Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


People have always struggled to adapt their water uses to the windswept, periodically dry Great Plains. This simple fact has remained true for Native Americans, Europeans, and Americans. Cultural values determine how people view water, and consequently how they use and develop it. Native Americans on the Plains stressed the spiritual and communal aspects of water. European Americans, on the other hand, conceived of water mainly in terms of economic development, with the result being an escalating manipulation of the water resources of the Great Plains. First surface irrigation, then dam building, and, most recently, extensive groundwater pumping have furnished the key resource for agriculture and towns, but these processes have also altered the ecosystems of the region to such an extent that environmentalists have sounded alarms. Ultimately, the success or failure of human societies on the Plains has always depended upon how well each developed a sustainable form of water use.

Great Plains Hydraulics

The sources of most major rivers in the Great Plains are in the Rocky Mountains. In the Prairie Provinces, the South and North Saskatchewan, Red Deer, Bow, and Frenchman Rivers flow generally northeastward from the mountains. On the Northern Great Plains the Missouri and its major tributaries, the Milk and Yellowstone Rivers, flow, respectively, on easterly, southeasterly, and northeasterly courses from the Rockies. The Assiniboine, Qu'Appelle, and Souris Rivers are the main exceptions to the hydrogeography in that they rise within the Prairie Provinces.

Farther south, the North and South Platte and Arkansas Rivers rise toward the Rocky Mountains of Colorado before taking their gentle descent eastward. These rivers, and irrigation dependent upon them, benefit from the melt of snowpack in the mountains that sends water to the Central Plains when it is needed most, during the growing season. Farther south again, the Canadian River has its source in the Sangre de Cristo Range, then flows south along its eastern slope before crossing the High Plains of Texas into Oklahoma. The Pecos River folds around the southern edge of the same range, then cuts a trench southward to join the Rio Grande. In Texas the Brazos and Colorado Rivers gather force on the Llano Estacado before following courses to the Gulf of Mexico.

Underlying approximately 174,000 square miles of the Central and Southern Great Plains is a precious resource, the Ogallala (or High Plains) Aquifer. Today this underwater reservoir, "fossil" water that is the remnant of ancient glacial melts, contains more than 3.25 billion acre-feet of drainable water that is tapped by about 200,000 irrigation wells. The aquifer is thickest and most extensive in Nebraska. In its southern reaches, in southwest Kansas and the Texas Panhandle, excessive pumping has exceeded rates of recharge and lowered levels by more than 200 feet.

Precipitation accounts for surface flows and a significant amount of groundwater recharge. Rainfall and snowfall generally increase from west to east from around fourteen inches annually near the Front Range to more than twenty inches by the 100th meridian, and more than forty inches in southeastern Kansas as the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains is left behind. Variability of rainfall is great everywhere, with extended periods without rain each year and a longer, more widespread drought occurring every twenty years or so. The drought hazard is greatest in winter. Moisture availability for plants is also hampered by the torrential nature of rainfall and its rapid runoff. It is not uncommon for as much as one-quarter of the annual precipitation to be delivered locally in a single storm.

Evaporation and temperature also influence people's adaptations to their hydraulic environments. Evaporation rates, which during the growing season vary from thirty-six inches in the northern reaches of the Plains to more than fifty inches in the Southern Plains, help produce a relatively similar vegetation in both areas despite variance in precipitation. But temperature diãerences mean shorter growing seasons from south to north. The Southern Plains have an average of more than 200 frost-free days, whereas the Northern Plains often have fewer than 100.

These climatic differences from north to south and west to east have many repercussions for water development. The paucity of reliable streams in the south hindered irrigation until the invention of center pivots that tap the Ogallala Aquifer. The Central Plains proved most conducive to water development because of the favorable combination of water availability (from both surface and groundwater sources) and relatively lengthy growing season.

Native American Use and Spanish Influence

Long before European Americans built their hydraulic society in the Great Plains, Native Americans understood the crucial importance of the limited and variable water resources in the region. The water uses of Plains Indians were founded upon deep spiritual beliefs, but they were also adaptations to variations in precipitation. The ancestors of the historic Pawnees, for example, moved their villages westward along the stream courses of the Solomon and Republican Rivers during times of increased rainfall, and when precipitation levels fell they removed eastward toward the Missouri River. According to Pawnee Indian cosmology, water formed the fourth creation, preceded by the earth, life, and timbers, and followed by cultivated seeds and people. To the Pawnees, failure of rains and stream flows implied broken bonds in the reciprocal relationship between people and water. The Pawnees gave respect to water to maintain the agriculture that was so important in the annual cycle of their lives.

Water was equally important in terms of the bison hunt. Twice a year the Pawnees conducted the Great Cleansing Ceremony before leaving on their hunts. Sacred objects of Pawnee Indian cosmology were taken to the river near their villages and symbolically washed. Afterward the villagers cleaned their dwellings and the streets, then themselves. The priests had a sweat lodge constructed for them, then called all the people to race to the river. The priests followed, entered the stream, and then returned to their sweat lodge for a steam bath. Then the remaining villagers leaped into the stream, bathing and playing in the water, so all were cleansed for the hunt.

Horse-mounted bison hunters like the Arapahos, Blackfeet, Cheyennes, Comanches, Kiowas, and Sioux also gave great consideration to the water resources of the Great Plains. They often made their winter camps and sheltered their vast horse herds in riparian ecosystems where timber and grass, as well as water, were available. The small ponds and springs scattered throughout the Plains were also essential resources, places to camp or to water horses on long journeys. Historically, on the High Plains there were few areas more than fifteen miles from a spring. During dry spells many of these ponds evaporated. Rivers and streams became sandy beds or flowed intermittently. Such times exacted terrible tolls on both people and their animal herds.

When the Spanish colonized the Southwest, beginning in 1598, they practiced a communal form of irrigation by combining their own with Pueblo Indian practices. All people shared in the governance and maintenance of the acequia madre, the mother canal, which the community owned in common. Hispanics were still practicing this form of irrigation at the site of present-day Pueblo, Colorado, during the 1840s and early 1850s.

As a result of the Spanish and Pueblo influences, Plains Indians attempted irrigation practices in the region before 1700. In 1637, Taos Indians rose up against the Spanish, then fled eastward into the Great Plains. There they found support among the Plains Apaches, and together they built a small pueblo with irrigation works at a spring in western Kansas, near the present-day town of Scott City. The Spanish called the place El Curatelejo, or distant quarter. After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, more refugees joined the people at El Curatelejo, but an expedition by Juan de Ulibarri forced them back to New Mexico in 1706. The Plains Apaches tried to retain the village and the practice of irrigated agriculture, but eventually Comanches forced them to abandon it sometime after 1750.

Irrigated agriculture was connected to the Spanish attempt to control the Comanches, and later to the U.S. attempt to change the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos into sedentary farmers. In the summer of 1787, the Spanish tried to convince Comanches under the leadership of Paruanarimuco to relinquish bison hunting and embrace irrigated agriculture. The Spanish located a village site where the San Carlos (Saint Charles) River emptied into the Rio de Napestle (today called the Arkansas River) and began constructing housing and irrigation works, tilling land, and planting crops while simultaneously instructing the Comanches in agricultural practices. By January 1788, under the supervision of master craftsman Manuel Segura, the Jupe band of Comanches occupied their new homes. But Parunarimuco's wife died that same month, and in accordance to Jupe custom, the Comanches abandoned the site. Governor Fernando de la Concha briefly considered having the pueblo colonized by New Mexicans but decided that the expense of protecting the village would be too costly. So ended the first, and only, attempt of the Spanish to convert Plains Indian peoples to irrigation.

Hispanic water practices contributed to the development of Mormon communal irrigation systems. Beginning in 1846, a group of Mormon emigrants observed Hispanic agriculture around present-day Pueblo, Colorado, where they learned to integrate their utopian values with communal irrigation practices. The Mormons moved to Salt Lake City two years later and most likely introduced cooperative irrigation in the "Wasatch Oasis."

Hispanic community irrigation also influenced Native Americans in the Plains in the two decades before the American Civil War. Traders and Native Americans in the Central and Southern Great Plains recognized the depletion of game animals. Yellow Wolf, a Southern Cheyenne, sought an economic alternative to the fur trade and, with the aid of the Indian agents in the Upper Arkansas Agency, petitioned the U.S. government to build an irrigation colony for the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos who wanted to farm. Provisions for building an irrigation system and support facilities were part of the Fort Wise Treaty of 1861. Little came of this project, however, as the Civil War diverted federal resources away from the initial work near Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado. By 1864, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had enough of the project operational to grow a small corn crop. But in the early fall of that year, Southern Arapahos, outraged by ill treatment by the United States, raided the works, stole the stock, and killed some of the bureau's employees. The experiment came apart in the aftermath of the Sand Creek Massacre in November 1864. Later the abandoned system became the foundation of an irrigation system for European American settlers.

Conceptions of Water

Soon after the creation of Colorado Territory in 1859, Coloradans began establishing an elaborate system of water law and regulation. Although some did attempt to create communal irrigation works, they treated water differently than the Spanish, Mormons, and Plains Indians. The United States used law to transform water into a marketable commodity to serve the needs of an economic system based on individual opportunity and gain. The aggressive attitude toward water, and toward environment in general, made possible the resettlement of the Great Plains by Europeans and Americans, but it also resulted in escalating pressures on ecosystems.

When prospectors flocked to the goldfields of Colorado in the early 1860s, they created a demand for agricultural products. Some miners left the hard rock of the mountains for the soft soils of the river valleys in the Colorado Piedmont, where they flourished by supplying food to the miners and ranchers. David Hall and William Brantner developed small, but highly successful, irrigation systems on the South Platte River. Others, like George Washington Swink, constructed lucrative irrigation systems along the Arkansas River, supplying ranchers in the Central Great Plains. Horace Greeley, the famous editor of the New York Tribune, eschewed market-oriented irrigation and tried to perfect utopian, communal irrigation at Union Colony in the city that bore his name, Greeley, Colorado. But even the utopians of Greeley soon set aside their agenda of social reform for an emphasis on market agriculture.

As irrigation systems multiplied, draining watercourses on the western edge of the Plains, the need arose for water diversion regulatory laws. It also became apparent that the traditional, common-law-based doctrine of riparian rights, which formed the foundation of water laws in the eastern United States, was an inadequate method for allocating water resources in the semiarid Great Plains. According to this doctrine, water rights were restricted to people who owned land along watercourses. In addition, all riparian owners were entitled to receive an equal amount of water flow. These principles caused numerous problems when applied in the Great Plains. The restriction of the use of water to riparian lands hampered the development of agriculture in areas that were not adjacent to rivers or streams. Even riparian owners themselves could not use the water for intensive irrigation because they were not allowed to diminish the downstream flow of water. Finally, by giving all riparian owners equal claims to the water resources, the doctrine made it impossible to allocate water on the basis of priority needs during droughts, which frequently plagued the Plains.

A solution to these problems was provided by the prior appropriation system of water rights, which many historians argue originated in the California goldfields. The miners created codes to protect the rights of any person who first developed a "beneficial" water use, known otherwise as "first in time, first in right." A miner had a right only to the water that he could use in his operations and, as the first to develop his right, could divert this amount of water before anyone else along the watercourse.

Coloradans developed the first system of prior appropriation in the Great Plains. Colorado lawmakers may have incorporated some elements of Hispanic traditions in defining water as a public, rather than a private, resource. However, they relied to a great extent upon a commodity notion of water rights in defining "beneficial use" solely in terms of domestic, agricultural, and industrial applications. Moreover, prior appropriation encouraged the rapid economic development of stream flows by giving people priority to divert water in the chronological order in which each perfected his or her right. Anyone who waited too long to acquire a water right may have received little, if any, actual water because of the priority given to people with earlier dated rights.

The Colorado Doctrine of water rights relied upon the courts to determine individual rights. A person petitioned the state courts for a right, and the judge granted and recorded the right once he or she had presented the appropriate documentation. In 1881 the state legislature created a state engineer's office to regulate water rights. The office was also responsible for dam and irrigation system safety. Locating the origin of rights within the courts, and the regulatory duties in the state engineer's office, made water conflicts in Colorado a highly litigated realm and underwrote a flourishing cadre of water lawyers.

A more centralized system of water doctrine and management developed in Wyoming. Elwood Mead, a civil engineer who was guided by an ethic of conservation stressing the scientific management of natural resources, formulated a more centralized notion of water regulation than that of Colorado. The Wyoming legislature implemented his plans, which called for a state engineer's office that not only regulated the operation of a prior appropriation system of water rights, but also granted all water rights applications in the state. In Wyoming the whole focus of water regulation fell upon the state engineer's office, whereas in Colorado the state engineer's office and the state courts shared the responsibility. In time, the other Great Plains states adopted some form of the prior appropriation system and the creation of an engineer's office along either the Wyoming or Colorado lines, both of which established the legal basis for putting water to economic use.

In the Canadian Prairie Provinces ownership and regulation of water resources (and other resources, such as land) was, and is, derived from British Common Law. In practice this meant that the federal government had authority to use or alienate water resources in the three Prairie Provinces until 1930 when such rights passed to the provincial governments.

The Irrigation Crusade

As irrigation promoters planned their works, they had to move quickly to perfect their water rights. Many promoters envisioned grand irrigation systems crisscrossing the Great Plains. In 1872 William Jackson Palmer dreamed of an irrigation system beginning near Pueblo, Colorado, and terminating somewhere well within western Kansas. In 1873 President Ulysses S. Grant delivered a speech in Denver outlining an extraordinary plan for building a canal from where the South Platte River exits the Rocky Mountains eastward hundreds of miles to a juncture with the Missouri River. In 1889 Willis R. Bierly, a North Dakota newspaper editor, advocated constructing a 230-mile canal from Fort Stevenson on the upper Missouri River to Grand Forks, and from there to Upper Red Lake in Minnesota, then south to Grand Rapids, and eventually emptying into Lake Superior near Duluth. None of these plans materialized.

Others with similar grandiose schemes launched projects designed to transform the shortgrass prairie into a garden. Promoters felt a sense of urgency because they needed to perfect viable water rights for their systems, and this meant laying claim to a flow of water for beneficial uses before anyone else. Failing in this meant the ruin of many projects, as western water courses became "over-appropriated," meaning that people had attached more rights to a stream than its flow could accommodate. Among the notable promoters between 1870 and 1900 were Theodore C. Henry in Colorado, Joseph M. Carey in Wyoming, Asa Soule in Kansas, W. R. Akers in Nebraska, the lawman Pat Garrett in New Mexico, and S. B. Robbins in Montana.

One plainsman in particular achieved notoriety for promoting irrigation as a solution for social and economic problems. William Ellsworth Smythe, from Worcester, Massachusetts, heeded Horace Greeley's call for young people to head west. Trained as a newspaperman, Smythe became the editor of The Enterprise in Kearney, Nebraska. He noted how farm families were broken during the droughts that prevailed on the Plains in the early 1890s. He toured New Mexico and observed how Hispanic community-based irrigation systems provided successful crops regardless of the dry climate. When he returned to Nebraska he organized a convention to advertise the virtues of irrigation, and later he took his mission throughout the West. He convened a national forum on irrigation in Salt Lake City in 1891, bringing delegates from all the western states and territories. The attendees returned to their homes full of enthusiasm for irrigation. Also in 1891, Smythe began publishing Irrigation Age, a journal dedicated to trumpeting the benefits of irrigation throughout the West. The "republic of irrigation," Smythe pronounced, was at hand.

Infected with irrigation fever, several irrigation promoters rushed into poorly conceived ventures, overestimated water users' needs, and recklessly invested their own and others' funds. T. C. Henry's massive irrigation system in southeast Colorado failed to provide water for the 100,000 acres it was supposed to serve. By the early 1890s the farmers of the La Junta and Lamar Irrigation Company, Henry's enterprise, were in desperate straits. In populistic zeal they turned to the courts of Colorado, where they found a sympathetic forum. By 1896 they had wrestled control of the system away from Henry and collectively acquired possession of the system and the right to govern it according to their mutual selfinterest.

Asa Soule, a New York–born traveling salesman, failed even faster than Henry. He underwrote the building of the 100-mile-long Eureka Ditch, constructed in 1884 near Dodge City, Kansas. Soule invested more than $750,000 of his own money, but the system never succeeded in delivering enough water to the farmers tapping the main canal. In just a couple of years Soule, his investors, and irrigators had lost their fortunes on the shortgrass prairies of southwest Kansas. No one ever attempted to revitalize Soule's dream, and only the grass-covered canal banks mark his failed dream of transforming the semiarid grasslands into lush, water-intensive croplands.

Enter the Government

Spectacular failures like those of T. C. Henry and Asa Soule along with the high costs involved in launching irrigation systems ushered the federal government into the irrigation business. The Carey Act of 1894 was the first of a series of federal laws that regulated Plains irrigation practices. Joseph M. Carey, a senator from Wyoming, together with notable investors like Francis E. Warren, a powerful state politician, organized the Wyoming Development Company. In 1883 the company began constructing a system that eventually irrigated about 60,000 acres near Wheatland in southeastern Wyoming. The company completed more than 100 miles of the main canal by 1885, but farmers, recognizing the company's lack of title to the public land, refused to invest. The Carey Act, unsurprisingly, addressed the needs of the Wyoming Development Company very well by allowing the state to select one million acres for reclamation and to receive patents to the land once irrigators were making use of it. The sale of the land to the irrigators either repaid the state or a private company for building the irrigation works, and any remainder returned to the state treasury for the purchase of other reclamation lands. In the case of Wyoming, the state held the land patents in trust for the Wyoming Development Company, and the company received compensation for its construction costs through the land sales and for maintenance through water delivery charges. The act, however, had little effect beyond the borders of Wyoming.

John Wesley Powell, director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), was determined to bring greater federal control and planning to the development of irrigation in the West, including the Great Plains. In 1878, Powell published his famous Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States in which he proposed a radically changed federal land policy that called for regional planning around river basins. Under Powell's plan, farmers would acquire 80 acres designated for irrigation, ranchers 2,560 would get acres for their stock, and regulated timber companies could harvest the watershed forests. In 1888 Congress provided Powell with funding to survey public lands and assess their suitability for irrigation. State engineers, state politicians, and business people feared that this centralized mapping and planning would eliminate any lucrative possibilities for local developers. Senator Carey from Wyoming and E. S. Nettleton, a former state engineer of Colorado and an employee in the usgs, worked with Elwood Mead to undermine Powell's political support in Congress. Their unwillingness to embrace Powell's notions of ecological planning, which included criticism of the prior appropriation system, led to Powell's downfall. The end of Powell's survey, however, did not mark the end of government aid to irrigation on the Plains; rather it presaged further governmental support after the creation of the Reclamation Service.

In 1902 Congress passed the Reclamation Act to subsidize irrigation in the West and to build new projects. Renamed the Bureau of Reclamation in 1927, the service bolstered and expanded water developments such as the Elephant Butte project on the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The bureau, however, had little effect on High Plains irrigation before 1940. The region lacked the grand dam sites like those in the steep-walled canyons of the West, and by the twentieth century little suitable public land remained in the Plains for the federal government to develop.

The bureau did attempt one innovative irrigation project: a pump irrigation system near Garden City, Kansas. J. W. Gregory, an influential participant in Smythe's irrigation crusade and the editor of a Garden City newspaper, spearheaded a campaign to secure governmental support for a pumping project. Charles S. Slichter's survey of the groundwater resources in the vicinity of Garden City enabled the realization of Gregory's aspirations. Irrigators formed the Finney County Water User's Association in order to contract for water from the service. By 1905 all of the paperwork, studies, and organization had been completed, and the bureau was ready to build.

The bureau anticipated having the pumps ready for the 1908 growing season, but the only result was conflict with local irrigators over the operation of the system. The farmers of the association received little benefit from the project because the pump machinery broke down and the government's ditches leaked. Moreover, in 1909 the Arkansas River was so full that farmers refused to contract for any pump water from the bureau. This resulted in a protest from Frederick Newell, director of the project, who accused farmers of reneging on their repayment pledges to the bureau. In 1910 an angry Newell wrote off the whole pumping experiment as a failure, and the federal government never again ventured into pump irrigation projects.

In the early twentieth century, the federal courts and the growth of the sugar beet industry did more to regulate irrigation on the Plains than the Bureau of Reclamation. The U.S. Supreme Court established the most important national precedents regulating interstate water rights and federal rights to water. Two cases stand out: Kansas v. Colorado (1907), which established the doctrine of equity; and Winters v. United States (1908), which defined reserved rights.

Kansas v. Colorado stemmed from the artificial division of the Arkansas River by the Kansas-Colorado state line. This boundary inhibited the development of a cooperative approach in using the resources of the river basin as advocated by John Wesley Powell in his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States of 1879. Instead, Kansans and Coloradans on each side of the state line worked hard to put the flow of the river to economic use without regard for the needs and plans of the other. Coloradans, of course, had the advantage because of their upstream position. As early as the 1890s, Kansans, including the irrepressible irrigation promoter Charles "Buffalo" Jones, noted dwindling flows as diversions proliferated in Colorado. Jones was unable to finance interstate litigation before the Supreme Court to remedy the situation. Marshall Murdock, a powerful newspaper editor from Wichita, Kansas, possessed the political clout that Jones lacked, and he persuaded the Kansas legislature to support a case of original jurisdiction in the Supreme Court against Colorado. Kansas attorneys filed their opening briefs in May 1901, initiating the largest interstate suit to have ever reached the Court. In May 1907 Justice David Brewer, a native Kansan, wrote the Court's opinion, later known as the "doctrine of equity." Brewer had tallied economic gains made throughout the Arkansas River valley and noted how the economies in both states had steadily grown regardless of the decreasing river flows into Kansas. Consequently, he ruled that Kansans had not made a case for restraining Colorado's water uses. Kansans, Justice Brewer noted, would have a case only when they could connect economic distress with decreasing river flows. From this time on, the doctrine of equity, the weighing of relative economic gains made through the use of water, governed nearly all interstate water suits.

The court took a completely different tack in deciding how to protect Native American water rights. In the case Winters v. United States, known also as the Winters Doctrine, Justice McKenna defined "reserved rights." The case was a result of the Bureau of Indian Affairs's effort to develop farming on the Fort Belknap Reservation in northern Montana. Non-Native farmers built irrigation works along the Milk River, and by 1905 Native American farmers on the Fort Belknap Reservation had little flow to divert for their own lands. The U.S. Attorney General's office came to their aid and won the suit in both district and appeals courts. The Supreme Court upheld the Native Americans's "reserved" rights, those rights inherent in the creation of a reservation. Secondly, the Court's decision preserved Native American water rights even if unused, and it allowed for an unquantified amount of Indian water so long as the flows were used to pursue economic goals on the reservation. Ever since, the Winters Doctrine has guided Supreme Court decisions relating to Native American water rights.

Even more than Supreme Court decisions, sugar beets gave stability to the irrigation economy in the Great Plains. In 1890 Henry Oxnard, a Bostonian who had learned sugar cane refining in the South, but later turned to beet refining, built a large refining factory at Grand Island, Nebraska. Soon after, he built another at Norfolk, Nebraska. His American Crystal Sugar Company became a dominant economic enterprise on the Central Great Plains. In 1900 he built the Rocky Ford factory, and in 1907 the Las Animas factory, in the Arkansas River valley of Colorado. Other sugar beet companies, like the Holly Sugar Company of eastern Colorado and the United States Sugar and Land Company near Garden City, Kansas, offered Oxnard all the competition he could handle. By the 1950s, however, the beet economy had fallen on hard times, and most of the factories stood idle. Nonetheless, sugar beet growing, which requires irrigation, anchored a regional farm economy before advances in pump irrigation made other crops economically feasible.

Irrigation in the Great Plains received an additional boost during the 1930s. When the Great Depression struck, the federal government responded with water projects for the farm economy. The states needed bureaus that could coordinate state water planning with these federal relief projects. In 1936 Montanans were the first to create such a board, the Montana Water Conservation Board, with wide powers to coordinate state planning with the largess of the federal government. Soon after, other Great Plains states followed suit with the creation of their own water boards. A professional class of water lawyers serving private irrigation companies, and hydraulic engineers serving both as consultants and bureaucrats, grew alongside these state agencies, and together they guided a complex and highly fractionalized hydraulic society. Water lawyers such as Judge Watson McHendrie and engineers such as Steven Reynolds, Michael Creed Hinderlider, and George Knapp became regional household names. Even though water development in the Great Plains has been a male-dominated enterprise, women have also made their marks. During the 1930s and 1940s, Vena Pointer worked as an effective water lawyer in the Arkansas River valley of Colorado, and at the time of this writing Anne Bleed serves as the chief hydrologist for the state of Nebraska.

A new development involved the allocation of water resources through the writing of interstate compacts and international treaties. Frederick Newell first proposed compacts while giving testimony during Kansas v. Colorado, and Delph Carpenter, a capable and shrewd water lawyer from Colorado, developed the idea. Through these means the hydrologists, engineers, irrigators, and lawyers from the states involved devised the system to regulate interstate water flows to their mutual benefit. During the 1930s and 1940s negotiators concluded compacts on several Great Plains rivers including the Arkansas, Republican, and Canadian. The International Joint Commission, representing the United States, the western states, the Prairie Provinces, and the national government of Canada, negotiated treaties to develop the Milk River, which flows in and out of Montana and Alberta. Compacts and treaties worked simultaneously to promote economic individualism, to stabilize and augment the water supply to existing systems, and to develop new water projects. The Bureau of Reclamation contributed by building massive transmountain water diversion projects for the plains of eastern Colorado. Powerful irrigation interests around Greeley promoted the construction of the Big Thompson Transmountain Water Project. Coloradans in the Arkansas River valley massed enough political clout to have Congress underwrite the Frying Pan Transmountain Water Project. Both of these projects tap the alpine tributaries of the Colorado River and divert flows to the semiarid plains of Colorado rather than heading toward the Pacific.

The Pick-Sloan Plan

No one federal project, however, transformed the Great Plains hydraulics as much as the Pick-Sloan Plan. In 1927 the Mississippi River overflowed its banks and destroyed property from Minnesota to Louisiana. As a result, Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to study flood control for its entire drainage basin. The corps's studies stretched to the upper reaches of the Missouri River, and, empowered by the Omnibus Flood Control Act of 1936, the corps began constructing a series of "flood control" projects throughout the Great Plains in the watersheds of the Missouri, Arkansas, Canadian, and Pecos Rivers among others. The corps initiated its building spree on the Missouri River with the Fort Peck Dam on the northern reaches of the plains of Montana. This project was completed in 1940. In 1943 the Missouri River flooded, and this gave additional impetus to the corps to "control the Missouri River." The corps leader, Col. Lewis Pick, emphasized flood control and paid little heed to irrigation.

The Bureau of Reclamation, fearful of being outdone by the corps, devised its own plans for the Missouri River. In his design, William G. Sloan, a bureau planner, paid particular attention to hydroelectric power production and irrigation. Congress had two contending plans from which to choose, but President Franklin Roosevelt settled the score by endorsing basinwide planning for the Missouri River premised on the Tennessee Valley Authority. Troubled that a regional agency could put them out of business, the bureau and the corps merged their designs and won over Congress by appealing to representatives and senators who disliked centralized planning on the lines of the TVA. Congress backed the Pick-Sloan Plan and began funding in earnest in the late 1940s.

Great Plains residents have expressed great ambivalence about the merits of the Pick-Sloan Plan. The Mandans, Arikaras, and Hidatsas who live on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota came to rue the day they ever heard of the Garrison Dam, one of the major dams on the mainstem of the Missouri River. The Pick-Sloan project flooded and destroyed their best grassland pastures and ruined their lucrative ranches. The final terms by which these tribes relinquished their lands denied them the right to fish in the reservoir, to water their cattle from it, or to graze their animals near it. "The members of the tribal council sign this contract with heavy hearts," said George Gillette, the tribal business council president, when he put his name on the bill in 1948. Canadians also vigorously protested the Garrison Dam. They claimed that the dam would introduce parasites and fish species from the Missouri into the streams feeding Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba and consequently destroy the trout and pike fishing in those lakes.

In another case, environmentalists and farmers gathered to protest the bureau's plans for an irrigation project to tap the Oahe Reservoir on the Missouri in South Dakota. One reason that Senator George McGovern lost his bid for reelection in 1980 was because of his rigorous support of the project. The bureau has not attempted to build this system. In general, the bureau has trimmed its ambitious planning as cost overruns became all too common. For example, the bureau promised Montanans that 368,000 acres of irrigation would come their way, when, in actuality, Montana irrigators had only benefited from an additional 48,000 acres by 1987. Critics have even questioned the value of the Pick-Sloan Plan for flood protection. For example, hydrologists remain divided as to whether or not this mass of dams and reservoirs aggravated or ameliorated the effects of the floods of 1993. Whatever the case, the Missouri River has been so drastically altered by dams and the creation of large "prairie lakes" that it would be unrecognizable to Lewis and Clark.


Even more than the federal government's direct subsidy of surface irrigation, it was center pivots that made irrigated agriculture a paying proposition throughout the Great Plains. From the 1880s and 1890s, when hydrologists first began exploring the various levels of groundwater beneath the Plains, irrigators understood that with the right technology they could bring these waters to the surface. Windmills provided a start, but the feeble lift of the machines limited the ways in which farmers could use them. Irrigators could draw only from alluviums and shallow groundwater depths and supply only five acres with a single windmill. After World War II, efficient natural gas and gasoline-powered engines drove powerful pumps that could lift deep groundwater. Still, farmers found even this technology limiting in that they had to level their fields carefully for drainage, monitor siphons, and watch the progress of water flowing down furrows. In 1949 a Colorado tenant farmer, Frank Zybach, patented his center-pivot irrigation system in hopes of alleviating much of the handwork and costly field preparation associated with pump irrigation. These aluminum pipe megamachines mounted to A-frame towers riding on tandem wheels circle a center-post swivel where ground pipes tap the water that is drawn to the surface by pumps. A contemporary system can irrigate about 133 acres out of a 160-acre quarter section.

Center pivots made possible the extensive use of the Ogallala Aquifer. Essentially, the aquifer is the collection of Ice Age runoffs entombed by the accumulations of soil and sand. The total "drainable" aquifer holds enough water to fill Lake Huron, third largest of the Great Lakes. The saturated thickness of the aquifer varies, so that some irrigators have very deep sources beneath their land. Saturated thickness is an important indicator given the slow recharge of the aquifer. For example, some farmers around Lubbock, Texas, have completely pumped all of the water below their feet and have been obliged to return to dryland farming. By contrast, in the mid- 1980s in Nebraska, where the saturated thickness of the aquifer is at its greatest, irrigators had used less than 1 percent of the water that was available in the aquifer prior to pumping. By one estimate at least, with 1980 pumping rates, center-pivot systems will be unable to supply 80 percent of the area presently irrigated through this system by the year 2020.

Great Plains irrigators and state legislatures have taken steps to regulate their use of the aquifer through laws and institutions. In 1927, for example, New Mexico became the first of the Great Plains states to bring groundwater (defined as a public rather than private resource) under state control; the state engineer regulates the depletion rates within declared groundwater basins. Elsewhere, management systems vary from state to state, but all the states from Nebraska to Texas that are fortunate enough to have this underground water endowment have institutions and regulations to manage its exploitation.

Irrigation in the Prairie Provinces

As in the American Great Plains, the first irrigation systems in the Prairie Provinces were developed by private individuals and local communities. The beginning of irrigation in the Prairie Provinces is often attributed to John Gleen, who, in 1879, began to irrigate his claim near Calgary. The first major irrigation systems were introduced to the region, in southwestern Alberta, by Mormon emigrants from Utah in the late nineteenth century. After the passage of the Northwest Irrigation Act in 1894, the federal government assumed a more active role in promoting irrigation projects. The central role of the federal government was made possible by the fact that it held jurisdiction over natural resources in the three Prairie Provinces until 1930; other Canadian provinces had received rights to their resources through the British North American Act of 1867 and several subsequent court decisions.

Lacking financial assets, the federal government at first used its extensive rights in the Prairie Provinces by giving huge land grants to the railway companies. The Canadian Pacific Railway, for example, was granted 25 million acres under its own charter in 1881 and acquired about 7 million additional acres from charters of other companies it took over. The rationale behind the policy was that the companies would promote settlement on their lands, and this in turn would result in increased use of their transportation facilities. Under their charters, in 1894 the Pacific Railway Company selected a huge area of land in southwestern Alberta with the intention of introducing irrigation. The plan involved a diversion of the Bow River near Calgary in order to irrigate an enormous, three-million-acre "irrigation block." Although the Bow River Irrigation Project never materialized in its entirety, in 1914 it resulted in the construction of the huge Bassano Dam, which made available a supply of water for the irrigation of nearly 247,000 acres and helped to create a new agricultural hinterland for Calgary.

Such subsidies exemplify the federal government's early, primarily indirect, attempts to promote irrigation in the Prairie Provinces. A period of more direct involvement began in the 1930s when the double disaster of economic recession and prolonged drought hit the Prairie Provinces. In 1935 as large numbers of people migrated from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba to other parts of Canada, the federal government established the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) to improve the farm economy and to arrange more efficient use of the limited water resources. At first, PFRA launched several smallscale emergency projects, including building of on-farm "dugouts" (shallow, rectangular excavations designed to hold water), small dams to conserve local runoff, and irrigation works for gardens and small fields. Later, PFRA also assisted in more extensive water projects such as construction of large reservoirs for water storage in the Milk, Red Deer, Bow, and South Saskatchewan River basins.

By far the most ambitious water projects in the Prairie Provinces have focused on river diversions and dam constructions. These large-scale, long-term projects have had at least a triple purpose: to create hydroelectrical power, to limit flood damages, and to increase irrigation acreage. Due to heavy capital costs, a policy was adopted in 1942 that encouraged cooperation between the federal and provincial governments in planning and construction. In general, the federal government has been responsible for the building of the main dams and reservoirs, while the provincial governments have undertaken the construction of distributive networks. Of the three Prairie Provinces, the most extensive cost-shared water projects have taken place in Alberta, which has, for example, Canada's largest irrigation project, the St. Mary River Irrigation District. Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which lack Alberta's advantageous location along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, where snowmelt feeds numerous streams, have been involved with fewer and less ambitious water projects. Nevertheless, both provinces, together with the federal government, have launched several significant developments, the most notable of which are the Red River Floodway in Manitoba, which is aimed to prevent flooding in the Winnipeg area, and the multipurpose Gardiner Dam in Saskatchewan.

Thanks to the federal and provincial governments' extensive river diversion and dam construction projects, surface water has supplied most of the irrigation water in the Prairie Provinces. However, recent years have also witnessed a notable increase in the use of groundwater. Between 1973 and 1986, irrigation acreage in the Prairie Provinces increased from more than 620,000 acres to nearly 1.4 million acres. Center-pivot irrigation is now extensively developed, drawing from groundwater as well as canals, ditches, and reservoirs.

Environmentalism and Water

Conservation of groundwater does not address the serious and mounting problem of water pollution in the Great Plains. People throughout the region face growing levels of nitrates in their groundwater. This poses a special health threat to infants and children. Surface irrigation has also contributed to high levels of salinity in stream flows in the Southern Plains. Riparian soils, abundantly impregnated with salts, produce poor crops when converted to dryland farming. In fact, these soils will not even support the growth of former indigenous grasses like buffalo grass, blue grama, or short bluestem. Along the streams in the Southern Plains, salt cedar, a tree imported to the United States as an ornamental in the mid-1800s, flourishes in the salt-rich soils and has significantly altered former plant and animal communities. Almost 2,000 miles to the north, the St. Mary Dam in Alberta has destroyed the cottonwood riparian ecosystem below the dam. In other places, oil well drilling has created saltwater incursions into fresh groundwater supplies. Minimum or zero tillage, introduced to conserve moisture, has also increased pollution because chemicals are now used to control weeds that had previously been eliminated through the cultivation process. This situation poses a future threat to many urban water supplies. Pesticides such as atrazine are present at high levels in many stream courses as a result of modern farming practices.

Beginning in the 1970s, wetland and wildlife preservation added another aspect to debates swirling around the environmental effects of water use and development in the Great Plains. For example, according to a Kansas Geological Survey report in 1986, more than 600 miles of streams in the state rarely flowed. As streams dry up, wetlands rapidly disappear throughout the Great Plains. In 1980 Canadian environmentalists estimated that the Prairie Provinces had lost 40 to 70 percent of its wetlands. Consequently, farmers and environmentalists often find themselves embroiled in controversies over the preservation of these ecosystems. In one case the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken an active stance in working to preserve the Prairie Potholes, millions of depressions in glacial drift formed more than 12,000 years ago by retreating glaciers. These hollows, which cover large areas of Alberta, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and South Dakota, hold precipitation and are important to migrating fowl. The formation of the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust in 1979 represented concerns for the protection of wildlife by maintaining the flow of the Platte River. In 1992, the Kansas chief engineer, David Pope, restricted pump irrigation in favor of the prior "recreational" water rights of Cheyenne Bottoms, a crucially important wetland along the Central Flyway. Environmentalists in Texas have become alarmed at the depletion of the Playa Lakes in the Panhandle. Questions of wildlife preservation are di.cult to resolve as they call into question the historical practices and ideology of water development in the Great Plains.

The struggles over water uses have surely reflected the social and economic realities of the Great Plains. Undoubtedly, some Plains people have wrung fabulous riches from water development. Many others have persisted on the land because of advances in water use. However, water development has also created degraded river basins, giving rise to growing environmental demands for the preservation of free-flowing streams. Environmentalists, irrigation companies, urban planners, and Native Americans face great di.culties as they grapple with the consequences of a century of escalating water uses in the Great Plains. Critics doubt the viability of a legal system that accords water mainly as a commodity value subject to technological manipulation while aquifers and rivers disappear. They point to the erosion of not only an environment, but also of a quality of life as water continues to flow uphill to money in the Great Plains. Advocates, on the other hand, note the critical role irrigation has played in the economy of the region. While they may recognize some of the shortcomings of irrigation, they place great faith in water conservation through technological advances in sprinkler systems and in the development of new, less waterintensive, crops. The future of water development in the Great Plains is unclear, but change is in the air.

See also AGRICULTURE: Sugar Beets; Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration / LAW: Brewer, David / NATIVE AMERICANS: Pawnees / PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Climate.

James E. Sherow Kansas State University

Clark, Ira G. Water in New Mexico: A History of Its Management and Use. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

Dunbar, Robert G. Forging New Rights in Western Waters. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Green, Donald. Land of the Underground Rain: Irrigation on the Texas High Plains, 1910–1970. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973.

Howard, Stanley W. Green Fields of Montana: A Brief History of Irrigation. Manhattan KS: Sunflower University Press, 1992.

Kromm, David, and Stephen E. White, eds. Groundwater Exploitation in the High Plains. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

Kuzelka, Robert, et al., eds. Flat Water: A History of Nebraska and Its Water. Lincoln NE: Conservation and Survey Division and Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 1993.

"North Dakota Water History: Politics and Dreams." North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains 59 (1992).

Opie, John. Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land: A Historical Study in the Possibilities for American Sustainable Agriculture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986.

Sherow, James E. Watering the Valley: Development along the High Plains Arkansas River, 1870–1950. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.

The State of Canada's Environment. Ottawa: Minister of the Environment, 1991.

Tyler, Daniel. The Last Water Hole in the West: The Colorado-Big Thompson and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1992.

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