Some parts of Kansas receive more rainfall than others. Kansas farmers have always had to make decisions about what to plant based upon how much water was available. Because of the lack of moisture in many parts of western Kansas, farmers in those areas had to look for other ways to water their crops.
Lack of rainfall, especially in central and western Kansas, was a major obstacle to the advance of the farming frontier. Generally, the limited rainfall was not sufficient to allow farmers to raise the crops with which they were familiar. Although dryland farming techniques eventually made some areas relatively productive, there was no substitute for adequate moisture.
Water for farming can come from three sources: rainfall and other precipitation (rain, snow, sleet), surface water (collected in ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers), and groundwater (underground pools or aquifers). Whether for family or livestock use or for crop irrigation, many farmers and ranchers found ways to tap the underground water supply.
The introduction of the windmill helped farmers tap the underground water supply. "The windmill was like a flag marking the spot where a small victory had been won in the fight for water in an arid land," said Walter Prescott Webb, a Great Plains historian.
Although windmills were used for some irrigation of crops such as fruits and vegetables, their primary function was pumping water for households and livestock. Windmills were manufactured in several Kansas towns.
During the drought years of the 1890s, more farmers began to tap the underground water supply. Windmill-powered pumps placed groundwater into a reservoir pond. Water could then be run through ditches (flood irrigation) to the field when needed.
In most areas, windmill irrigation proved unsatisfactory on a large scale. One alternative in southwest Kansas was to divert water from the Arkansas River. Nearly 100 miles long, the Eureka Irrigation Canal (also know as Soule's Folly) was one such effort. It was completed in 1888 and served Gray and Ford counties.
In western Kansas, where water can be more than 100 feet below the surface, more powerful irrigation equipment was needed. The introduction of the internal combustion engine in the early 20th century helped provide the power needed to tap this water supply. In 1920 crops on 95,000 acres of Kansas farmland were being irrigated. Eighty-five percent of that land was located between Dodge City and the Colorado line. The irrigated crops were alfalfa, wheat, and sugar beets, for the most part.
Irrigation during the late 19th century forced lawmakers and other state officials to confront issues of water rights. Enthusiasts formed local, state, and national organizations to further irrigation interests. Before entering political office, Joseph Bristow published the Irrigation Farmer and was active in several regional irrigation conferences. In 1895 the Kansas Legislature created the state Board of Irrigation and appropriated $30,000 for irrigation experiments. The reduced flow of water in the Arkansas River caused by ditch irrigation led to a battle with Colorado, Kansas' upstream neighbor, over the limited supply of river water. This legal dispute continues to this day.
Following World War II, western Kansas farmers expanded their use of irrigation with water from the underground water source known as the Ogallala Aquifer. The largest areas of the Aquifer are under portions of Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. Advances in technology made it more efficient and less costly to reach the underground water and various types of sprinkler systems (center pivot and lateral move) were introduced. In recent years, as concerns about the depletion of the Aquifer have increased, sprinkler systems have been modified to use drop down sprinkler heads rather than high arching streams of water that evaporated in hot weather before they reached the crops. The lowering of the water table in the Ogallala Aquifer is an ongoing concern to the farmers whose crop production is dependent on this source of water.
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: December 1969
Date Modified: March 2013
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.