OGALLALA, Neb. — A sign posted in the 1800s on an abandoned sod hut in the treeless, heartless heart of America tells of terrible times:
"90 miles to wood, 20 miles to water. Gone back East to wife's family."
A westbound migrant, aglow with thoughts of the future on the High Plains, wrote: "This would be fine country if it just had water."
A bitter sodbuster replied: "So would hell."
Little did any of them know that only a few feet below the dusty ruts from their wagons lay an underground ocean, one of Earth's great resources. It is called the Ogallala aquifer.
In its sand and gravel strata is enough fresh water to inundate all 50 states, equal in volume to all of Lake Huron and 20% of Lake Ontario.
The Ogallala underlies an area reaching from South Dakota and Wyoming south through Nebraska (which overlies two-thirds of its volume), Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and into parts of Texas and New Mexico.
Once this land was just The Great American Desert. Modern irrigation has transformed it into an 800-mile-wide greenbelt made possible, in effect, by upside-down rain.
The Ogallala region today produces up to 40% of America's beef, between 20% and 25% of its food and fiber, notably feed grains and cotton. This output that helps feed and clothe the nation was worth upward of $20 billion in 1989, and fuels an ancillary economy that may amount to $50 billion.
Without irrigation, Nebraska state Sen. Loran Schmit said, his state's gross product would drop 70%.
During the Dust Bowl period, haggard farmers watched, red-eyed, as their topsoil blew away in the sleepless wind. Salvation lay but a pipe's length beneath their feet, but they didn't have the tools to reach it. They do now.
Irrigated acres can be three to four times as productive as dry-land farms. The Ogallala was found wealth. Pumping on a grand scale began in Texas, and the High Plains became a mammoth cotton plantation.
Envious farmers peered over their fences at what their irrigating neighbors were doing, and the practice moved inexorably northward. In one region of southwest Nebraska where 111,600 acres were irrigated in 1950, 973,000 acres were under irrigation by 1970. In Yuma County in northeast Colorado it was 11,000 acres in 1959, 446,000 in 1987. Around Lubbock, Tex., the number of irrigation wells rose from 3,627 in 1953 to 46,906 in 1989.
Between 1940 and 1980, 400 million acre-feet of the Ogallala's 3.6 billion acre-feet of water were pumped through the thirsty wells. (An acre-foot, or 325,848 gallons, covers an acre 1 foot deep.) The result was predictable.
The water table fell by as much as 200 feet below Texas, which had used up 23% of the water by 1983. Kansas has pumped 38% of its water by one estimate. Kansas farmers pumped 4.4 million acre-feet in 1985. About 40 million acre-feet remain underground. In Kit Carson County, Colo., water tables have been dropping by as much as 5 feet a year.
Good rainfall, the skyrocketing costs of fuel and power, state regulation, federal farm programs and a growing concern for conservation all have helped to slow depletion. Ground-water use declined 19% between 1980 and 1985.
Grain farmer Ed Ediger of Hampton, Neb., said: "Let's leave some for our grandchildren."
Keith Lebbin, state water district manager for west-central Kansas, described the water situation in Scott City as "bleak." Agriculture there is beginning to suffer from the side effects of technology.
New techniques and irrigation devices are coming from, of all places, Texas. Where farmers once irrigated in a Texanly style, innovations now promise to set a pattern that might allow the aquifer to be a self-sustaining resource, or at least prolong its future for Ed Ediger's grandchildren's grandchildren.
"Today's farmer is much better educated about water," Bill Kastner, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, said.
It took eons for geology and climate to form this natural treasure, yet in less than one lifetime irrigation has pumped some of it dry. Since World War II, technology has drawn forth a flood far, far beyond nature's ability to replace it drop by drop.
The Ogallala ranges in depth from a few feet under Kansas and Colorado to 1,300 feet under Nebraska's Sand Hills. The average depth is 200 feet. Perhaps 11% of the aquifer has been pumped since the late 1930s. The maximum decline by 1980 was 200 feet in Floyd County in the Texas Panhandle. By one estimate, a quarter of the aquifer will be gone by 2020.
The aquifer has been both mindlessly squandered and utilized with great intelligence, foresight and self-restraint.
In places now, it is slowly being contaminated. In 1987, Nebraska farmers and ranchers put 775,000 tons of fertilizer on their land, 16,500 tons of pesticides and uncounted tons of herbicides. Cows and hogs produced an additional 235,000 tons of manure. Gradually, some of these leached downward toward the water.