A report from Nebraska, deep in drought

  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.

Does 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 Front Range.

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.

"Can't 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 countries.

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 them.

Lyn Messersmith is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a rancher and freelance writer in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.