Thursday, May 30, 2013

Loss of Ogallala Aquifer Will Have Impact on Many Highway 83 Communities

An irrigated farm in Haskell County, Kansas. Photos by Stew Magnuson

When I was a boy visiting my grandparents on the Highway 83 town of Stapleton, Nebr., my grandfather Virgil “Swede” Magnuson used to chug a glass of water and tell me how delicious it tasted — perhaps in an effort to wean me off Coca-Cola.
The water, he explained, was not treated with chemicals as it was in Omaha where I lived. It emerged pure from a vast underground ocean just beneath the town. I imagined a giant cave with water sloshing around.
What he was referring to was the Ogallala Aquifer, which is indeed vast in terms of its size. On Highway 83 alone, it begins on the southern end of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and extends roughly 600 miles to Wheeler, in Texas’ northern panhandle. It touches on 21 counties along Highway 83. (To the west, it extends as far south as Midland, Texas.)
There is no cave, of course. The water is stored among rocks and sand.
The New York Times reporter Michael Wines recently visited Haskell County, Kansas, which sits between Garden City and Liberal on Highway 83 to report on the state of the aquifer.
I am not going to link to the article here because the NYT will eventually archive the story and put it behind a paywall. For those who want to search for it once that happens and pay the asking price, it is worth it. Too summarize the article titled, “Wells Dry, Fertile Plains Turn to Dust” for those who don’t want to pay, in short, the water in Haskell County is running out.
To those who understand this important natural resource, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The pumping began in earnest after World War II in the post-Dust Bowl years when new technologies and cheap and plentiful fuel allowed farmers to tap into the aquifer. After years of drought, there was suddenly an insurance policy when the rains never came.
I have no quibbles with the conclusions of the article, other than the fact he never calls it the Ogallala Aquifer, instead calling it the High Plains Aquifer. The reporter rightly states that this is a finite resource.
The water took millions of years to collect, and only a miniscule amount is refreshed every year.
So as long as farmers keep pumping at a high rate, it will run out. Some geologists call this fossil water because it is so old. And so one can look at it as other resources such as fossil fuels. Keep pumping oil from the ground, it runs out. Keep digging up coal, it runs out.
He quoted one farmer’s statistics. In 1964 one well was pumping out 1,600 gallons per minute. That dropped to 1,200 in 1975 and then 750 in 1976. In 1991, he drilled another well. That is pumping out 300 gallons per minute today.
Towns like Sublette, Kan., depend on the aquifer
And so the aquifer in areas where there has been a high rate of pumping since the post-World War II years will be tapped out if current rates continue.
Wines notes a number of strategies the farmers are employing as the amount of water coming from their wells lessens, including changing crops, raising cattle instead, watering less land, just relying on rain, or even moving to another state. One reportedly is suing his neighbor, claiming that he is tapping into his water. That is sad. Even if he wins the case, the water is not coming back — at least not in any living person’s lifetime.
Not all regions are the same. At Stapleton, in the Nebraska Sand Hills, where center pivot farming is not widely practiced because of the terrain and soil, and there are no big towns using up the water, the aquifer is in good shape.
Other parts, as William Ashworth noted in his 2007 book, Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the Great Plains, have been contaminated by pollutants. This book is essential reading for anyone who lives above the aquifer. It lays out the history, mechanics and the economic impact of this unique natural resource.
Haskell County and its county seat Sublette was close to ground zero for the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Highway 83 is just 30 or 40 miles west of the 100th Meridian until it hooks southeast in Texas. This is the dividing line between the so-called “moist East” and “dry West.” This is where yearly rainfall totals are a crapshoot for farmers. The aquifer has helped them stave off drought for decades as pumping continued without much thought for the future. But nothing lasts forever.
There is a belief that “nothing changes in these small towns, and life continues on much as it always has.” That was never true. The loss of the aquifer will have an impact on many communities found along Highway 83.   

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at
Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Travelin' Down Highway 83 with the Farm Security Administration Photographers

From 1937 to 1943, the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information employed 11 photographers to go out and document the hard scrabble life of rural American during the Depression and war years.

It takes some time, but those curious enough can get some glimpses of life along Highway 83 in those days online in the Library of Congress digital photography collection.
By far, my favorite of the photographers is John Vachon. Others were more famous or more technically adept, but Vachon took hundreds of pictures of my home state of Nebraska over the years. I first came across his work while looking through Library of Congress pictures for my first nonfiction book, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Pine Ridge-Nebraska Border Towns.
He took a pair of dramatic pictures of the now controversial town of Whiteclay, Nebr., in 1942 when he was taking pictures for the Office of War Information. I was thrilled when Texas Tech University Press went with my suggestion and chose one for the book cover. The designer Lindsay Starr won a Nebraska Center of the Book award for her adaption of the cover.
Vachon worked as a clerk in the FSA office, filing and organizing the photographs for a year, until he decided he would like to take a crack at photography himself. Apparently, looking at all those photographs for 12 months gave him a good eye for composition. He graduated to full-time photographer and his first solo trip out of the Washington, D.C., area was to Nebraska.
I have come across photos he has taken in communities along Highway 83 on three separate trips in 1938, 1940 and 1942.
Minot, Bismarck, and Max and are among the towns he portrayed in North Dakota. (Above and left is the state capitol building in Bismarck in 1942.) 
In the winter of 1940, he traveled through South Dakota as a blizzard bore down. (See picture of Murdo, SD below and left)  One can find pictures of Selby, Pierre, Murdo, and Mission in that state. Vachon would have traveled parts of Highway 83 as he went from town to town, although he did a lot of east-to-west traveling, too. Here is one he took south of Minot, which I appropriated for my Murder on Route 83 short. (Below)
Pictures of North Platte, Nebr., back when parts of it were still seedy, are some of my favorites. There are several 1938 saloon pictures including this one of piano player Mildred Irwin at the Palace Hotel (Above). He didn’t venture too far north or south on that trip because Highway 83 was still undeveloped.
Other legendary FSA photographers such as Dorthea Lange and Arthur Rothstein took pictures in areas along present-day Highway 83. Below and right is one Lange took of a migratory laborer’s wife near Childress, Texas in 1938.  Rothstein visited FSA camps in the Rio Grande Valley in 1942. Bottom left is one he took of a camp worker in Harlingen, Texas in 1942.
Last year, inspired by the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie and Vachon’s pictures, I created this video. A few Highway 83 pictures are among them. (CLICK HERE TO WATCH)
Some 164,000 of the FSA photos are digitized in the Library of Congress collection and available to view. I can spend hours looking through them.



 Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.   

Murdo, SD, 1940 (LOC: Vachon)

Wife of migrant worker, near Childress, TX, 1938 (LOC: Lange)

FSA Camper, Harlingen, TX, 1938 (LOC:Rothstein)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Welcome to the Highway 83 Chronicles blog!

This is a little spot on the Web devoted to the peoples, cultures, history and natural history, news items and events found along the 1,885 miles of U.S. Route 83.
By way of introduction, Highway 83 passes from border to border through six states and one Native American nation — North Dakota, South Dakota, the Rosebud Reservation, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. It intersects with every major east-to-west road and historic trail. It passes by beautiful river valleys, the Northern and Southern Great Plains, the Sand Hills of Nebraska, Texas Hill Country and the Rio Grande Valley. By my count, there are 122 towns and cities along the way, each with its own story to tell.
Highway 83 in the Nebraska Sand Hills
As for me, I’m the author of several books. My father grew up in a small town along the road: Stapleton, Nebraska, population 300. I spent many summers visiting my grandparents there. Whenever my cousin Devin and I would leave on our bikes to go to the South Loup River, my grandmother would yell out, “Be Careful! That road runs from Canada to Mexico!” I guess she believed that there were Canadian perverts trolling the highway for 12-year-old boys to kidnap and spirit away into Mexico!
So the fact that there was something special about Highway 83 was in the back of my mind from a young age.
In 2009, I had been thinking about my next book project for months. One night I snapped awake with the idea to write about Highway 83 and the history along the way. How this idea was dredged out of my subconscious, I don’t know. I couldn’t fall back asleep as I worked out the details for how I would manage to travel the entire length of the highway. That would not be an easy task since I do have a full-time job and I live in Arlington, Virginia.
Long story, short, I made two field research trips. I spent two weeks in the fall of 2009 traveling Highway 83 from the border just north of Westhope, N.D., to I-90 in Kansas, just north of Oakley. The following spring, I finished the trip, and made it to Brownsville, Texas. They were two of the best trips I have ever taken — and I’ve been around.
Since then, I began the U.S. Route 83 Travel Page to encourage tourism along the road, and to bring business to the small towns along the way. I started the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook, which now has more that 720 members, and continues to grow.
I thought it would take me a year to finish the manuscript. Not so. My wife and I welcomed our first child in 2011, and suddenly the extra time I had to write vanished. I got sidetracked in 2012 writing a piece of long-form journalism, Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding. And then, this year, we had a happy surprise with a second child. When will I ever finish this Highway 83 book, I asked myself?
The good news is that large chunks of the manuscript are finished.
The Wounded Knee work taught me that there is an appetite for short books. And so I decided to do something unusual — a serialized nonfiction book.
Later this year, I hope to publish the North Dakota section of the book. The other states will follow, along with some break-out stories such as the short nonfiction story I published last year. Murder on Route 83.
This isn’t a book, it is a life-long project I am calling The Highway 83 Chronicles. I hope I do publish the complete book someday. Yet I also hope to continue writing about and traveling 83 for the rest of my life. The Last American Highway is a book. The Highway 83 Chronicles is something even bigger.
This blog will be widely focused. The road itself is the least interesting part of this project. It is the stories and people found along the way that fascinate me and keeps me writing. History, book reviews, upcoming events, news items, some teasers from the upcoming series of books, will be the subjects of the semi-regular posts. Guest bloggers are welcome! Send me an email with your ideas.
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Next week, the Farm Security Administration Depression-era photographers and the pictures they took along Highway 83.

Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.