In Nebraska, the Ogallala Aquifer is a huge part of everyday life. Because groundwater is so important, water quality scientists spend a lot of time studying how contaminants get into the aquifer. Dan Snow, head of the University of Nebraska’s Water Sciences Lab, grew up knowing how important water is to farming, but didn’t originally plan on being a scientist.
I could have been a farmer. I’m originally from southwest Iowa. I grew up on a farm in Montgomery County. We raised corn and soybeans. We had cattle and swine. I think the total acreage was about 1800. I did four years of FFA and voc ag, and my senior year I had to decide: am I gonna stay on the farm or am I gonna off to college and do something else?
I struggled with it a little bit. Do I enjoy working outside? Yes. Do I enjoy working with the land? Yes. But do I have what it takes to be a farmer? I don’t think so. It’s your job 24 hours a day, you never get away from farming.
I came to Nebraska to study water. How does it get contaminated, and what we can do to protect it for future generations? And after I got my doctorate I got a faculty position at the university and became director of the Water Sciences Lab.
So many of my talks are about what gets into the water. Students, even adults, they ask me, do I drink the water?
Yes! I drink the water. I know what’s in it. It’s fine for drinking.
There are times I wish we didn’t have to treat it. I think that if we had known what we were doing 40 or 50 years ago would have an impact on somebody else’s drinking water, I think we would have done things different. But it is what it is. So what can we do now to prevent our use for food production or industrial or power generation from impacting somebody else’s use.
Agriculture depends on groundwater, and Nebraska happens to be one of the states that has the most abundant groundwater resource: the Ogallala Aquifer, or the High Plains Aquifer more correctly. Agriculture has always been a player in the water quality field. And now it’s become a bigger player partly because we’re trying to produce as much food as we can with a limited resource — groundwater and surface water.
Farming has changed a lot, even in the past 20 or 30 years. I know it’s not possible to produce crops and make a living the way we did 50 years ago. And that’s another reason I don’t think I stayed with farming — because we have more demands and expectations of producers that really disconnect us from the land. And my passion is really to understand water, and I just feel like that makes me more connected with the land.
Music excerpted in this piece is “Acoustic Meditation” and “Thingamajig” by Jason Shaw. (Creative Commons license)
Voices of the Platte is a collaboration between Platte Basin Timelapse and NET Radio’s Humanities Desk. These audio essays have been edited for length and clarity.