An Early Chinook: When the Snow Eater Comes

The wind came in around midnight, warm and dry. I heard it, sort of dimly noted that the heater had not run for a while, and went back to sleep. Indeed, come dawn, the last of the snow had completely disappeared from yards, including the remains of snowmen. Now abandoned, damp, knit hats and scarves lay on the lawn, empty of their former contents. The chinook wind had arrived.

Chinook wind takes the name from the Chinook people of the Pacific coast. The usage inside the Rocky Mountains is taken from a different Blackfeet word meaning “snow eater.” One the coast, the wind [chin-ook] blows in from over the Pacific and brings warmer air and lots of moisture. The chinook wind of the inland plains [shin-ook] devours moisture as it races down the slope of the eastern front of the mountains. The classic chinook is that of Montana and Alberta, as Ian Tyson so eloquently described in “Springtime.” Down in the High Plains, it tends to be more out of the southwest, but does the same thing as the wind blows downslope off the southern Rockies.

Downslope winds tend to be warm, and dry, no matter what you call them. Image from:

We don’t get that many true chinook winds. In winter, our winds tend to be northwest (slightly mild to bitterly cold), due north (good Lord, that’s cold!”) northeast (“Not so bad, and the snow’s nice”) and south. (“Go back to sleep, plants, please go back to sleep!”)

This past one melted the snow in the night, leaving moist spots in the lawn and garden. The snow all sank in for once, and will help a lot with the prospects for a solid start to the winter wheat crop. There are hints that we might get more moisture this coming week. Or we will get howling winds and no moisture. It just depends on what happens when the forecast computers shake the Magic Eight Ball™, er, that is, run the next model.


Saturday Snippet: Space Gulyas

This is from a story I will be submitting to an anthology. It is set in the Planet Texas universe.

“It looks right,” István Gabor said as he walked around the small pen. “Color, horns, hoofs, body shape, all correct. But . . . not mammal?”

Dr. Szentmihaly spread his hands in a shrug. “Not mammal. None of the bovine genetic stock we brought to Novi Magyarsk proved viable. Ovine, yes, but not bovine or equine yet. We need a herd grazer now, and this native-base stock works. The meat tastes like beef.”

István studied the grey creature contentedly munching hay in the portable pen. The bureaucrats from Colonial Approval would refuse to allow such a thing. If they knew about it. “Has anyone made an official report to—?” He pointed up at the sky.

“No, sir. No time, and we need the power for more urgent needs.” A small smile appeared under Dr. Szentmihaly’s thick mustache. “It is better to delay any reports until resources are available.”

István smiled in return. “Most certainly. Survival of the settlement is our first priority,” he quoted. And if that meant preserving the botanical environment with a reptile-based gulyas, well, so be it. “No milk?”

The biologist shook his head. “No. But we have sheep and goats, and can work from there.”

“Well done. Cream in our coffee can wait.” He missed that, but all things came with time. The grasses needed to be grazed as soon as possible. The build-up of senescent material already posed a fire risk in some parts of the colony. He started to return to his vehicle, then caught himself. “Wait. No horses yet?”

A long sigh met his question. “Not yet. The stock they sent seems to be unviable. Our,” he waved at the white and tan buildings and half-domes housing the genetics workers, “first try with a native species . . . The legs are too thin and would break too easily. We can’t thicken them and keep the creatures docile enough to have round people.”

Co-located genes struck again. “Thank you for trying. I know your team will find a way. The cattle are our first priority, and the sheep.”

Dr. Szentmihaly smiled again. “You’re welcome sir. We’ll start breeding more of these and send them out to the ranches.”

Five planetary years later, Dr. Szentmihaly sounded disappointed. “It’s not perfect.” He shook his now-bald head. “The genes for a mane were co-located with a lethal cardiac defect.”

Fulop Gabor shook his head in awe and wonder as he studied the stallion. “He’s beautiful as he is, Doctor.” The dark grey stud’s long, flowing tail blew like a banner as he trotted around the pen, then stopped and came toward them, snorting. Calm brown eyes studied the humans, and his ears twitched. The stallion’s hoofs thumped the dirt, strong and sturdy. He was broken to ride but not fully trained yet. “Uncle István will be delighted.”

“I hope so. To have cattle without horses . . . The founders would throw meteors at us.” The biologist scowled. “Or paperwork.”

“Paperwork. The consul from New Texas avers that paperwork is worse than storms, volcanos, or a locust plague.” The locusts should not have been in the terraforming package. Honey bees should have been included. Non-viable horses and cattle were the least little woe compared to that!

Dr. Szentmihaly frown shifted to a smile. “Csirip. This one, three mares, are yours. We will trade out stallions to mix the blood after three years, until a large pool develops.” He shrugged.” And we cross more, now that we know how. Are the cheese goats working?”

Fulop wagged one hand, still watching the almost-horse. “Mostly. The hard cheeses are taking longer than planned, but that’s not the milk. Do these,” he nodded to the animal, “have a name?”

“Majdnemio,” came the instant reply. “Almost horse in the old tongue.”

“My-nem-eeoh.” Fulop nodded. “Perfect.”

Fulop’s uncle met him and the transport the next day at “Tanyanagy,” their ranch. Fulop opened the side of the transport, lowering the ramp, and the four majdnemio walked out. They wore halters, so the waiting men approached slowly, each clipping a lead rope to one beast. “Behold, uncle. Horses.”

István busied himself with the pale brown mare, leading her to the pen. Once all four had been turned in, fed, and watered, he sighed a little. “No hair.”

“Only the tail, and the skin in winter, sir. Dr. Szentmihaly said that manes and heart death are collocated.”

The medium brown mare shook all over, then rolled in the dirt. “Oh.” István watched the horses for another minute or two. “They are shorter shoulder to tail than the video animals.”

“Sprinters, Uncle. We’ll find a way.”

Uncle, nephew, and ranch employees shared tired sighs. It was the unofficial colony motto. That, along with “Swear, then Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome,” and “Bureaucrats and fish stink in three days.” Off-worlder bureaucrats especially.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Roots, Place, and Identity

A friend and I were batting around a question that’s puzzled both of us: What happened to the town we used to know? I didn’t see the change as sharply as he did, because 1) I’ve been here during the gradual shift and 2) when I came back from Grad School, some of the larger cultural differences matched what I’d been around at Flat State U, so the “fish in water” effect was present. But we agree that something changed and not for the better, at least to us.

After talking things over, and chewing on the idea for a week or so, I think it’s the problem of roots. If a place forgets or chooses to ignore its roots, the culture changes. Add a large influx of people who never knew those roots, or who prefer certain aspects of their home culture to what they find here, and you get more change. Federal influence might also play a role in some city policies that seem to have encouraged anti-social behaviors among part of the population, but that remains a large unknown. Without roots and a memory of the past, what gives a place an identity? Cultural features? Is New York City* nothing other than the Met, concerts, Wall Street, the Natural History Museum, and Broadway? OK, in that case, the Village as it used to be, perhaps?

I admit, there’s an element of nostalgia for me, not so much for my friend. He was looking at the rougher side of the city, one I only knew by reputation. Everyone knew about That Bar, the one where they frisked you for weapons and if you didn’t have one, you could rent one. (I kid, but just a little). If you wanted trouble, you went to these neighborhoods, or to that one area after about eight PM. During daylight and before eight it was happening and cool, and the bars kept things lower key. After eight? All bets were off. And everyone knew it. Crime happened elsewhere, to be sure, but there was “the bad side” and the rest of town. Today? Very different.

When I grew up, roots were part of the local identity. Ranching and the west were close at hand, and celebrated. Rodeos, pow-wows, cattle drives, ranching heritage, all played a huge part in how things worked. Local magnates were ranchers, bankers, some oil and gas men (and That One Guy, who eventually left town for greener pastures and was not missed.) Today . . . We’re supposed to be finding a new identity, bringing in lots of young people from Elsewhere (“if they come, they will build it” was the city government’s motto for a while. Thus far that hasn’t really happened that I can see.) Calls rose to spend more time talking about Hispanics and African-Americans, both their role in building the region, and the discrimination they suffered. They had a role in history, and certainly should be recalled in the city’s roots. But history is not a 0-sum story. We should be able to include all the area’s pioneers without kicking out any. This region was ranching and cowboys and farmers and oil patch and proud of it. And because of that, certain things were expected – civic participation, self-reliance (we’re relatively isolated and had to be self-reliant), helping neighbors, church participation, and self-governance.

Things are different now. “Bomb City” is supposed to be the new nickname for the largest city. Um, that should be Albuquerque or Los Alamos, in my opinion. There are still rodeos, but they’re not what they used to be. Native Americans are included in the history, but we don’t have many pow-wows, if any. There’s less about the good people of the past and more about the sins of the past. A lot of people from outside the region, state, and country have moved in, bringing new ideas and some serious challenges. What had been off-beat local shops are now variants on coastal boutiques, with more of a coastal vibe. The older western-ranching-cowboy past is not something the new people know about, or honor the way older people did and do.

What is the local/regional/state/national culture? Human geographers have begun talking about the negative aspects of “cosmopolitanism,” of being “a citizen of the world.” Citizens of the world don’t have roots, and they bring what they like to wherever they go – London, Paris, Tokyo, Singapore, Ft. Worth, Denver. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but neither is it a purely good thing. A sense of place, of common culture, provides strength when tough times happen, and gives younger people an identity to help support and sustain them. Americans are an idea people. We are based on a culture of ideas and shared heritage. Not blood, not soil, not common religious denomination, but an idea and shared heritage and mythology.

Who are we? What is $PLACE$? It’s not something most of us sit down and try to define, but perhaps we should. What makes the place you love, or like, or want to live in or near, what it is? The physical environment? The people? The culture? Yes?

I’m not sure we as a city/region/state/country have done that often enough, deeply enough. Mayhap we should. But how do you put roots into words? How do you get a community to say clearly, “This we are, this we believe, this we like. If you want to change it, you first must understand why we have kept it, and only then ask us to change.” I don’t have an answer, nor do I know how to go back to “the good-as-I-remember-them days” even if it can be done.

*I know that the boroughs and neighborhoods are different from Manhattan. I’m grabbing Manhattan because it is what most people think of when I say “New York City.”

Local Scents

I can’t locate myself by the scent of the place, but I can tell you who is doing what, which animals have been around, and wind direction. Come with me on an evening walk in a typical neighborhood during late December, around 1845 CST.

I set off southbound. The strong whiff of manure tells the world that the wind has switched to the south-west, bringing eau d’feedlot. It’s not so strong as to be unpleasant, and the wind has been fading anyway, so the scent will go away. A sharp whiff of smoke followed by the heavy scent of pitch warns of someone burning cheap pine wood, not the good stuff. That’s a little rough on the chimney, but some people like it. There’s a bit of humid floral scent, the universal perfume of a dryer. No matter what soap or dryer sheet (if any), all dryers smell the same from outside the house. That family does a lot of laundry, based on what I observe in the evenings.

At the end of the second block I turn east. The air is cool and crisp, dry. Crunching through leaves brings up some dust and leaf-smell. A diesel pickup chugs past, leaving exhaust in the air for several seconds. Diesel fumes always take me back to Europe, to London and even more to Vienna, because of being out and about during the wee hours of the morning, when deliveries are permitted in the central district of the city. Only workmen, me, and the truly devout are generally moving at those hours. After another few blocks I swing south. Moist dampness reveals someone watering grass. A rich, fatty smoke drifts down. Someone else has piñon in the fireplace. I stop to sniff appreciatively. The wood is rarely burned around here, now. Growing up, it was a common “luxury” wood around Christmas. Two houses pass. Another dryer.

Come the next block, I wrinkle my nose. Clackita clackita clackita hssss, and the sweet, too sweet, scent of a chemical. Not paint exactly, or solvent, but something too sweet and artificial. The wind paces me and the scent lingers for five houses before I escape and return to the usual night smells. Once I turn the corner, eastbound once more, sharp burning and scorch. I shake my head. Someone’s burger fell into the coals. No one is smoking meat tonight, alas, but several grill, mostly burgers.

A bit of dust comes through the air. Road construction has torn up several stretches of pave, and the dirt is departing, as it so often does around here. A sharp, bitter underscent cuts through everything else. The skunk has expressed unhappiness, and is sharing that distress with someone. Who will pass it along wherever he goes. Skunk fades and I catch a whiff of balsam. A new wreath on the Little Free Library adds scent to the air.

Cool, chilly night settles on the area. Stars have no scent, unless it is the clean, moist cold of snow after a storm that clears out the skies, revealing Orion, Taurus, and the Sisters in all their brilliant glory. I return home, exercised and entertained. Home smells of gingerbread and dust and a bit of tomato tartness from supper. Soon the spicy perfume of a winter tea will join the blend, held in chilly hands that ache oh so faintly from the cold.

” . . . You can’t miss it.”

As I was leaving the church where I currently sing, I overheard the tail end of a rancher giving “how to get to my house” directions to the new minister. I bit the tip of my tongue to keep from chuckling aloud, because I’ve been to that ranch, and yes, you can miss it. Among other things, it should be on County Road C, except there is no County Road C, just B and E, because C and D are ranch driveways on opposite sides of the blacktop. And that’s the easy part!

Country directions, even in the era of GPS, are a challenge. Ranch access roads don’t make the map, or are washed out and a new route created, or are not where G-maps claims. Road and crossroads names change. The GPS doesn’t realize that the road doesn’t go straight there, even though it should, because of a large, deep canyon in the way. Instead, you take a county road (known locally by number, not the new-ish official name) east to a shallower part of the canyon, switch to a dirt road for a bit, cross the stream, then double back once south of the canyon and pick up the dirt-becomes-pave road, and so on.

One of my favorite sets of instructions, back in Georgia, included, ” once you’re over the bridge, come on a little ways, then turn when you get to the little church with the big cemetery. If you get to the big church with the little cemetery, you’ve gone too far.” First, you had to recognize that the bridge was, indeed, a bridge, or you went three miles past the turn you wanted. Then you had to spot the little white church, and recognize the cemetery, which was very large but not all that full yet. (I suspect someone was planning far ahead when he or she donated the land to the church.)

Then there’s “it’s the house on the acre on the acreage, off the blacktop road.” Which describes, oh, half or more of the houses in the rural parts of the Midwest. Sort of like “He’s driving a white pickup. You’ll have no trouble spotting him.”

Product Review: Goat Milk Hand Lotions

A student gave me two small bottles of hand lotion from Amanda’s Country Soaps. This is a small company based in Clarendon, TX, that produces products made from goat milk, shea butter, and similar products. The goat milk comes from their own goats.

Short version – great stuff!

Longer version – I use a lot of hand lotion during the winter. Our relative humidity can get down to two percent (Sahara, Gobi, Antarctica level humidity.) No matter how much water you drink, your skin will get dry. Toss in washing your hands with industrial-strength soap a few times a day, and you can imagine what happens to my skin. It’s not fun. So I use a range of lotions, starting with Vasaline™ Intensive Care and going from that point.

Enter lotions from Amanda’s Country Soaps. I had not heard of this company before, and I’m always happy to buy very local, if the stuff is any good. It’s good. Very, very good. The 2 oz bottle lotion is very thick. The scents are mild, and fade to a nice faintness. The primary ingredients are goat milk, shea butter, olive oil, then water, glycerine, and scents (often essential oils). Unscented versions are also available. The lotion lasts on my hands. Yes, there is a bit residue, but I look at that as a positive. If you prefer a lighter texture, you might try the larger size. That is whipped, and doesn’t seem to go on as heavily.

Because these are small batch products, and depend on how much milk the goats are producing, some scents might not be available at a given time. Amanda’s also seems to sell out of popular scents pretty quickly, but they also come back pretty quickly. The web-site is well organized and makes it easy to see what’s in and what’s currently sold out.

Prices are reasonable. Shipping is a tad steep, but they are sent close to overnight, and they are somewhat fragile. The items were very nicely packaged, and came with a little soap sampler.

If you or someone you know likes thick hand lotions or goat-milk soaps, I recommend these.

FTC Notice: I purchased these with my own money, for my own use, and received no promotional consideration for this review.

Tex-Mex: A hybrid of hybrids

What a lot of people in my part of the world call “Mexican food” is actually Tex-Mex. Tortillas, spices from North America (and Europe), meats not native to the Americas (beef, chicken, domestic pig,) cheese (introduced), with veggies from the Old and New World . . . Which also describes a lot of Mexican food as well, unless you stick with 100% pure Native American dishes, if you can find them.

Tex-Mex began when Anglos met Hispanic Texicans (the generation of 1820-1850)*. Southern food, and northern food, and European food, met what was available in Texas. Spices from the Old World – cumin, sage, paprika, garlic, black pepper – met different peppers. Beef and cheese encountered pinto beans and tomatoes, and tomatillos (little green not-exactly-tomatoes). San Antonio is often credited as the home of Tex-Mex, but it might just be the largest city where blending occurred. Chili-con-carne is native to San Antonio, that everyone agrees on. Usually. Mostly.

The term Tex-Mex wasn’t really used until the 1960s and 70s, when “ethnic food” cookbooks became more common, along with more exotic ingredients, and authors started trying to distinguish real Mexican food from the versions found in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Until that point, people called it “Mexican food.” You know, crunchy tacos, burritos with refried beans in them, nachos, quesadillas and that “you’re doing what to corn chips” wonder, Frito™ pie. And canned chili, of course, be it Wolf Brand (the Redquarters staple, bought by the case), or Hormel, or other kinds. It tastes great, but . . . it’s most decidedly not really Mexican food. OK, guacamole is, until it gets “improved” or “adjusted” into Tex-Mex.

So, one of the “what is that?” regional favorites, Frito™ pie. You need:

Fritos™ corn chips (if you use other corn chips, it becomes a sort of nachos. Still good, just not authentic)

Canned chili, heated to the appropriate temperature (NO beans)

grated Cheddar cheese

other toppings to taste

Dump the corn chips in a bowl and spread around to make an even layer. Add chili to the chips. Cover with cheese. Add preferred toppings. Eat one chip at a time.

For a less “what we eat at high school foot ball games) version, you start by making your own chili:

1 lb ground beef, not too lean

Garlic and onion, chopped fine

tomato sauce, one can [or one can diced tomatoes OR one can RoTel tomatoes]

Tomato paste, one can (smaller can than sauce)

Chili powder to taste (this is a spice blend, not powdered chilis)

Brown the ground beef. Add garlic and onion, sauteing until the onion is transparent. Add tomato products and stir well. Add chili powder to taste (it tends to be mild, so you can go up to a quarter cup. I’d start low and add more as needed). Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes or so to allow flavors to darken and blend.

Proceed as with first version, perhaps top with salsa and sour cream if daring. Most of us stop with the cheese. It is not gourmet food, and is not supposed to be.

*Until the 1960s or so, it was customary inside the state to refer to the first generations of Texans as Texicans. Then came the Texians, and then Texans referred to those born after 1900 or so. You no longer see the different terms unless you are reading older books.

Walking Dogs, Christmas Trees, and Spudding In

All of these terms are from the oil patch, although not all of them are used today. I grew up around family members who were in, or who had retired from, the blue-collar end of the oil business. One great uncle built and maintained derricks, one worked as the chief of a seismograph crew, one had been a roughneck before becoming a toolie . . . I learned about steel Christmas trees, walking dogs that didn’t go places, cat crackers, and other mysterious terms.

I was reminded of the jargon while perusing a local museum. It has a fantastic section about the oil and gas industry, with some updated exhibits about the technology of fracking and “directional drilling.” When I was younger, we called it slant-hole drilling, and it was as illegal as illegal could be. Oil leases were elongated cubes. You had a permit to drill straight down. You were not to wander into a neighbor’s lease, no matter how good his find might be. Today, drilling to a certain depth and then changing directions to make a horizontal hole is common. I suspect it made the lawyers handling the older leases rub their hands with glee, because each lease holder would have to be compensated if the horizontal hole produced. I also suspect that how oil leases and permits are written has changed to match the times and technology.

A “Christmas tree” is the cap put on a well once it is producing and the drilling equipment is no longer needed. When they top an producing well, lights and hoses and valves stick out of the heavy steel cap, which stands about 4-6 feet tall. From a distance they look a bit like trees, and since the royalty money buys stuff, Christmas tree it is, especially the ones with lights on them.

A walking dog is the other name for a pump jack, the large rocking pump that lifts oil up into the storage tank or collecting line.

Fair Use under Creative Commons. Original source here:

A cat cracker is a now out-dated term for the cracking towers, the long tubes in a refinery where fractional distillation takes place. This is the process of separating crude oil into all the various components, by weight, from gasses at the top to automotive fuel to naphtha to paraffins (kerosene) to diesel fuel and down to asphalt.

A toolie was someone in charge of the different tools, and sometimes other equipment, used on the rig and around the well. He made sure things were in good repair, and checked equipment in and out as needed. You don’t want to hear “has anyone seen [critical thing]?” at the wrong moment. Nor do you want to discover tools where they ought not to be.

A doodlebugger worked with the seismograph crew. He set out the dynamite used to make the thumps needed for the seismographs to do their magic and tell the geologist what hid below the surface. The little crater looked like the nest of an ant-lion, or doodlebug, thus the name. Today they use thumper trucks and other things, since toting around explosives is either illegal, bad for the environment, or seen as an invitation to “borrow” the dynamite for other purposes (like terrorism. Or at best, for fishing. Which is also illegal).

Groundwater Users and the Future of the Ogallala

Short version – there are a lot of claims on the water under the plains, and a lot of ideas for what to do in the future. Some are more realistic than others.

Ted Turner – the Atlanta media and baseball team dude – talked about returning the High Plains (western area over the Ogallala Aquifer) to quasi-Ice Age status by seeding it with elephants, lions, and other African fauna sort of, kinda, like the Pleistocene megafauna. We will skip over the lack of ground water-fed springs and streams, the totally different precipitation patterns as compared to the last Ice Age, and a few other minor details. Let’s just say that his idea died the death it deserved. At least for now.

Another proposal, this from two professors at Rutgers, looked back to some of the New Deal programs and involved removing domestic livestock and crops from the region. Instead, a “Buffalo Commons” would allow bison to roam as they once had, and tourism and bison management would support the economy of the region, minus a lot of the current human residents. Again, the lack of surface water leaped to mind as a problem, along with the human tendency to dig in and hold when someone from Outside says, “I have a great idea. Let’s you leave and then we can . . .” There’s some value to some of the Poppers’ proposals, but also some big problems.

The Ogallala still has water. Some parts of the aquifer are getting thicker and gaining water. On average, among all the states on the Ogallala, 85% of the water taken out each year is used for irrigated agriculture. A good rule of thumb for an average year in southern Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and Texas is that one and a quarter acre-feet of water are needed per year per acre of water. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, more or less. This will cover one acre of land in one foot of water. The Oklahoma Panhandle, per the USDA (Ag department) has 230,000 acres of irrigated crop land. Those crops require, on average 290,000 a/f/y. Three-quarters of that is wheat and field corn, with another fifteen percent or so grain sorghum. In a wet year, irrigators use less. Dry year, more water, unless it is so bad that there’s no point in irrigating any longer. I’ve seen that. Even with super-efficient center-pivot systems, the blast-furnace wind evaporates the water before it touches the plants’ leaves, let alone the ground. You watch plants die before your eyes. Kiss lawns good-bye. Those years are rare, thanks be.

Flood-furrow irrigation uses the most water per acre in an average year, because it is less efficient.* It also requires a lot more attention by the farmer, and a lot fewer acres can be sloped the proper way for good flood-furrow watering. Water flows through pipes with holes in them, and flows out of the holes, down the furrows, and into a ditch or “tailwater” pit where it soaks into the ground. Each length of pipe runs for X time, and then the farmer turns off the water, moves the pipe by hand, and starts again. There’s a pretty high evaporative loss.

Center-pivot systems can be much more efficient if the newer technology is used. These are the giant sprinkler systems with nozzles that hang down below a central pipe on legs. The pipe rolls along, around and around a circle, and water sprays out. The ground doesn’t have to be as level. One farmer used 222 a/f/y on 245 acres in Kansas. When he switched to center pivot, that dropped to 155 a/f/y. You still lose water to evaporation, especially if it is windy or the nozzles are set too high in the air. A different Kanasas farmer switched from flood to sub-surface drip irrigation and went from between 10″ – 15″ of water per year to between three and a half and five inches per year. That’s a lot of water.

In some places, like western Kansas and parts of Texas, the depth to water has grown so deep that the cost of pumping it exceeds the value of the crops produced. Those acres are taken out of production for irrigated grain and turned into dry-land grain, or pasture. Yes, it uses far less water. You are also less likely to get a large grain crop, and the farms are larger, so fewer people live in the area. Small towns fade away along with the irrigated acreage. What is good for the individual is not always so good for the community.

However, irrigation tech and how people use the water are both far more efficient than they were twenty years ago. Better breeds of grain and other crops use less water, or are more salt tolerant, or both, so irrigation takes less water. Almost all the groundwater districts in all the states focus on best use for the water, and really encourage people to be as careful as possible. Ninety percent of farmers and ranchers are mindful of their water use, and try not to overdo it. Water is expensive! Fuel for pumps costs a lot, whether you use diesel or natural gas. Yes, there are people who don’t give a fig and pump as much as they can, devil take the hindmost. The water management districts have teeth (outside of Texas), and will take steps when legally possible to rein in the abuse.

Fifty years ago the Ogallala only had fifty years left at most. Today, well, it is still producing water. Water conservation is normal. Urban areas that depend on the aquifer try to encourage water conservation, although . . . It’s about as successful in some places as you’d fear. That’s one of my high-horses, so I will try to stay on the ground. Turf grass that’s not bred for your area, cities that demand lots of green and non-xeriscape plants around commercial properties, places that require close-clipped lawns (which use a lot more water in summer), swimming pools that are not covered when not in use, so evaporation goes on 24/7, all these things steal a lot more water than people think.

If people are careful, the aquifer still has a lot of life in it. If we are stupid, well, we can kiss the region’s economy bye-bye, and with it a bunch of food crops, and fiber as well.

*In some places, when done properly, flood-furrow is more efficient than center-pivot in terms of water use. A lot depends on the farmer, the humidity in the area, and what is being grown.


This paper goes into some detail about efficiencies.

This is a contrarian view, arguing that federal policies are killing the aquifer and doom awaits. It is possible, true.

Just basic info, from Oklahoma State University.

Groundwater Woes? Well, Where are You?

“The Ogallala Aquifer will be gone in fifty years!

“In twenty years!”

“The Ogallala recharges and has gained thickness over the past two years.”

Which of these is true? The answer is yes, depending on where you are, and what uses you are talking about. Because the Ogallala is very large, and exceedingly variable in thickness, surface-water access, and usage over the length and width of the formation. The climate shifts from north to south and east to west, adding further complications.

Original image from the USGS. Accessed at:

The Ogallala is a layer of sand and gravel that was deposited between two and six million years ago. Enormous rivers flowed off of the then-young Rocky Mountains, eroding the fast-rising peaks and dumping thick layers of sediment all over the plains to the east. this sediment remained loosely-packed and porous, even after it was covered in tens to hundreds of feet of soil and dust and sand. Because of water-resistant layers of stone underneath it, the Ogallala catches incoming surface water and acts as an aquifer. You can drill a well into it and bring up good, if somewhat mineral-laden, water that has been filtered by the sand and by time.

If you are up in the Nebraska Sandhills, on the northern end of the aquifer (the indigo-blue blob), rainfall and snowmelt sink into the formation, helping to recharge it. In some wet years, and some parts of the Sandhills, the aquifer will gain water and the water table rises to the surface. In dry years, when people have to pump a lot for their cattle and to irrigate fodder crops, the level drops.

Farther south, the thickness of the aquifer tapers off, and the climate is drier and warmer. Here, the use of the aquifer, especially since the invention of center-pivot irrigation in the 1950s, has dropped the level ten, fifty, hundreds of feet. Some counties in Kansas have reached a point where it is no longer cost effective to pump from the aquifer (depth to water of 600′ in a few places) and have reverted to pasture and to dryland crops. At the far tail end of the formation, near La Mesa, Texas, the aquifer was never thick to start with, and it hit close to bottom in the 1960s just from private and municipal wells.

Most of the area now has Groundwater Protection Districts that regulate consumption, either through voluntary mutual agreement, or force of law. It depends on the state, the state’s water-laws, and when the District came into being. Some Districts focus on keeping water in the ground for perpetuity, others are trying to slow draw-down so the water will run out no sooner than, oh, 2100 or so. Everyone agrees that conservation is needed, and is good, and that the more efficient use we can make of the water, the better off all of us on the aquifer are. It’s just how to do that, and what the best use of the water might be that we politely disagree over. OK, loudly disagree, with the occasional shoving match, especially when outsiders pop up and announce that they are going to drain the water and send it: downstate, out-of-the-state, or to The Big City. Nothing unifies people like a common enemy.

The main use for the water is farming. Watering crops, watering livestock, and processing livestock are major uses. A pork-packing plant was proposed for part of southwest Kansas back in the 1990s. It was denied permits because pork processing takes at least three times the water per carcass as does beef packing. Irrigation has come a long way in terms of efficiency, from the old flood-furrow system where farmers moved lengths of pipe by hand, poured water onto the soil and then moved the pipes again, to modern low-flow, low-height nozzle center-pivot systems, to in-ground drip irrigation with built in moisture meters that only release water when and where it is needed by the plants. The cost has risen with the complexity, but water use per acre has decreased markedly. The development of low-moisture hybrid wheats and other grains, plus some experimentation with arid-region grains such as teff, has further reduced the need for irrigation water per acre, at least in average to moist years.

People also drink the water, enjoy swimming in reservoirs, and complain about the flavor and what the mineral-rich water does to your teeth. (They are stronger, and slightly brown from the fluoride.) Lots of people, millions of people, who brush, and flush, and shower, and water lawns not designed for the climate, and wash cars, and build pools and . . .

Ahem. Sorry. The wandering soapbox jumped me. I have some personal beefs with open pools and blue-grass lawns in semi-arid places.

Since this is already getting long, on Friday I’ll continue and we’ll look at hard numbers, playa lakes and springs, and different thoughts about the future of the region.

(Edited to change date of part two. I wrote 5000+ words on Monday and my brain is numb.)