Sarah Sortum grew up near Taylor, Nebraska, on her family’s cattle ranch in the Sandhills, the descendant of homesteaders. Her family continues to operate on the same property, running their own cattle, custom grazing operations for others, and Calamus Outfitters, a nature-based tourism operation.

Where Nebraska was once covered by grassland, most of the land is now used for agriculture. The loss of prairie causes problems for native species and on marginal land it can create issues with erosion and water quality. Conservationists are working to rebuild parts of the prairie in the Midwest.

The barn is dusty. And cold. It’s winter at The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Platte River Prairies near Alda, Neb. Chris Helzer orients a group of staff and volunteers to the day’s task: mixing seed for grassland restoration.

While surface water development led the early history of irrigation in Nebraska, it became common for farmers to tap the wealth of water below ground beginning in the 1930s.

Water loss through porous canals and ditches has always been an issue for irrigators, so districts and farmers alike have lined or sealed the waterways to reduce loss. “We can’t afford to lose a whole lot of water out of the canal,” Busch said, but “sealing a canal is a catch-22 because that water that comes out of them canals does replenish our groundwater system.”

In the early 1900s in the arid West, C. W. McConaughy recognized the discontinuity between high river flows in the spring and low flows in the middle of summer, when farmers needed water most. McConaughy, a grain merchant and mayor of Holdrege, Nebraska, developed the idea of supplemental irrigation.

Follow a snowflake from the Colorado Rockies through Wyoming dams and reservoirs to fields in the Nebraska panhandle.

Across the semi-arid landscape of the Nebraska Sandhills, ranchers have utilized the power of wind since the settlement period more than a century ago. Windmills are used to pump groundwater from the underlying aquifer to the surface where it is stored in stock tanks for livestock.