Living Green on the High Plains


Environmentalists get a bad rap in farm country. Many farmers complain that environmental regulations interfere with their property rights and ability to feed a hungry world. To that end, these farmers want unfettered access to chemicals and genetically engineered seed. On the semi-arid High Plains, where I grew up, they also want all the water they can pump.

Yet only those who ignore science news can deny the human threat to every natural system on which life depends, be it climate, water, air or soil.

Carl Jung, who pioneered our understanding of the subconscious, wrote that when humans are unaware of their "inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposite halves."

We externalize the side of us that we do not want to own. We look for scapegoats. Instead of getting upset about the possibility that humanity’s present course could end civilization as we know it, we get angry with those who name the problems.

Environmentalists speak the other side of our own consciences. We vilify the messenger to drown the message. If we heeded the message, few of us would avoid implication.

I should know. If I wish to place blame for the most disturbing crisis on the High Plains, I need look no further than myself.

That crisis is depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, the huge groundwater reserve underlying the Plains all the way from South Dakota to Texas. In some areas of western Kansas and northern Texas, the water usable for irrigation is already gone.

My family sold our Sherman County, Kansas, farm last year, but up until then, we were irrigators. Most of the water accumulated in the aquifer over 10,000 years ago. It took us only four decades to reduce the reserves under our irrigated fields by one-third. If the new owners keep pumping at the rate we did, drawing the water table down one foot per year on average, they can continue only approximately 60 more years.

In most years the 158 irrigation farmers in Sherman County, only one of several dozen High Plains counties where irrigation predominates, use more than half the amount of water consumed by the 1.12 million people served by Denver’s main water utility. And for what? To grow a notoriously thirsty crop — corn — which is mainly used for livestock feed and ethanol.

If farmers continue pumping at current rates, they’ll be forced to revert to dry-land agriculture and livestock grazing within decades. With encouragement from government farm policy, they could make that switch now. Then, limited primarily to domestic uses, the aquifer could continue supporting life on the High Plains for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

My father embraced irrigation’s arrival, as did most of our neighbors. The water seemed limitless, and it removed one of the many wild cards that make farming such a gamble. Before and after he died, I complained about the waste. But he left other heirs as well, and not irrigating would have reduced our farm income by two-thirds. I found it very difficult to war against my family’s financial interests.

Not only are farmers implicated in environmental problems. Many city dwellers water lush lawns in desert climates, spray those lawns with chemicals every time a dandelion appears, and buy unsustainably grown food that travels 1,500 fuel-consuming miles to reach the supermarket. They drive SUVs to work for companies that also waste resources and pollute.

Yet most of us would like a healthy environment and want our resources conserved. A 2005 Roper poll found that 90 percent of SUV owners want government to require higher fuel efficiency.

Fortunately, we still live in a democracy where we can choose lawmakers who will pass environmental protections. Only such government action can halt or reverse the damage we’ve done.

Instead of demonizing the environmentalists, we should vote for them. But making that choice in the voting booth requires that we acknowledge our own internal debates. Instead of dividing the world into "opposite halves," we would then begin to appreciate the unity of our self-interest and that of the general good.

Julene Bair, of Longmont, Colo., is the author of "One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter" and is nearing completion of "The Whole Song," a book on the Ogallala Aquifer.

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