Lakin Louis DeKeyser has a quick answer when asked what western Kansas would be like without irrigation.
"We'd be rattlesnakes and pack rats. Irrigation is what made western Kansas. If you take it out, all your packing plants, equipment dealers and banks probably would just leave," he said.
DeKeyser oversees the Amazon Ditch, a 33-mile canal dug by hand in the 1880s to divert water from the Arkansas River to some 16,000 acres in Kearny County.
"When it started, the farmers in the winter got together and dug the ditch. Come spring, they would break camp and go farm," said DeKeyser, overseeing the ditch for two decades as his father did for 47 years before him.
Over the years, technology has improved for the Amazon Ditch and the five other irrigation canals that divert water from the Arkansas River in southwestern Kansas. Computers track the rise and fall of water flow and data is transmitted via satellite.
Creating a diversion
Still, water is the basic need. It's the same problem that plagued those who first envisioned the canals in the 1880s in this semiarid region of the state.
"The only practical method for large scale farming was to divert water from the river. They met with drought every few years, so reliable crop production depended on a reliable water supply," said Mark Rude, state water commissioner for southwest Kansas, based in Garden City.
But there was a problem.
"The farmers weren't willing to pay when the weather was good, but when the weather turned, they would scream 'Where is my water?' and the operators said they couldn't furnish the water because the equipment isn't working," said Jim Sherow, Kansas State University history professor.
Sometimes, it wasn't the lack of water that doomed a ditch in those early days, said Sherow, who has written about the state's irrigation history.
Lack of financing or poor engineering ended many efforts, such as an earlier version of the Amazon Ditch. In 1889, its walls collapsed and flooded railroad tracks and homes in Lakin.
Despite setbacks, efforts continued from the 1880s to the mid-1900s to transform the land into productive farmland by using canals to divert the water. But farmers found that neither rainfall nor canals could fully support their efforts.
Irrigation around Garden City would have died after 1900 had it not been for sugar beets. The valuable crop needed precise watering, which created interest in the canals, many of which had fallen into disrepair, Sherow said.
Improvements in irrigation
The first effort to use groundwater for irrigation was in the 1890s with windmills. But they were limited, able to draw water no more than 30 feet to irrigate a few acres, fill a stock pond and take care of a family's cooking and cleaning needs.
Large-scale farming was beyond a windmill's ability. The answer was the deeper groundwater of the Ogallala Aquifer. It was just a matter of reaching it.
Major improvements in pumping technology began in the 1890s and by the early 1900s gasoline engines allowed farmers to pump deeper into the aquifer and get greater volumes of water.
In those early days, the pumped ground water went into gated pipes or ditches that flooded fields. But there were problems. Not all the land was level and water doesn't run uphill, and the early pumps weren't always reliable.
Along came a contraption in the late 1940s that resembled a giant sprinkler system on wheels -- center pivot irrigation.
"Center pivot expanded irrigation because the groundwater was more widely available than the surface water," Sherow said. "You can take those things anywhere and irrigate anything. It's harder to move rivers around."
Typically, a center pivot is a 1,300-foot section of six-inch pipe with sprinklers mounted eight feet above ground on towers with large wheels. One end of the pipe is placed in the center of a 160-acre section, and the whole contraption rotates in a circle.
The pipe is connected to a pump, which draws water from wells that can go several hundred feet down to the aquifer.
Initially, water was sprayed into the air like a giant fountain and much of it evaporated or was wasted. Now, hoses extend from the pipe close to the ground which means more water for the crop and less waste.
Rude said center pivots will be around for many years, although technology will improve performance and conserve water.
With computers, center pivots can be programmed so crops requiring different amounts of water can be planted in the same field and receive the correct amount of water.
Even with advanced technology, DeKeyser said there will be a place for the canals.
"You can run water so much cheaper than pumping," he said.