Imagine enough water to fill a couple of great lakes, but spread under some of the driest parts of eight western states. That was the High Plains Aquifer 60 years ago, before new pumping and irrigation systems made it easy for farmers to extract billions of gallons from it and use it to grow lucrative crops on the arid land.
An agricultural gold rush of sorts followed, transforming the regional economy. The underground water pocket stretches from Wyoming and South Dakota south through Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. But now parts of the aquifer are playing out, leaving parts of the High Plains high and dry.
Nate Pike has been riding the dry rolling ranch lands south of Dodge City, Kan., for most of his 80 years, sometimes just to visit a spring called St. Jacob’s Well.
"As a young boy I’d saddle me a horse, put me a little cane pole on it, come down here and fish," Pike said from the banks of the watering hole.
Pike doesn’t fish much anymore. The water level has retreated and it’s a sad sight for Pike.
“That thing had a lot of water in it, it never went down, never changed," he said with a nervous chuckle. "I can’t believe you can’t see the water from up here."
Pike blames the receding water on irrigation, which is pumping the aquifer dry.
The 39,000 irrigation wells in Kansas pump long and hard in growing season. If you want a visual for that much water, picture Niagara Falls. In 2011, Kansas wells sucked out enough water to keep Niagara Falls thundering at full force for three weeks.
That calibrated deluge has sprouted a vibrant economy on the arid land. Farmers like Jesse Garetson depend on underground water.
"Right now we’re running right at 1,000 gallons-a-minute, 24/7," Garetson said, standing by one of his irrigation wells near Copeland, Kan.
In drought years, like 2013, farmers without irrigation systems can barely grow anything. By tapping into the acquifer, though, Garetson says they can grow just about everything.
"We’ve raised potatoes, we’ve had peaches, cotton, corn, milo, wheat, soy beans," he said.
All the corn grown out here supplies ethanol plants, and feeds dairy cows, pigs and cattle. The livestock support a big meat packing industry. All thanks to this one resource.
"Water," Garetson said. "More precious than gold."
And, like gold, this water is not renewable. Most of the torrent farmers are pumping out sat trapped under the prairie for millions of years.
"We’re mining it," Garetson said. "Because once you hit a gold vane in a mine, and you get all the gold that’s in that vein, you're through with that mine."
Garetson says parts of this water mine are playing out, but not evenly. In spots the water table has plunged more than 100 feet, wells are running dry and tensions are rising. He is suing to protect his water rights.
"It does nothing but create neighbor problems," Garetson said. "We producers perceive as long as there’s water we’re pumping; it’s a free for all."
It’s a familiar story across the prairie.
"I know my neighbor’s pumping my water,” said Anthony Stevenson, who farms near Ulysses, Kan. “I’m pumping his water, ‘cause they’re hooked in the same reservoir. If he don’t pump it, I will."
But, he says, he waters more judiciously these days.
His irrigation system is efficient, delivering water to the base of his lush, eight-foot-tall plants. And this year, Stevenson planted only half his field in corn. His well produces just half the water it once did and the lingering drought isn’t helping.
"We can’t out-pump a drought," Stevenson said. "We can’t out-pump Mother Nature. Our wells aren’t big enough."
Stevenson is gradually farming more like people did out in western Kansas before irrigation – growing more wheat, less corn and letting dry fields sit fallow a full year between plantings to collect moisture. His income is taking a serious hit.
Wayne Bossert runs one of the state’s four groundwater management districts. He says Kansas stopped new development on parts of the aquifer 30 years ago.
"So we prevented it from getting any worse a long time ago," he said.
Last year Kansas began enforcing very stiff penalties for over-pumping. That move drew death threats against state water officials. Still, Bossart says most farmers now want to manage the decline of the aquifer. They can’t ignore it.
“When that supply gets interrupted, or they start pumping air, or they start realizing that that, ‘Hey, that may not be there for very much longer,’ that’s the paradigm shift," Bossart said. "That’s what changes their attitudes and their options and their willingness to sit down and talk."
Bossart convened a group of farmers who came up with their own conservation plan. They’ve agreed to cut usage by 20 percent during the next five years, or face stiff sanctions.
He expects to see the same approach elsewhere in western Kansas. Because lots of farmers here want to give one more generation a shot at the good life they’ve had, irrigating with water drawn from the High Plains Aquifer.