"Irrigation Nation"

"How an esoteric piece of farm equipment created America’s breadbasket—and threatens to destroy it."

"Rick Hammond turned a yellow dial until it locked into place with a hollow clank, and a high-pressure hum filled the air. Across the windswept field, a light started blinking atop a metal contraption that stretched a quarter mile from end to end, adorned with an array of dangling hoses and sprinkler heads. With a humped metal spine and rib-like trusses, it looked like the skeleton of some sort of robotic brontosaurus.

Hammond tipped his cowboy hat back with his thumb to get a closer look at the display on the sky-blue control panel emblazoned with the logo for Valley Irrigation. He checked the readouts for speed and pump pressure and then pointed to the flashing light. “That means everything is on. Then you start it walking,” he said. And with the push of a button, the enormous center-pivot irrigation system lumbered to life, the twinned drive wheels under each triangular tower creeping slowly clockwise.

“What we’re shooting for on this level of ground is about an inch,” Hammond said over the wind and roar of the pressurizing wellhead. “It won’t run off with an inch. That takes approximately three and a half days.” In a good growing season, he hoped to put just three to four inches of water on this 160-acre field in York County, Nebraska. That doesn’t sound like much, but Hammond showed me the meter. “Look at that,” he said, pointing to the small lettering under the spinning numbers gauge. “Gallons times one hundred. We’re talking millions of gallons of water,” all of it pumped straight from the Ogallala Aquifer."

Ted Genoways reports for Pacific Standard September 20, 2016.

Source: Pacific Standard, 09/20/2016