Thursday, February 7, 2008

They Have the Water Crisis

The looming global water crisis—nowhere is this illustrated better than in Nebraska and the surrounding states. At the present time (spring 2005), Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming are in the fifth year of a drought cycle and there is growing concern about sinking levels in both surface water and the underlying aquifer. Water is used not only for agriculture, but increasingly for domestic use in fast growing towns. Already, in some parts of Nebraska, moratoriums on drilling new wells have been introduced, and plans to impose similar regulations in other parts have led to a frenzy of well drilling— indeed the pace of drilling has been more than a match for drilling restrictions—the number of new wells in the last three years accounts for more than 44 percent of the overall total for the last ten years. In 2004, for the third year in succession, the statewide total of new wells topped 1,000. So far, there are no restrictions on the amount that can be pumped, but this is likely to change, as it has in other states. The major problem is that both corn and soybeans require a great deal of water—in 2003 alone farmers flooded 8.5 million acres to a depth of one foot. Some of this was drawn from surface water, but most was pumped from underground sources.

Diet Start

I first learned that the Platte River was endangered in 2003. This was such a horrifying thought that I asked Tom if he could arrange for me to meet with some of the local farmers and conservation groups. The following year, thanks to the efforts of Tom's friend Paul Johnsguard, we attended such a meeting and heard about the problems that faced both groups. At first the farmers were reluctant to talk, but once they had relaxed it became clear that they were facing tough times. They felt threatened by the big corporations that could control corn prices. Each farmer, to make ends meet, was working an area that used to be divided into four or five farms. They were plowing their land right up to the road, destroying the last bits of natural habitat for wildlife, because every extra foot counted. And they resented the visitors who came once a year to watch the crane migration and just walked over their land without a by-your-leave or thank-you. They also resented the conservation groups that bought up land, because they paid inflated prices and this drove up the value of all land in the area so that the farmers then had to pay increased taxes.

I told them about the problems faced by the farmers around Gombe, and some of the ways in which we tried to help them so that they, in turn, would help us care for the chimps. How could we help these farmers in the Platte Valley, I asked. We discussed the various solutions that have been proposed.

First, there are conservation easements. If a farmer signs on to this program he agrees not to develop certain parts of his land, and not to allow developments on it, in perpetuity. This entitles him to a variety of tax breaks. Another scheme pays farmers along the Republican and Platte Rivers, all the way from the Wyoming border, not to irrigate. This is designed to preserve water and return some 100,000 acres of cropland to grass. The program began in 2002 and so far 19,818 acres have been protected. All the farmers said they would certainly take advantage of this offer, but were skeptical that the money would be forthcoming. And there were a few small schemes where conservation groups paid farmers not to harvest their crops, thus leaving more grain for the birds.

One old farmer began to talk about the old times. He remembered waking in the night as a child to the roar and thunder of the Platte River in spate. The spring melt of snow in Colorado sent the water racing down from the mountains, clearing out the sand and silt and creating new channels. "Too many dams and reservoirs now," he supposed. And he remembered drinking water from the family well when he was a child. Cups full of clean, cold water. "I won't let my grandchildren drink even one teaspoonful of that water now," he said. "It's all those chemicals we've put on the fields for the corn that's done it."

He lapsed into silence. Thinking, I suppose, of a long- gone world. A world that was clean. A world that was hard for a farmer, but one in which he worked in the expectation that his children would inherit his land, and his love of the land. Now, the farmers told us, their children seldom stayed. They went to seek their fortune in the towns, away from the backbreaking toil, the struggle to make ends meet, the shrinking river that flows over the sinking, poisoned aquifer.

And we talked about the cranes and the other birds. But for the farmers the cranes would be in a sorry plight. The cranes depend pn the grain left on the ground after the harvest to give them sufficient body fat to migrate onward to Alaska and Siberia. This dependency has been caused by the destruction of the prairie and the animal protein of the wet meadows. Perhaps there is some way that the cranes, and the visitors they attract, can help the farmers as they struggle to survive. Some of the farmers have built little viewing blinds when their land is adjacent to the river, places where the increasing number of tourists can view the cranes arriving in the evenings.

... andjoyohoxing