National Geographic : 1993 Mar
testimony. With the information the gypsum blocks gave him, he's been able to manage all his resources better. "I take the water I used to waste," he says, "and I raise another 120 acres of corn with it." He had a well pumping a thousand gallons a minute and was watering 120 acres; now he's reduced his pumping to 800 gallons a minute and is watering 240 acres. "That's exactly what the gypsum blocks have done for me." Robbins also tirelessly explains the many ways of conserving mois ture, primarily by leaving the harvested crop stubble in the field (what is called reduced tillage, or no-till, or residue management). A foot of soil can hold one to three inches of moisture, and the stubble helps retain it by shielding the crop from the wind and sun. The stubble has an unkempt look that can upset a farmer used to giving his field a real close shave, at least until he begins to notice the results: less soil erosion and yields equal to or even higher than before. Even irrigators are tak ing a look at this approach, eager to save on fuel by pumping less. "I'm just like an old minister that makes the circuit looking for a congregation," Robbins says in his imperturbable way. "I tell people, 'Billy Graham doesn't get everyone in the stadium to convert. But he keeps giving revivals.' I'm a preacher. Preachers are concerned about saving souls, and I'm concerned about saving soils." ALLACE AND KATHLEEN ROBINSON didn't just want Sto drink their water; they wanted to listen to it too. (Their Spanish-style farmhouse outside Scott City, Kansas, sits atop vast featureless corrugations of heat; in summer, the sun and wind can be searing. So they built a fountain in the atrium, and now their house ripples with the musical voice of the Ogallala. I stood in the entryway and felt myself smile. It seemed like such a frivolous little sound, but its cheer fulness was also refreshing. Though water out here is occasionally compared to gold, it's one of the few resources whose value is inherent. It is the basis of human sur vival. Yet groundwater, though it exists in its own particular universe and according to its own laws, is still connected with the hydrologic cycle, the circulation of water from earth to sky and back again as pre cipitation. "You cannot manage groundwater by itself," Wallace Robinson was telling his neighbors 15 years ago. "If you really want to get a handle on the problem, you've got to manage the atmosphere, the surface, and the groundwater." Lee Reeve outside Garden City, Kansas, doesn't need gold; he has water. And he has not let it remain buried in the ground, like the bibli cal talent. No sir, it's out there earning its keep. Reeve is the fourth generation to operate what is now the Reeve Cattle Company. Despite the cowboy boots and jeans, he's essentially a manager, and his thoughtful manner masks a passion for making the most of every resource that would do the old pioneers proud. He's well on his way to developing a near perfect system for using his water. Reeve's 4,500 acres stretch across the austere, scrubby sand hills of southwest Kansas, where the ceaseless wind distributes far away the acrid aroma of his feedlot. Reeve has enough Ogallala water to pump a thousand gallons a minute from each of some 30 wells to irrigate his corn and alfalfa, most of which he feeds directly to the 17,000 head of cattle being fattened for slaughter. Well aware of a national surplus of grain, Reeve decided to build an BEEF BY-PRODUCTS can imperil groundwater.Like all major feedlots, the Ingalls Feed Yard in southwestern Kansas (right) protects groundwaterby lining its runoff pits with clay to pre vent wastes from leachingout. Western Kansasfattens three millioncattle annually, a feed lot concentrationmatched only by Texas and Nebraska. Treated wastewaterfrom the IBP beef-processingplant in Finney County, Kansas, lies in lined holding ponds before being recycled onto cropland throughirrigationsystems. The ponds, tinted by red algae, are sprayed as needed to con trol flies andgnats.