Southwest Kansas
8:00 pm
Sun July 27, 2014

A history lesson in irrigation

A Finney County irrigation pumping plant in the 1911-1925 period.
Credit knrc.ws

Everyone knew the open, treeless High Plains wasn’t a place to put down roots.  Making a home, farming, and development takes water, and in Western Kansas it’s arid and rainfall is in short supply.  Enter the grand idea of irrigation.

Here’s a little history on irrigation in the area by Kathy Hanks for the Salina Journal

  • The first irrigation ditch was dug in Finney County in 1880 after D.R. Menke lost his alfalfa crop to drought. The Garden City Ditch was created and yielded good crops.
  • In 1881, the Great Eastern Ditch System was conceived and chartered by C.J. "Buffalo" Jones to divert water from the Arkansas River.
  • By 1895 there was so much water being taken from the river by Colorado farmers to irrigate between the state line to the Rockies that the Arkansas River was feeling the strain.
  • Farmers began looking 10 to 30 feet below the surface to bring up water by windmills and pumps of all kinds -- raising what they believed to be an inexhaustible supply from these wells, according to an irrigation publication from 1895.  The downside was sometimes the wind didn’t blow, and the water was too cold for plants.
  • Reservoirs were constructed to store the water and raise its temperature. By 1895 there were about 150 "wind reservoirs" for irrigation around Garden City and spreading in every direction.
  • A 33-mile canal was dug with horse power in the 1880s to divert water from the nearby Arkansas River beginning in Hamilton County and running to the east. It was known as the Amazon Ditch.
  • The Kansas State Board of Agriculture predicted it would be just a few years until irrigation would create the great garden of the West.
  • The Great Eastern Ditch, the Amazon Ditch, and pumping plants along the valley in Finney County, produced enough water daily to supply a factory about 600 tons of sugar beets.
  • The United States Sugar and Land Co. opened in 1906. Frank Gillespie was the manager.  He went on to manage the Garden City Company and became a developer of pump irrigation in Kansas.  He wrote, "They determined by scientific methods, that this underground river actually flowed at its nearest contact to the surface ground, at the rate of 8 feet in 14 hours, and at 25 to 30 feet in depth, at the rate of 24 feet in 24 hours. So that it is obvious that if we do not use it by pumping for irrigation it will flow on and on, finally reaching the gulf, coming up in between to the surface rivers, along its route."
  • Kansas filed and lost its first water complaint against Colorado in 1902 because more of the water supply of the Arkansas River was being absorbed in Colorado. 
  • 1928.  Colorado files a complaint against Kansas because so many complaints were being filed by ditch irrigators.  Colorado won.  The states were ordered to resolve their differences through a compact, which would become the Arkansas River Compact.
  • By 1936, around the Finney/Kearny County area, there were more than 200 electric pumping plants, powered by more than 5,000 motors.
  • The sugar factory, which became known as the Garden City Co., grew outdated and closed its doors in 1955.  But, the Garden City Co. remained a successful agricultural business, and today is still housed in the original office building, next to the early sugar factory, which has been renovated and is owned by Wheatland Electric.