A Basin Connects

A Basin Connects

October 17, 2018

As an elementary-school-age Nebraskan, Michelle Kwan’s 2002 Olympic run remained my exclusive exposure to ice skating. Hearing of a small pond close to my grandparents’ Colorado home induced wonder beyond previous possibilities in my young life. I waited impatiently for our Christmas trip to their home on Wisp Creek Drive.

My dad, as tall as Michael Jordan – as I liked to point out at the time – acted as an anchor to my unsure footing. I clung to his side, pressing my cheek against his Wranglers, until I felt I’d absorbed enough of his abounding grit. Nobody echoed my observation, but I felt like a natural scooting over the pond’s opaque overlay.

Until recently, my first and only ice skating experience existed in my mind as other isolated memories gathered from far-off experiences do. I failed to observe a connection: the Platte River Basin. Wisp Creek flows past my grandparents’ house and feeds the ice skating pond before merging with the north fork of the South Platte River. Come spring, the pond’s melting ice could make its way into the Platte River system and irrigate farms in the Platte valley of central Nebraska where I spent the first 18 years of my life.

My dad and I skate on a pond fed by Wisp Creek in the Platte River Basin near Bailey, Colorado. Photo by my mom, Tami Spiehs.

Put simply, basins –also called watersheds– are areas of land with a common attribute: water drains here. A basin can be nested within larger ones. The Loup River Basin is nested within the Platte River Basin which is nested within the Missouri River Basin.

The Platte River Basin encompasses most of Nebraska as well as significant areas of Colorado and Wyoming; Poison Spider Creek and Laramie River of Wyoming, Last Chance Ditch and North Sterling Chanel of Colorado, Calamus Reservoir and Lake McConaughy of Nebraska all drain into the Platte River.

The Platte River Basin encompasses parts of Colorado, Wyoming and much of Nebraska. My family farms near Cairo, less than twenty miles west of Grand Island.

I didn’t realize the Platte River Basin connected members of my family, past and present, and on both my mother’s and father’s side, until I discovered ideas widely spread by John Wesley Powell, the country’s second geological survey director. Powell recognized the country’s gradual change in rainfall from east to west and believed agriculture would be impossible without irrigation west of the 100th meridian. “The inflexible fact of aridity lay like a fence along the 100th meridian. From approximately that line on, more than individual initiative was needed to break the wilderness,” Powell biographer Wallace Stegner wrote.1 Close to where the North and South Platte Rivers join, this fence crosses the Platte River Basin.

John Wesley Powell, circa 1890. (Source: Library of Congress)

Digital images and descriptive data © 2000 by Cartography Associates. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

When the Homestead Act passed in 1862, European settlement stretched across the east and stopped just short of the 100th meridian.2 This Act, among others, like the Timber Culture Act of 1873 and the Desert Land Act of 1877, on top of further incentives encouraged settlement in dry places. By 1900, there was a 66 percent chance of failure among those who tried.3 Instead of failed homesteads reentering the public domain and made available for other farmers to give it a go, banks acquired and marketed them to speculators.4

The Hall County Board of Immigration estimated 20 percent of the county’s land was occupied in 1871, the year this advertisement was published. Almost all land available to settlers was spoken for by 1875. (Source: Cairo Roots Museum)

My grandparents homesteaded in the Platte River Basin close to the 98th meridian in 1878, the same year Powell’s famous work Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States was published. Here, where quality soil abounded and settlers assumed adequate rainfall, droughts hurt the worst.5 I speculate that my ancestor Hans Kroeger absorbed at least one neighbor’s failed homestead, buying 160 acres from First National Bank in 1898.

Hans, born in 1839, was the second of three sons born to farmers in Todesfelde, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. When his father died, 19-year-old Hans took over the farm. Since it was the custom in Todesfelde for the youngest son to inherit the land, Hans’ youngest brother took the reins 14 years later. With no inheritance on the horizon, Hans could expect to spend his days laboring on another farm and fall to the lowest class in society.6

 

I imagine Hans’ story mirrored many others in Todesfelde at the time as emigration throughout Schleswig-Holstein rose due to overpopulation in the second half of the 19th century. Food and jobs grew scarce, facts I assume the Hall County Board of Immigration knew when they sent Fred Hedde to recruit future residents. Hedde, one of the first thirty settlers of Hall County, hailed from Holstein. He owned one of the only stores west of Omaha (a 150 mile journey) for the area’s new residents and passing settlers to restock provisions.7 The Board estimated 20 percent of the county’s land was occupied in 1871, nearly a decade after the Homestead Act became law. Hans and his family boarded a steamship the next year, filing a homestead claim in Hall County within six months. Almost all of the land available to settlers was spoken for by 1875. There, my family farms to this day.

When Fred Hedde, an immigrant of Schleswig-Holstein like my grandparents, opened his store it was one of the only stores west of Omaha at the time. (Source: History of Hall County, Nebraska, 269).

Hans Kroeger and wife Anna (standing left of wagon) pose for a photo, taken around 1900, where they homesteaded east of Cairo, Nebraska, in 1872. (Source: Cairo Roots Museum)

Four generations of farmers in my family – (from left to right) my brother, father, uncle, great-grandpa and grandpa – pose for a photo, around 2000, on the “home place,” south of Cairo, Nebraska, where my grandpa lived at the time of this photograph and where my parents live today. Photo by my grandma.

Powell believed the region held enough water to irrigate only 12 percent of the land.8 And irrigating crops in the West would require large-scale engineering of the region’s few waterways. This was a tall order, and an expensive one. Ordinary settlers couldn’t afford to build the ditches, canals and reservoirs needed to redistribute water from its natural course – its respective basin (plus, all the bureaucratic staffing to govern such investments).9

John Wesley Powell’s “Arid Region of the United States Showing Drainage Districts,” (1890) illustrates drainage districts, or basins, in the “Arid Region” west of the 100th meridian. (Source: Susan Schulten/University of Denver)

Instead of organizing the western newcomers by man-made lines, such as towns and counties, Powell suggested organizing settlement and water law by basin lines so residents could govern their own watersheds and irrigate lands deemed “reclaimable.”10 If laws and community planning were constantly at odds with nature, like agricultural market towns growing where water needs would exceed available water, there would be perpetual litigation and the need for extensive, sophisticated technology to control and distribute the water.11 Instead of investments from the government and capitalists, the basin residents would construct their own dams and canals, outsourcing skills when needed. “Hands off!” Powell pressed. “Furnish people with institutions of justice and let them do the work themselves.”12

The first step of such a scheme was a survey of western lands. With this survey, Powell planned to determine areas of the public domain where reservoirs, ditches, and canals as well as irrigated agriculture were viable.13 Congress granted permission and funds in 1888. Until the survey was complete, lands to be probed were off-limits to settlement.14 Powell, the son of Midwestern farmers, ran a farm “almost by himself” before his teenage years. “His interest in the public domain was primarily an interest in the land as it might be settled by small farmers. Hence his report gave irrigable and pasturage lands primary attention,” Stegner wrote.15

Powell’s survey obstructed big plans pushed forward by interests of western politicians, railroad companies and banks.16 Nevada Senator William Stewart (“notoriously a footman for the San Francisco moguls”) supported the survey originally: Let the government shoulder mapping of lands best suited for irrigation, making exploitation by private interests that much easier.17 But the mapping took too long. For more than five years, maybe up to ten, Stewart and men like him couldn’t proceed fortune-making in the West.

Powell never finished the survey. Stewart initiated a smear campaign, aiming to delegitimize Powell, but Powell bore no shortage of obstacles.18 “His political enemies were sometimes personal and sometimes merely anti-scientific, or anti-federal, but more often than either they were the representatives of vested interests or petrified beliefs which seemed to be threatened by Powell’s policies,” Stegner wrote.19

We now understand the Platte River Basin as one of the most appropriated river systems in the world. Nebraska’s Natural Resources Department classifies the Platte River as over-appropriated, meaning there’s not enough water to fulfill current expectations.20 Just to name a couple of the basin’s strains, today the Platte River Basin’s available water supports the nation’s number one state producer of irrigated corn and two of the country’s top five states for feedlots large enough to house 1,000 head of cattle or more.21,22

Yet, expectations mount. In 2018 two natural resource districts in Nebraska proposed a plan to divert Platte River water out of its basin and into the Republican River Basin (which runs south and east from Colorado into Nebraska and on into Kansas). Based on an agreement among the three states dating from 1943, this would ensure Kansas their legally mandated percentage of the river’s flow.23,24 One of the natural resource district managers called stored water in an over-appropriated river “wasted” if not used for a “beneficial purpose;” in this case, avoiding further litigation.25 This sequence of events may shed light on how rivers become over appropriated. I imagine Powell would say. “I told you so.”

While reading Powell’s story, I saw my own. I saw my family’s history reflect a broader history – one of the country’s expansion westward. Had citizens and institutions in the West adopted Powell’s ideas, the circumstances affecting my family would have developed in unimaginable ways. I thought of something a professor of mine often said: “History is not a marching forward of progress.” I’ve wondered if the Platte River Basin would be over appropriated had Powell’s plan succeeded; but I can never be sure. Rather, I prefer to see in Powell’s story a welcome complication while viewing the place where I grew up. There were many man-made lines drawn and policies proposed for the Great Plains in the last 160 years, and each accepted was not an inevitable event. Some people’s ideas of what’s best for the Great Plains won – regardless of their motivations – and some people, like Powell, lost.

My great-grandmother wrote on the back of this photo: “Here they are putting down the gravel at the well. First well 1948”.

An outfit from Kearney, Nebraska drilled my family’s first irrigation well in 1948.

A canal system pulling water from Platte River basin’s Prairie Creek irrigates my great grandpa’s corn fields in 1946.

An irrigation well pumps groundwater to the surface, circa 1948.

My great-grandma wrote on the back of this photo: “The outfit that drill the well. First well on the farm”.

Still, though, Powell’s idea is cited while looking to the West’s future. Historian Donald Worster believes basin-centered planning “would train the widest possible number of people in the daily task of understanding and adapting to their ecological conditions.”26 Instead, hired water managers monitor water quantity and quality in our basins. “Direct responsibility is the surest road to carefulness,” Worster writes. “That is the oldest, clearest lesson in the environmental history of the species.”27

I am confident in one prediction: Someone gaining awareness of the connection between ice skating in Colorado and farming in Nebraska – a member of a farm family reliant on the Platte River Basin and its water for over 145 years – would please John Wesley Powell.

Notes:

  1. Stegner, Wallace. 1954. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 229
  2. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 220.
  3. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 220.
  4. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 220.
  5. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 300.
  6. Buechler, August F., Barr, Robert J., Stough, Dale P. 1920. History of Hall County, Nebraska: A Narrative of the Past with Special Emphasis Upon the Pioneer Period of the County’s History, and Chronological Presentation of Its Social, Commercial, Educational, Religious, and Civic Development from the Early Days to the Present Time, and Special Analysis of Its Military and Civil Participation in the Late World War, 11.
  7. History of Hall County, Nebraska, 15.
  8. Worster, Donald. 1992. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West, 132.
  9. Rivers of Empire, 138.
  10. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 322.
  11. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 138.
  12. Rivers of Empire, 140.
  13. Rivers of Empire, 135.
  14. Rivers of Empire, 135.
  15. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 224-225.
  16. Rivers of Empire, 136.
  17. Rivers of Empire, 136.
  18. Rivers of Empire, 137.
  19. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 283.
  20. “Compliance,” About, N-Corpe, accessed September, 19, 2018, https://www.ncorpe.org/compliance.
  21. Nicholas Bergin, “Study urges sustainable corn production, warns of climate change danger,” Lincoln Journal Star, June 14, 2014.
  22. “Industry Statistics,” Producers, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, http://www.beefusa.org/beefindustrystatistics.aspx.
  23. David Hendee, “Platte River diversion to Republican River would be Nebraska’s first,” Omaha World-Herald, March 7, 2018.
  24. The Associated Press, “Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado reach Republican River agreement,” The Denver Post, August 29, 2016.
  25. Hendee, “Platte River diversion.”
  26. Rivers of Empire, 333.
  27. Rivers of Empire, 333.

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