We're dying out here. Thirsty grasses crunch underfoot, ground into sand that hasn't gathered sufficient moisture to generate seed for new growth. Dried water holes wear wrinkled remnants of last summer's mud, and powdery alkali sifts in our ever-present wind. Topsoil flies skyward from fields that never should have seen a plow.
It's a familiar pattern in these
Nebraska Sandhills; home to five generations of my family. Moisture
may come, but mostly may not. Ever since exposure of the government
lie that a man can feed his family on 160 acres of land anywhere
west of the 100th meridian, this land and its people have
experienced boom and bust.
When a home is abandoned,
property depreciates. Vandals shoot out windows, vagabonds and
varmints, both two- and four-legged, camp awhile and move on,
leaving trash behind. We who remain listen for ghostly echoes in
empty door yards and crumbling corrals, and sense spirits among us
at community gatherings. Eventually the old place disintegrates or
newcomers totally renovate, destroying our pasts.
anyone care that we’re dying? Probably not. Native Americans
had other names for them, but scavengers all wear the stink of
death. Lately, it clings to the clothes of Homeland Hydro Options,
a Colorado-based company that proposes drilling water wells in
Grant County, Neb., and shipping water by rail to Denver’s
The notion strikes terror into the hearts of
many western Nebraska residents, where the economic base is
agricultural. But therein lies a problem: Few of us live in western
Nebraska, consequently we don't make much noise, even when we
holler like hell.
Homeland Hydro's proposal is only one
of many schemes to move water from sparsely populated areas of the
West to benefit urban dwellers. The concept is more than a century
old, and farsighted folks always feared our turn would come.
Interestingly, the drilling permit applications filed by
Homeland Hydro involve railroad property. This is the pattern of
land acquisition employed by railroads as they advanced westward.
Brush up on the political and economic agendas of government and
big business in the 19th century, particularly concerning
exploration of land lying west of the Mississippi. It was never
about settlement, transportation or communication. Those were
simply tools used to advance trade, power and dominion.
Fast-forward to Frank and Deborah Popper’s prediction that as
population continues to dwindle, the Great Plains is better off as
a reserve for bison, eliminating business and agriculture, and
recreating conditions prior to white settlement.
happen here" was the response of many of my neighbors, who said we
still feed the nation, not to mention a large segment of the
world's population. What will people eat when we're gone?
Fast-forward to Vice President Al Gore telling a visiting
delegation of Future Farmers of America to find other careers,
because our nation would soon purchase all of its food from other
Maybe we deserved this. We've wasted our water
on row crops, golf courses and green lawns, all of which have no
place in drought-prone climates. We've polluted water with
chemicals that our sandy soil deposits directly into the aquifer.
We've left the faucet on when it ought to have been shut off,
whether by self-discipline or legislation. In short, we use water
because we can, but that always means someone else can use it, too.
Western Nebraska presently falls under the classification
of extreme drought. Our fragile ecology is lying in intensive care
and Homeland Hydro wants to unplug our life support. Is there a
doctor in the house? An undertaker? Our governor, Mike Johanns,
tells us that the proposed groundwater transfer would happen "over
my dead body."
Westerners clear back to Lewis and Clark
have this in common: We have changed the face of the land,
justifying it in the name of freedom, minerals, trade, religion and
food. Water wars have been part and parcel of it all. But it just
might be that when the pipes are drained and everyone leaves, we
will have changed the land beyond resurrection. There will
certainly be a lot more endangered species, and man may be among