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.

Last week, Peter Stegen and I drove a 730-mile loop through the northern Great Plains, following the North Platte River from its descent from the Rocky Mountains to its eventual arrival on thirsty fields in the Nebraska panhandle. Water makes this journey annually as winter snowpack melts from the high reaches of the mountains and […]