2013-01-10 / Ag News

Water: The stuff of life in the world

By Don Nieuwsma

Windmills to pump shallow water were once a common sight on the Dakota prairie. Windmills to pump shallow water were once a common sight on the Dakota prairie. Feb. 11, 2002

Few people often think of the importance of water in our daily lives. But I think most recognize the fact that we could live but few days without it. This treatise is on the availability of that precious resource, one of the most abundant, but not always in the right place.

Here in the desert of the Southwest is where it is especially critical to maintaining life as well as the valuation of property. One day while playing golf with a professed realtor I expressed a concern that with all the residential and golf course development in this area, how long would the water supply hold out? He assured me not to worry. “There’s an ocean of water under this desert,” he said. (Mind you, this was a real estate agent speaking!)

Surely the summer monsoons here help replenish the underground aquifer,with floods of rainwater disappearing below the sandy, washes and riverbeds. This desert area actually gets about 10 inches of rainfall per season, mostly in those summer storms from the Gulf of Mexico.

There is an annual “tonguein cheek” contest sponsored by a local radio station, giving a prize for the first observer to guess at what time the “frost causes the ice to break up on the Santa Cruz (river).” Since there is rarely a frost here, and the Santa Cruz is bone dry at least 95 percent of the year, the actual info on which the contest is based is when the temperature reaches 100 degrees! This is usually sometime in mid- or late-May (When we’re quite happy to be out of here!).

To shift our focus: Suffi- cient water for crops has often been a problem in the Plains Sates. I remember during the “Dirty Thirties” there were years when we were lucky to find enough water for our livestock and human needs,to say nothing about our crops. These crops often withered and died long before reaching maturity. Even pasture and forage crops suffered.

I remember one year we harvested green Russian thistles (a very drought-resistant weed) and stored them in our silo for the milking cows, which helped them to survive the winter. That fibrous diet also produced a lot of liquid fertilizer to help restore fertility to our dust-blown fields!

Finding ground water to supply our domestic and livestock needs was a constant struggle. Many holes were dug by itinerant well-drillers coming through the area. Some of these underground water sources were discovered by means of “dowsing.” I recall as a lad watching our local “dowser”slowly wander over the farmstead holding a forked green willow stick upright in his two hands. Suddenly this “magic wand” would point downward to where a pool of water was presumably accumulated. Drilling down 15-30 feet at this spot sometimes produced amazing results. But most of these pools were not longlasting.

After drilling and finding the vital fluid, a three-foot diameter wooden or metal casing would be driven into the hole to keep the loosened earth from filling it. A wooden platform and a pump would be installed at the top. With no electricity available, the first water would have to be hand-pumped to the surface. If the source proved worthwhile, a windmill might be installed, making use of a readily available source of power on the plains.

Sometimes the small holes admitting water into the casings would plug up, and someone would have to be lowered into the depths to unplug them with a steel rod. I remember for some reason I was usually chosen for the delicate task, probably because I was lighter than my older brothers—hence more easily roped down below. (Could this be where I developed my lifelong propensity toward claustrophobia?) Just kidding, brothers!

In modern times nearly all Midwestern farmers have electricity available, coming in the early forties with the Rural Electrification program of the federal government, and aided by construction of power dams such as Garrison and Oahe in the Dakotas. Most farm water is now pumped by electricity. Some farmers have also made good use of a much deeper source of water by drilling artesian wells down a half-mile or more, tapping into an ancient accumulation of water under pressure, resulting in a constant flow above ground. This, according to my information, has been especially true of the agricultural practices above the Ogallala Aquifer down into Kansas and Oklahoma. But in recent years this water level has reportedly dropped rather alarmingly. Let’s hope there is never another great drought as in the early “Thirties.”

To bring all this palaver to a very personal level, I want to stress that doctors now recommend that we humans should all drink at least sixeight glasses of water per day to preserve good health. Some centenarians have even attributed their long lives to this non-medical daily habit. So… enough about water, already. Here’s to your health!

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