Archive for Sunday, November 23, 2003

Kansas’ relationship with water not resilient, expert says

November 23, 2003


How could we Kansans have presumed to tame rivers and streams with dams? To turn arid lands into a garden by mining water from rock buried deep underground?

In turning water to human use, Kansans have attempted to control "one of the most complicated forces in human history," according to Kansas University historian Don Worster, speaking at the Kansas Economic Policy Conference in October.

Mistakes, of course, were made.

In 1819, Army major Stephen Long labeled Kansas part of the "Great American Desert," the "first serious mistake" made about Kansas and water, said Worster, distinguished professor of history.

Sixty years later, John Wesley Powell, another western explorer, corrected the mistake, putting "arid" America to the west of a line that ran through Dodge City and "humid" America east of it.

Then came federal lawmakers who got out their rulers, drew an 80,000-square-mile box and called it Kansas, Worster said. Their mistake was lopping off the headwaters of the state's two biggest rivers, the Kansas and the Arkansas. That ensured that Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska would fight in court over water rights.

Historian Henry Nash Smith spoke of Kansas as "the Garden of the World." So Kansans worked to turn their big box into a giant farm, driven by a "spirit of unwarranted confidence," Worster said.

Drought had plans of its own. It revealed the folly of the garden dream by cursing Kansas with stunted crops, baked earth and erosion.

But the garden dream wouldn't die, Worster said. After World War II, center pivot irrigation systems, relying on water pumped from an underground water-bearing rock called the Ogallala aquifer, pushed corn yields far above previous levels.

"Some experts hailed a new age of 'climate-free agriculture,'" Worster said.

Water had been deposited in the aquifer over millions of years, so the experts didn't expect those deposits to be closed so quickly. Yet in less than a century, most of them will be gone -- or beyond economical reach.

It wasn't a mistake to grow food in arid lands, Worster said.

Population increases demanded that. It was the farming practices that were mistaken. This land was fit for lower-yielding dryland farming, not irrigated gardening.

Army majors, historians and farmers weren't the only mistaken Kansans.

Urbanites also have added to the mess. They've pushed for dams that would reduce floods so that cities and towns could sprawl into floodplains.

But concrete disintegrates. Reservoirs silt up. The fix was big, muscular and quite short-sighted.

According to Worster, the word "resilience" defines an organism's or a society's ability to recover from mistakes. It's unclear to Worster that Kansas is resilient in its relationship to water.

For a model of resilience, Worster suggests we study the native grasses that we tore out and replaced with crops.

Water pounded them, then disappeared. The grass parched, went dormant -- but lived on, Worster said.

It's lasted millions of years.

The box called Kansas has been in business 149 of those. The box has a long way to go to catch up with the grasses. There's still plenty of time for mistakes.

Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at Martin's e-mail address is

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