Tapping Groundwater

Kat Shiffler
March 18, 2015

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.

The number of irrigation wells in the state skyrocketed in the 1970s. Groundwater irrigation dramatically overtook surface water irrigation, with more than 30,000 new wells installed over the course of just one decade.

Center pivot (or sprinkler) irrigation came of age at the same time, along with commercial fertilizers and pesticides, and agriculture boomed. Nebraska’s acres of harvested crops grew by more than 50 percent from the turn of the twentieth century to the turn of the twenty-first.

The use of center pivot technology soared in the 1970s, forever changing the irrigated landscape. Photo by Robert Burns/Flickr CC.

In 1976, William E. Splinter wrote of center pivot irrigation in Scientific American as “perhaps the most significant mechanical innovation in agriculture since the replacement of draft animals by the tractor.” Splinter was a professor of agricultural engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, located just hours from where the irrigation technology was invented.

Center pivots, which largely pump groundwater to fields, allowed farmers to be more independent of surface water canal systems, and much more precise with their irrigation allotments.

Beginning in northeast Nebraska, the pivots spread across the state, the country and eventually the world, their perfect crop circles visible from satellites in outer space.

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.

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