSERT: So we prevented it from getting any worse a long time ago.

MORRIS: Last year, Kansas began enforcing very stiff penalties for over-pumping. That drew death threats against state water officials. Still, Bossert says most farmers now want to manage the decline of the aquifer. They can't ignore it.

BOSSERT: When that supply gets interrupted or they start pumping air or they start realizing that, hey, that may not be there for very much longer, that's the paradigm shift. And that's what changes their attitudes and their opinions, and their willingness to sit down and talk.

MORRIS: Bossert convened a group of farmers who came up with their own conservation plan. They've agreed to cut usage by 20 percent during the next five years or face stiff sanctions. He expects to see the same approach elsewhere in western Kansas. Because lots of farmers here want to give one more generation a shot at the good life they've had, irrigating with water from the High Plains Aquifer.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

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