Irrigation at Rain’s Edge

Kat Shiffler
March 18, 2015

To the east, annual precipitation – which averages more than twenty inches per year – allows for largely rain-fed agriculture. With much less rainfall to the west, growing crops on a large scale is possible only through human engineering – through irrigation. In the western hemisphere, this ancient method of carrying snowmelt, rain runoff and river water to agricultural fields dates back to the region’s early indigenous cultures.

From the time of the first agricultural societies, farmers have experimented with various ways to get enough water to their crops. In the early settlement days of the nineteenth century – in flat landscapes like central Nebraska – irrigation canals worked as simple gravity systems where farmers manually manipulated water flow with shovels and improvised dams made of canvas and other available materials.

Main canal of the Farmers and Merchants Irrigation Company near Lexington, Neb. Photo from the Nebraska State Historical Society.


In Dawson County, as in much of the Great Plains, the 1860s and 1870s were plagued by crop failures and persistent drought. Landowner groups began to form irrigation districts and work out cooperative agreements to finance, engineer, build and maintain more complex systems to tap rivers and streams, diverting larger quantities of surface water to fields through bigger canals and reservoirs.

Diverting water from the Platte River made life easier, or at least more reliable, for farmers on both sides of the meridian. Irrigation gave farmers a new sense of security against the unpredictability of nature.

“The age of prayer for rain is relegated to the rear,” read an 1896 editorial praising a new canal in the Omaha Daily Bee.

Irrigation canals, along with innovations in farming machinery and practices, allowed for the transition from subsistence farming into a new era of agricultural productivity. The expansion of the railroads gave farmers access to wider markets for their increased yields. Acres of verdant alfalfa, corn, wheat and oats sprouted alongside associated industries like alfalfa dehydration, an important development in the livestock feed industry. Euro-American settlement boomed.

In 1882, the Kearney Canal became the first major “modern” canal project on the central Platte River. Photo from the Nebraska State Historical Society.

In 1882, the Kearney Canal became the first major “modern” canal project on the central Platte River. The 24-mile-long channel of water provided irrigation for area farmers and later, hydroelectricity for the burgeoning industries of the new plains city. By building early, the Kearney Canal staked its claim as a senior water user on the Platte River, meaning its water needs must be fulfilled before all other junior “downstream” rights. Combined with its location far downstream from the headwaters, this made for a potent water right.

In 1892, the neighboring community of Gothenburg was promoted in the Omaha Daily Bee as the “Niagara of the Plains” because of the hydroelectricity produced on its canal. It powered a flourmill, a barbed wire factory and other specialized industries for a short-lived boom period in the late 1800s.

Funded through bond measures, many canal systems followed: the Farmers and Merchants Canal, the Orchard and Alfalfa Canal, the Tri-County Canal, the Elm Creek Canal, and the Six Mile Canal. Many others failed for lack of financing.

Newspaper clipping from 1892. Photo from Library of Congress.

One of several failed canal projects in Dawson County was one backed by a group out of Lexington. Envious of Gothenburg’s success, a bitter editorial ran in the Lexington Gazette on July 24, 1891, exclaiming, “Irrigation may be all right, but there’s lots of farmers in Dawson County who don’t want it. They prefer to trust in God and well directed energy for crops, than to mortgage their farms for water.” Yet miles of irrigation canals quickly outnumbered these sentiments.

After years of financial issues and failed bond attempts for a canal system south of Cozad – at the intersection of the Platte River and the 100th meridian – farmers finally took charge of the project themselves. In 1926, construction began on the Thirty-Mile Canal. As neighbors who could see the benefits of harnessing river water to reach distant fields, 121 farmer-stockholders completed the project in 15 months in an example of cooperative accomplishment.

Recreating along the Orchard and Alfalfa Canal, May 28, 1922. Photo from the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District.

attended the dedication of the Thirty-Mile Canal in July 1928. Many traveled by train to see what was billed as “the story of a dream come true.” The canal brought irrigation to 13,000 acres in the central Platte. By this time, nearly half a million acres in Nebraska relied on surface water irrigation.

In the 1930s, a second phase of irrigation project construction began in response to the prolonged drought and the economic and social impacts of the Great Depression. The New Deal irrigation projects – including the building of Lake McConaughy and an extensive network of canals south of the central Platte Valley – brought surface water irrigation to approximately 170,000 additional acres in the state.

In 1933, the Nebraska state legislature passed the Nebraska Public Power Enabling Act, connecting revenue produced from the sale of public hydropower to dam building for irrigation. The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District and part of today’s Nebraska Public Power District were born.

Headworks of the Dawson County Canal, May 28, 1932. Photo by the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District.

This story is part of an in-depth multimedia report on the history of conservation and land use change on the central Platte River. Explore the full piece.


PBT team photo. Summer 2023

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We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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