Clay and David speak with Char Miller, one of the three authors of the 3rd edition of Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land. Char Miller is Director of Environmental Analysis, and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College.
Drop Jefferson into Western Kansas or Oklahoma. What does he say about the Ogallala miracle? The Ogallala aquifer is a huge underground water resource which stretches from South Dakota all the way to Texas — an underground lake the size of Lake Huron that most people have never heard of.
The aquifer is used to create one of the best agricultural productivity zones on Earth. It supplies water to people, industry and agriculture, and it's expected to run dry by the end of the century. The aquifer is now living on borrowed time because of its decline as a fossil resource. How would Jefferson have reacted to all of this?
Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land is coauthored by John Opie, Kenna Lang Archer, and Char Miller.
Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land (Our Sustainable Future) 3rd Edition by by John Opie, Char Miller and Kenna Lang Archer.
Water and the West: January 13-18, 2019 at Lochsa Lodge, ID with Clay S. Jenkinson
Denver Post: “Too many straws in the Ogallala drink” by Char Miller
University of Nebraska Press Blog: “From the Desk of Char Miller: Perceiving Past and Present”
Wikipedia: Ogallala Aquifer
Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner
What Would Jefferson Do?
The following is a rush transcript:
David Swenson: 00:00 Good day citizens, and welcome to this podcast edition of the Thomas Jefferson Hour and welcome
Clay S. Jenkinson: 00:06 Great fun today, David. We had my friend, Char Miller from Pomona college in southern California on to talk about the reissue of an important book, one that he cowrote: Ogallala water for a dry land along with John Opie and Kenna Lang Archer. Ogallala means the Ogallala Aquifer, underground lake in the western great plains that has created one of the great agricultural production zones in the world. And Char Miller is interested in that resource and interested in how finite and unsustainable a resource it is.
DS: 00:41 And we've talked about water before and I think we're both the same line that, uh, maybe not, I shouldn't assume, but I firmly believe that as the decades progressed, water is going to become one of the most valuable natural resources we have. If it isn't already, I guess.
CSJ: 00:57 Well, in this book, Char Miller and his coauthors say that 40 percent of the world's population does not have an adequate supply of safe water. Think of that - 40 percent. That's almost half we, you and I live in North Dakota. The great Missouri river's here, it's, it, it, it backs up two gigantic dams, two reservoirs, here - we feel we have an infinite amount of water here and we don't have to be careful, but I lived in southern California, uh, I taught at Pomona College at the beginning of my career and their water was rationed very tightly there. Everyone has a special toilet. Watering restrictions are permanent. People are conscious at a restaurant, they don't automatically bring you water because you have to ask for it because the water is as precious as can be down there. That's still a place of abundance, but that's closer to the world's model than ours
DS: 01:46 It's a good public awareness, uh, to increase public awareness. Even if it, you know, I mean, a glass of water here, glass of water there compared to what's used for industrial reasons, agricultural reasons is not - but the public awareness of it, I would -
CSJ: 02:02 Well, the California water system, for example, which is one of the world's most extraordinary engineering feats, 85 percent of that water is used in agriculture.
DS: 02:10 That was really interesting at the very beginning of the discussion that you had with him, he talked about how the federal government has nothing to do with this
CSJ: 02:18 Not much at all. It's mostly local irrigation associations where we self police and it works because these irrigators, they're not idiots. They're aware that it's expensive to pump that water and that it's a declining resource and so they're doing what they can to conserve it at least to to extend the life of the Ogallala and they will then have these meetings where they'll say, well, we tried this. We only water at night or only water from five to 5:14 AM and it works.
DS: 02:46 It was fun to go back to Kansas in a sense again, after the show a couple of weeks ago where we broadcast your live performance in Pittsburg.
CSJ: 02:55 Pittsburg, Kansas
DS: 02:56 still getting mail about that and
CSJ: 02:58 I loved being there.
DS: 02:59 Yeah, so with that, sir, let's go to this week's show.
CSJ: 03:02 We're talking with Professor Char Miller, one of the nation's leading historians, particularly environmental historians. The author of a brilliant biography of Gifford Pinchot. A friend of mine who came to our Theodore Roosevelt public humanities symposium in Dickinson North Dakota in 2017, and he's the coauthor of this remarkable book, Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land, third edition, University of Nebraska Press, John Opie, Kenna Lang Archer, and Char Miller. Let's, let's go to the program.
DS: 03:34 Good day citizens, and welcome to the Thomas Jefferson Hour, your weekly conversation with President Thomas Jefferson. I'm your host, David Swenson and seated across from me is the creator of the Thomas Jefferson Hour and the portrayer of Mr Jefferson, Clay Jenkinson. Good to see you sir. I'm very excited about this week's show you, uh, you've met someone who has written a very important book and he has agreed to come on later in the program to talk about it. Could you fill in our listeners
CSJ: 04:04 Mr. Char Miller of Pomona College, where I taught briefly at the very beginning of my wayward career, Char came to western North Dakota last year, to lecture at a Theodore Roosevelt symposium that I was hosting and his topic then was Gifford Pinchot - the forester had such an influence on Roosevelt's conservation policies. Char Miller has written a ton of books. He has a distinguished chair of environmental studies at Pomona college and he sent me his, his book recently. It's called Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land. The original author was a man named John Opie, but Char Miller and Kenna Lang Archer have revised the book for its third edition. That's University of Nebraska Press. He's an extraordinary scholar, has written a ton. He has essays. Uh, he's a fabulous lecturer and he's deeply interested in examining the sustainability problem in American life in our, in our forests, in our water supply, in agriculture and, and the Ogallala Aquifer for those who aren't aware of, but we'll put some things on the website, Jeffersonhour.com, is an underground lake, the size of Lake Huron beneath the western great plains in the panhandle of Texas, parts of Oklahoma, parts of New Mexico, parts of eastern Colorado and western Kansas, western Nebraska, even parts of Wyoming. It's this gigantic resource, but the thing about it is that it's not reChargeable, it's fossil water. It comes from millions of years ago and it's just been sitting in these water bearing sands beneath the western great plains. And it was discovered in the 1950s and since 1960, tens of thousands of farms on the great plains have tapped into this resource and made one of the most important agricultural regions in North America, uh, over the Ogallala. But people like Charles Miller, um, remind us that this is not a sustainable resource that in 50 years or 100 years, we will have pumped the Ogallala effectively. And there's no way to reCharge it. We would have to wait. He said, I think he says 6,000 years for it to reCharge.
DS: 06:16 Who of us hasn't flown over the great plains? I remember back in the eighties is heading to Dallas, Texas. On a plane and for the first time looking down and noticing all these huge green circles
CSJ: 06:27 the green crop circles
DS: 06:29 and that's the Ogallala
CSJ: 06:30 right - So they're pumping water out.
DS: 06:33 And you and I have talked about this before, there was another book Cadillac desert that we just
CSJ: 06:38 Marc reisner's book
DS: 06:39 which is another really important book
CSJ: 06:41 by the way, just to say I'm doing the waters retreat at Lochsa Lodge in January of 2019, so people should come. We'll be talking about all of this - water in the West. Marc reisner's Cadillac desert is sort of the number one first entry into
DS: 06:56 this book is, is uh, more specifically about
CSJ: 06:59 one place
DS: 07:00 the plains. And it's a very detailed read, but it's pretty fascinating.
CSJ: 07:04 I lived out there. I lived out there for a couple of years when I was married. Right on top of the Ogallala.
DS: 07:11 Did you think Perhaps you'd end up being a farmer in Kansas
CSJ: 07:13 I Tried. Want to hear some stories? I think I washed out. I'm, I'm a, I'm an agrarian in the library. I was less efficient.
DS: 07:25 That should be a bumper sticker
CSJ: 07:26 My father in law was this great man. He was a pioneer irrigator, so back when the Ogallala was just being discovered. He was one of the first to understand it. He was an extraordinary man and he developed this huge four section farm nine miles of underground pipe. I mean he. He was a master at this and so I went out there. I came from my brand of agriculture which was my grandparents on a small dairy farm in Minnesota, 80 some acres and so I went out there and I suddenly saw a whole different agriculture and my former wife Etta Walker said about the kind of farming I talk about. Those are farmie farms. You're talking about farmie farms. She said this is about agriculture and so I had to learn
DS: 08:12 You have to give her that. That's good.
CSJ: 08:14 Yeah, and they were producing food like crazy using this fossil water and they were all aware that it's a. it's a finite resource, but they thought, what the heck? You know it's here, but are you going to do. You're going to not tap it,
DS: 08:26 I can't help but think about Jefferson and all of this and how he would react to it. You know, we talk about Jefferson and gardening, but Jefferson was a farmer and all of his compatriots were farmers and you know, it's, it's pretty easy to do some research and find out how he thought things were going to work and you know, they were aware of this, the crop rotation, but his big plan was there's so much land. Everybody can be equal by having their own land and producing their own things. And um, I can't imagine that he would have thought of water as a finite resource in his wildest imaginations.
CSJ: 09:00 No because Forty four inches of rain per annum at Monticello, Plenty for all the kinds of crops
DS: 09:05 Well he did have an an ecological bend. You know, the, the stories about him cutting down trees was murder
CSJ: 09:10 - a sustainability ethos in Jefferson that we don't have in modern agriculture.
DS: 09:14 Those, that group of farmers in that time really had no worries about running out of water.
CSJ: 09:21 No, because until you get to the western side of the Mississippi River, there's always enough water. That's what John Wesley Powell is great insight was in the 1870s that from the Atlantic coast until at least the Missouri River it always rains enough - one, maybe one year out of 20 there's a drought, but it always rains enough that you're going to get wheat and potatoes and -
DS: 09:42 But they did have dry years in Virginia.
CSJ: 09:45 Once in a while
DS: 09:46 there was really
CSJ: 09:47 nothing like what we're talking about on the great plains
DS: 09:48 there was really no irrigation methods and took what you got
CSJ: 09:53 because you're going to get crops nineteen years out of 20.
DS: 09:55 It would be a little bit difficult if he lived on the say the top of a mountain and it didn't have water unless of course you had a lot of free labor
CSJ: 10:02 Well let's not go into that. So then
DS: 10:04 I just thought
CSJ: 10:05 John Wesley Powell in his arid lands report in 1878. One of my heroes, the one arm civil war veteran, he said that the hundredth Meridian, it goes from Bismarck to Pierre, South Dakota from North Platte, Nebraska. And all the way down, he said that's the line
DS: 10:21 and you can, you can actually see it - us being in Bismarck. You get, there's eastern, North Dakota and then there's western,
CSJ: 10:28 North Dakota is drier, tawnier, more russet. More ranching. Fewer farms
DS: 10:35 and beautiful too
CSJ: 10:36 beautiful in its own way. Thank goodness. Because if it were Iowa, it wouldn't be beautiful anymore. It would be
DS: 10:41 careful. I have a sister in Iowa
CSJ: 10:43 I've been in Iowa many times, so east of the hundredth Meridian said John Wesley Powell, you're always going to get a crop or virtually always west or the hundredth meridian, not so much. And so - You could either leave it alone as kind of a Buffalo Commons or as ranch land, but if you want to farm it, you're going to irrigate. And so if you take, you know, there's this Jeffersonian or isn't it? So Jefferson would say, all right, here's some land that's very fertile, but it lacks water. If there's a way to put water on it, maybe that's a good thing. I mean, it's not clear that Jefferson would condemn irrigation out of hand because he's for human ingenuity. The problem is as Char Miller points out, it's unsustainable because this is not a reChargeable aquifer and the damage we've done by creating monoculture out there is not good in the long term Holistic sustainability of the great plains. It wasn't maybe the smartest thing to do. We might have wanted to leave it as grass and graze it in some way.
DS: 11:42 I. Yeah, I, I can't even imagine how at that time anybody could. I mean they were killing millions of buffalo because it was a nuisance
CSJ: 11:51 and he talks about Wes Jackson, my friend from the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Jackson is a genius and he's been working on a kind of a post-monoculture model for his whole lifetime, but how do we get there from here? I mean, we're. We are inherently an extractive people. We find gold, we take it, we find silver, we get it. There's oil under the North Dakota. We frack it. We want zinc, we want copper, we want all these things. We go get them. This is how western capitalist, northern European culture works. It's not a leave it alone culture. It's a What can we do with the culture? Right. And so irrigation makes perfect sense from that point of view.
DS: 12:33 Yeah. I hope I get a chance when we speak to him to talk to ask a question or two about dirt.
CSJ: 12:38 What do you mean by dirt?
DS: 12:39 Well, he and I think it's in the first or second chapter. He talks about the, uh, scientific makeup of dirt, um, and you know, the requirements to have good soil. And what really struck me is talking about farmers during that era. Not really having the scientific background, but understanding it
CSJ: 12:59 intuitive
DS: 12:59 right. And then breaking down actually, you know, what's going on biologically in the soil. And so you've got to have dirt, you've got to have water if you're going to farm.
CSJ: 13:08 But now it's a whole different world. David, when I lived on this farm, my brother in law one day was, we had a job, you've seen them in North Dakota, these giant plastic liquid receptacles there. They hold a thousand gallons or 10,000 gallons and he was going to fertilize this field of corn and it was all banged up. There was some kind of blockage where the water has to go into the spring mechanism on the sprayer, and so he gets into this tank. He takes his shoes off and gets into this tank and he's got sticks and he's stirring this to try to unclog it. My view is cancer cancer. I mean he's. He is waist deep.
DS: 13:48 Is he still living?
CSJ: 13:49 Oh yeah, he's fine. He's waist deep in herbicides and fertilizers because that's the nature of this. We're talking about the Petro Industrial Chemical, agricultural pyramid,
DS: 14:05 right
CSJ: 14:05 and the soil in some respects is only the. The thing which you use to hold the seed, but it's largely if you've read Michael Pollan's books
DS: 14:14 sure.
CSJ: 14:14 It's largely about how chemistry can make something grow on cardboard if you really want it to. And so what Jefferson understood that we don't is how to read the soil - that's what you're talking about, how to understand what's, what's going on there. When we look at soil, when I looked, when I lived out there, we looked at soil as something that you know you're going to use, but if you cut off all of the pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers, not much would grow. It grows because we we kill off everything that we don't want in that field and we turn it into monoculture and then we. We put steroids into it so that it will grow a giant cob of corn and so it's agriculture of course, because it produces food, but it is not quite Jeffersonian agriculture in the sense that you listened to the soil and determined what you can tease out of it
DS: 15:04 and there's so much written about that. I'm sure we'll get into it, but Adams and his, his fascination, obsession.
CSJ: 15:13 He's a real farmer. Jefferson's not a real farmer, but Adams is up there shoveling crap.
DS: 15:17 Now you really want to say Jefferson was not a real farmer. He's an agriculturist?
CSJ: 15:21 Well, he's a slave holder. He's running. He's running a
DS: 15:24 It was a pretty complex program of crop rotation
CSJ: 15:27 but you know Joe Ellis, our dear friend, says that he never once stood behind the plow. Jefferson.
DS: 15:32 I could believe that.
CSJ: 15:34 You know, you've got somebody else doing that. He's in planning with graphs about which field should be perfectly geometric and how you know, how many acres he's going to plant this year and his crop rotation system and what the prices are in Paris and London and Edinburgh, but he's not out there with a plow under the sky like Hamlin Garland up here and on the great plains.
DS: 15:54 We'll be back in just a moment. You're listening to the Thomas Jefferson Hour
DS: 15:59 Welcome back to the Thomas Jefferson Hour. Now we're talking this week about water, a little bit about dirt, but mostly about water. We have a very special guest to speak to the author Char Miller, who has a new book
CSJ: 16:15 Char Miller, Pomona College. He's the W M Keck professor of environmental analysis at Pomona. Pomona is in the Los Angeles Basin, along with John Opie, the original author of this book, and Kenna Lang Archer, my friend Char Miller, has reissued the third edition now of Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land and it's about this fossil lake in on the great plains, which has been tapped and tapped again by industrial irrigation.
DS: 16:44 Jefferson would just love all the science involved in this. He wouldn't believe it
CSJ: 16:47 of course - it's amazing. And so, uh, so Char is concerned about how dependent we are on industrial agriculture.
DS: 16:58 Before we talked to him, there was a passage that you noted and talk to me about, could you read that
CSJ: 17:02 Let's give you a sense of Char's prose style - This is
CSJ: 17:05 the last passage and the in the whole book, again, that's Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land. Here's what he writes. 'That is why the Ogallala belongs to the world because humanity today is a globally dominant species whose needs spin a web of mastery, perhaps illusory, across the earth - when food from a radius of thousands of miles enters a single shopping cart or when bags of grain stamped US AID avert starvation in Africa's Sahel, the whole world depends upon the Ogallala. As a result, the clear fresh waters of the Ogallala are being gulped down at 10 times their trickling pace of replacement. Over the next 50 years. When the world's food needs multiply five or 10 times the Ogallala waters, fulfilling Adam Smith's 18th century prediction, will become as precious as diamonds.' Last last passage in this really remarkable book by an extraordinary American historian, Char Miller of Pomona College. So I had the good fortune of a number of years ago to live out on the Ogallala Aquifer. David, my wife Etta Walker, had a farm right on top of the western fringe of the Ogallala in western Kansas, and it was a pretty amazing operation. Nine miles of underground pipe, couple of giant va the engines pulling water from 250 feet below the surface. It was not Jeffersonian agriculture exactly, but it was. It was remarkable and we have the great good fortune to be able to talk this morning with my friend Char Miller of Pomona College, the coauthor of a book called Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land. Three authors, John Opie, Char Miller, and Kenna Lang Archer. Good morning, sir.
Char Miller: 18:45 Good morning, Clay.
CSJ: 18:47 When I read your book, I found something really remarkable, pretty close to the beginning. You say you and your coauthors say that while we normally think of irrigation projects in the west as involving massive dams and canals and irrigation systems and the government funding at least by the state of Colorado, but more often by the government of the United States. What marks the Ogallala irrigation system is a high level of individualism. There is not a gigantic dam that supplies this water and government, at least the national government has not played much of a role in this. Can you explain that?
CM: 19:25 It is actually the most striking thing and like many of us who study the western water - just sort of blew my mind because it's also one of the most extraordinarily managed landscapes. It's not just the individuals who were doing the work, like you mentioned in your opening, um, in western Kansas or northern Texas or wherever, but, but any of us who have ever flown across the United States, you look down and you can see the upside down rain, what its produced in the Ogallala area. Um, and it's, and, and so in a sense it looks like the Central Valley of California because it's agriculture and it's on a huge scale, but the difference is in Central Valley of California there every single river is damned coming out of the Sierras. There are pumps and moving water ways that had been paid by the federal government paid by the state government. And to an extent local. But the Ogallala just knocked me out in terms of the degree to which almost none of this activity is funded by the federal government. And you know, admittedly the Ogallala was named by a US gs geologist, um, but other than that, you don't see much federal presence,
CSJ: 20:40 so you have tens of thousands of individual farmers putting down wells and creating either drip irrigation systems or once in a while now flood irrigation systems. This was done through cooperative arrangements and there is some oversight. But for the most part, each of these is an individual investment in prosperity.
CM: 21:02 It is. It's an individual gamble in prosperity also. As the story unfolds in the book, these folks are gambling with everything. I mean, whether they succeed or don't. And the great dust bowl is a dramatic example of the failures that so many endured and the consequences that, that flowed west as many moved to places like California to try to reclaim their lives. Um, but, but it, it's, it's a, it's a gamble that clearly farmers for a very long time had been willing to make, not just because the payoff is great, but because they so love the place like western Kansas or Nebraska, can't imagine life elsewhere. And this is just the, the, the thing you have to endure is not only the, the weather and the brutal winters, but, but you get to, you get to, um, work the land in a way that is not Jeffersonian in scale. But if we go back to your opening and think about the Jeffersonian model of individual farmers. Yes, these are large corporate entities at some extent, but many of the people that John did the initial interviews with when the first edition came out several years, many years ago. These are folks who really put things together like the irrigation pipelines. They put everything together to produce really large scale, but family controlled enterprises,
CSJ: 22:28 So a giant landscape in western Nebraska, in eastern Colorado and Wyoming and the panhandle of Texas and parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico would probably be able to produce some dryland wheat, but maybe not every year. But thanks to the Ogallala, uh, this has been one of the most productive farmlands in North America.
CM: 22:48 I would argue one of the most productive farmlands in the world. It's incredible.
CSJ: 22:52 When you think about California, you think about the Colorado river and the Sacramento River and so on. Whatever the downside is of that sort of irrigation. These are renewable resources and I think that what I want you really to talk about now is how the Ogallala, for all of its abundance, it's a, it's a fossil lake, the size of maybe Lake Huron, but it is not a sustainable form of agriculture.
CM: 23:18 It is not a sustainable form. And there's where the gamble really comes in, not just in the periodic droughts that wipe out a particular year or set of years crops, but the fact that the Ogallala has been so extraordinarily productive for now a century and let's say 20 years or so, uh, but really not since world war two when gasoline driven pumps really changed the way and the pace and scale of the irrigation processes, um, that, that offer that extraordinary fertile aquifer with its fossil water is disappearing really quickly. Um, and at least, and I don't think they're cynical. I think many of the really smart sort of economic forecasts of this region indicates that they think that water's gone in 2050 in most spaces, other places have already lost it and they've had to revert to dry land ag. Um, I think that's what we're going to see over the next 30, 40, 50 years in many places as we try to do a bridging process and move, move much of this agriculture elsewhere. But it is also the depressing part of the story - that human beings, because of our technology that has unleashed such creativity, has also unleashed the capacity for us to destroy the very things that we were creating. Um, and as conservative as people might want to be with water, um, it's a little bit too late and part of it has to do with the Ogallala as a structure, as you noticed. It's not just not sustainable in terms of how we're dealing with it. It also doesn't regenerate at a speed that anyone could forecast or -
CSJ: 24:58 People say like one or two inches per year of regeneration,
CM: 25:02 which is, you might as well not regenerate. Um, and actually the, the, the line that we use in the text in the new book is that if you turned off every single spigot, if you turned off for every flood irrigation and drip irrigation, no more water was pumped out of the Aquifer at all. It would take 6,000 years to regenerate - that gives you scale that we don't usually think about.
CSJ: 25:30 Oh my, when I first moved out there, it was largely flood irrigation, which is kind of a gross and inefficient way to irrigate. Then they went to center pivots and then they went to drop nozzles. And then some have gone to Israeli style drop nozzles where the water's being used dramatically more efficiently than it was in say 1960. If we, if we pursue those sorts of technological conservation measures, how much can we extend this resource?
CM: 26:00 Oh, I think we can extend it a long way - given the size of this region and the amount of agriculture that's taking place in ranching, if you can make radical shifts in the way in which water is deployed now, right now, not next week, not two months from now, but right now, uh, which, and human beings can't move that quickly. But if we could, I think you could extend it out at least another 20, 30 years and maybe longer than that, right? We could even dramatically increase the technical capacity of these drop nozzles and others that, that really target roots and nothing more than that. But we also have another dilemma and it is with the extraordinary, um, cafo, the consolidated animal feed lots that have really dominated much of this region and thus sucking up Gargantuan amounts of water for cattle to consume. It's not just the corn or sorghum or soy or whatever else we might be growing. I mean, we can change some of the crops that might help also less water intensive as they've done to cotton is becoming less, less significant, not only in the Lubbock area, say in Texas, but also in the central valley in California. They're starting to rip that stuff out because they can't afford to do it. Um, that said we can do all of the changes, technical, we can do all of the changes with the crops, but we had made such a huge dent in that underground reservoir, um, that it's going to be terribly difficult to extend it much beyond probably much beyond this century. I mean, we'd be lucky to get that far.
CSJ: 27:40 Isn't there a self governing mechanism here? Because when I lived out there as, as the wells begin to drop, you have to sink them deeper, water's extremely heavy to pump to the surface. The energy costs are skyrocketing. Uh, so at some point it becomes prohibitive. You just can't make it cost flow and so you back off because you can't, you just can't pay that bill to the natural gas or to, or to the diesel to keep those engines running.
CM: 28:07 Right Or you go deeper and deeper into debt which has its own self limiting impact, right? You might lose the farm.
CSJ: 28:14 So the, I mean this is not a lake, this is, this, these are water bearing sands and
CM: 28:19 these are water bearing sands, right
CSJ: 28:21 And there and there and there. There's a lot of water there, but, but getting it is, it becomes an increasingly expensive and difficult proposition and at some point you just can't justify. You're not going to get the crop loan.
CM: 28:34 Right. Exactly. And I think that that's where we have seen over the generations, families have come and gone. Corporations have moved in to an extent they've gone under, um, in part, um, and you know, that's the federal government hasn't done much with the Ogallala in terms of underwriting the process of pumping, but it's done a lot to subsidize crops. Um, and so the question will be whether that's a political decision that the nation wants to make, um, to enable families or, or corporations to enable large agricultural activity to continue to occur on the Ogallala, but you can't do it without water. So we're back to that issue and I think your twining of water with fuel and the cost of that. The energy cost is absolutely right. And I think it's a conundrum that for places like the Ogallala region, which depends on an aquifer that doesn't regenerate terribly quickly, um, they're in trouble. The contrast to that is to go just a little bit south to the Edwards Aquifer in the part of Texas, which is a limestone aquifer that recharges almost instantaneously. You have a thunderstorm and that water is rolling into that aquifer and is replenishing, regenerating that extraordinary space, but you know, ag has largely moved out of that region, but there's an incredible difference not so far away and you know, geology giveth and geology taketh away.
CSJ: 30:04 You've got some aquifers in the Los Angeles basin that also serve as rechargeable storage basins. Let me ask this other question, why does this matter? So if there's a mountain in Nevada that has gold in it, we go get the goal. Then at some point the gold is gone and then we cover it up and move on. So we found this resource. It's looked like an infinite resource of Aquifer. We use it up maybe in 2070. It no longer is acceptable is it doesn't make any sense economically and, and we go back to dry land agriculture or to grazing. Does this matter in any larger sense or are there. Are there lessons to be learned here? Is there an ecological cost to this?
CM: 30:43 There is an ecological cost and I love that, that framing of it, I think we fundamentally transformed the plains, transformed them in a way that I think is perhaps we could never reach, reclaim the grasslands they once were, um, in Salina, Kansas, This wonderful group has been experimenting for now decades thinking about how to rebuild the plains as it once was and maybe use those crops into, enter those crops into our, onto our plates.
CSJ: 31:12 You mean Wes Jackson?
CM: 31:14 Jackson, yeah, the Land Institute. And you know, I think that's a really intriguing concept and a, and a fascinating way to think about a future minus the aquifer. So yes, on the one hand we can say, look, we found this resource, we've exploited it. It's now gone, but that also means the human ecology is gone. All of those communities that have been built up around it, Garden City, Kansas, and places like that will, will no longer be or certainly be much less than what they are. And to get an example of that just drive through western Nebraska. There's far, far fewer people today there than there was in the late eighties and nineties, and that's a consequence of the very same kinds of things that you're describing. So the human ecology will change. I think the physical landscape itself, there's also been this argument about sort of returning this to the Commons, uh, in a sense to the Buffalo Commons where we're, we no longer do the kind of high scale agriculture, but in fact bring back the Buffalo, bring back the bison in a sense because we can't do anything else, but all of that is, it's such a vast scale that it is powerfully unsettling to me to try to think out what the, what the result might look like. You know, in the book we have this wonderful line or set of lines that, that, um, Madison and Jefferson are talking about this region and their understanding of it is a landscape that is poor, that is, um, may never be sufficient number of habitats. Madison says to entitle them to membership in the confederacy and by which he means the nation, the republic. Um, and you know, Jefferson sort of concluded that it might take 100 generations to actually populate that area. Well, it took about five and we're going to see a massive depopulation over the rest of the next five would be my guest, so we may actually go back to that Jeffersonian world that is seemingly inhospitable. Um, and you know, we'll tell stories like rehab in this book of the Golden Age on the Ogallala, but I think there's some loss there. Huge losses that are environmental on the one hand and human on the other. And I don't think we tend to count very much. We don't reckon with those losses terribly well.
CSJ: 33:32 Well, let me, let me change the subject just slightly. What if the spigots went off tomorrow, Char, and then no more water were available from the Ogallala. What does that do? I mean, obviously there's an exodus from the western great plains, but what does that do to food prices? What does that do to the larger economy?
CM: 33:51 I think that's part of the story that was really important for us to tell in the, in the third edition, not just in terms of the investment capital that has flown in, um, but the, the resource, the food that has moved across the planet, I mean if you shut off the spigot, food insecurity around the world increases rapidly and immediately. These are not just feeding Americans, even though that's what we talk about, they are feeding the world and that becomes an enormous - it's great Economically when it works, we're reaping billions of dollars as a consequence of the productivity of our irrigation fed agriculture. But if you turn off the irrigating, I mean, that's why it's so unnerving to think about this particular water resource being one of the most endangered effectively in the United States because we know just how crucial it is to food supplies elsewhere in the world.
DS: 34:51 Gentlemen, we need to take a short break. We'll be back in just a moment. You're listening to the Thomas Jefferson Hour
CSJ: 35:03 Hello everyone. It's Clay Jenkinson. Just sneaking in a little announcement between segments of the Jefferson Hour. I want you to join me this winter at Lochsa Lodge west of Missoula for two humanities cultural retreats: the first one, water and the west, January 13th through 18th, and the second, Shakespeare without tears, January 19th through 24th. For more information, go to our website, Jeffersonhour.com/tours. We'll see you in the mountains.
CSJ: 35:32 Welcome back to the Thomas Jefferson Hour, I'm Clay Jenkinson, sitting across from my dear friend and the semipermanent guest host of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, Mr David Swenson. I think you have a question for our guest, Char Miller.
DS: 35:44 I do. First I want to congratulate you on this third edition of the book, Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land.
CM: 35:51 Thank you.
DS: 35:52 Thank you. And uh, it's a fascinating read. I want to change the subject a little bit. Go away from water and talk about dirt - there's this, there's this great section early in the book where you explained soils and what's perfect and the breakdown of the nutrients and how farmers during that period would recognize this perfect soil and the elements that you know, I think about Jefferson and the red clay soil in Virginia.
CM: 36:19 Yeah. And, you know, the language of ecological capital, which I also love. Um, you know, trying to think of ways that you can capture two things simultaneously that don't seem to go together. I mean, if you think about ecological, you don't tend to think about capital or capitalism, but in truth it is, it is the thing that, that turns that soil. Um, and as we write it, turns it into a kind of miraculous balance of the right chemicals. And, and, and, you know, sodium hydrogen and all these other elements. I mean, it's just,
DS: 36:52 it is complex,
CM: 36:54 It's complex. It's really complex
DS: 36:56 These, these farmers during that period, they recognize it. They understood it. We know Jefferson did, you know, Adams was a fanatic about making the best possible
CSJ: 37:06 manure
CM: 37:09 Yeah. Right, exactly. Yeah. And I think that's, I think that's, um, I won't say it's a lost art, but I think it is, it was an art, totally was an art for them to be able to see that. And I think now that we know that you can mix chemicals and produce fertility, not really soil but fertility. Um, we don't look at land in the same way anyway. I know, you know, not having grown up for him that, that was not something that ever entered my mind. Um, but, but having worked on this project for long enough, you begin to recognize that, that, that the concept, of husbandsmen is a really interesting term. Um, all of all of this sort of patriarchal stuff aside, you really are married to and trying to produce a kind of fertile landscape that's going to whatever the crop is that you want to grow and, and you, you sustain it. And I think those are concepts that are, um, I think we think our technology will save us in ways that we also see that technology produces the very thing that destroys us. And I wish we could see the salvation piece more clearly in a sustained way without us having blinders on to what might happen if we don't do it right.
CSJ: 38:30 Well, you know, I have some experience out there and it seems to me that the chemistry is, is far and away dominating the, um, the stewardship and the artistry of agriculture. So if you go to the right agricultural chemists, that person will say if you put exede on that field and y pesticide and z fertilizer and, and our water, you will produce a crop and soil in some sense is the least important part of it. Now that's just the medium in which it happens, but it's the chemicals that are growing that food. And there are even people out there who have tried to put chemistry in the pumps themselves rather than a spray on the pesticides and herbicides with tractors. They've tried to put them into the, into the Ogallala water. Fortunately, that's mostly been abandoned as a really, really dangerous practice because those chemicals seep back down into the aquifer. But I can remember going out with my father in law to, to move pipe and we would actually be, um, at the pumps and there would be two v eight engines running at top Torque, uh, with almost no muffling. And he would say, hand me that, that pliers and he would be shouting at the top of his lungs to me four feet of way and I would be saying, what, what did you say? And so you have this idea, it's like a, um, uh, 747 plane landing and I'm handing him pipes and we're moving these things. And then we think, well, we're Jeffersonian farmers, aren't we? And you think, well, there's a paradox there, right? I mean, they may be individuals, but we're using - we're at the apex of a gigantic petro chemical and industrial system that enables that to be a quote unquote Jeffersonian farm
CM: 40:15 And the scale as you said, it was huge, right? And that's just one of thousands in that area. And it has to be that big in part because you can't, I mean, because of natural precipitation, you, you've got to have a lot of land to do the kind of work that you're, that you hope to till in some fashion. But no, it is the most corporatized, um, landscape I would say in the, in the biggest sense that is to say the fusion of money and technology, the agricultural sciences, I mean all of the land grant universities in the Great Plains fabulous institutions are predicated on teaching that it isn't, the soil is simply a medium. It is a means to an end because we can, we can amend it, we can amend it to whatever we want it to be. Um, and then you've got all of the extraordinary combines and everything else that just frankly boggled my mind, the size and scale of them and the sort of technological processes that they are able to do in the degree to which they do it is amazing. But that is not what Jefferson had in mind.
CSJ: 41:25 Let me ask you a couple of final questions. First of all, why did you write this book and why do you reissue this book?
CM: 41:33 Oh, that's a great question. So, so, and it, and it, and John Opie was the original sole author of the book. John is now in his eighties and he and Nebraska felt that this was a time for a third edition, probably the last one, um, because it, it so much has changed over the last 20 years from the previous ones which came out in - John basically finished writing in '99 and it came out in 2000, 2001. So part of the, what's changed is not only the globalized nature of this agriculture, but the even more clear expectation that the Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land, the water is running out and the dryness of the land is going to increase. And there was sort of this really interesting moment in which we, John thought and the University of Nebraska thought, um, you know, this is, this is a good moment to bring it out, but John's health is failing. Um, and he felt he needed help turn, you know, he called me and I said, are you kidding? I love that book. I do anything to help bring that book about. Um, and then Kenna Lang Archer who is at Angelo state is a, um, a wonderful young historian has written a beautiful book on the Brazos River in Texas, that's a glorious piece of work. Um, we roped her in and, you know, part of what we did was to go from every one sentence after the next reworking text, reworking ideas. And then, because so much has happened over the last 20 years since the second edition was to really build out and add in updates and revising and thinking, well, wait a second, you know, they have this argument 20 years ago, where are we now? And Lo and behold, they're still having the same argument and not much had changed. And that for me was both depressing, um, and revelatory because it meant that all of these conservation districts, and we write a lot about a lot of them because we felt that that was a mechanism by which they could be saving themselves and their future generations life on these lands for all of the good work that they're able to do. There's also a, um, a constraint economically. People want to make their money. And that does, as much as they might cooperate, the water is the most essential thing to this productive enterprise. So we did a lot of reworking, we talked, we did a long chapter on t boone pickens, who was trying to grab as much of the Ogallala in Texas as he could get his hands on. He failed, but it ended up itself. That's a whole nother story of who's trying to get this water and, and for what purposes. Um, and so we were really excited to put all of that together and get a chance to tell the story one more time, um, in a way that was consistent with the world that we knew it to be. And then add in questions of climate change because we know a lot more today than we did then 20 years ago about the impact of it. And you know, even as this book was in its final stages of production, we were switching terms and because new things were coming out and we were trying to hold us to our own time as we could, um, rewrite to the last moment
CSJ: 44:45 Char this is an important book. It's well written, it's really, I would urge everyone to, to get a copy Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land. John Opie, Char Miller and Kenna Lang Archer. Let me ask you a last question here. So Wes Jackson at the Land Institute has been at this for 25 years. He's a genius. He won the macarthur prize. You have the American Prairie Reserve in Montana that's trying to create a 3 million acre buffalo ranch without fences. Uh, you have the poppers thesis that the Great Plains are really best suited to grazing and we should revert to something like that if you went out into the town I lived in Sharon springs, Kansas, and mentioned the poppers you'd be lynched. They're still really controversial out there. West Jackson hasn't exactly changed the world. The American Prairie Reserve is a modest little public private partnership in east central Montana. My point is that the dominant paradigm is still dominant and if you went to the - my kin out on the Ogallala and said, you know, you're doing something unsustainable, they'd say, well, we kind of get that, but what would you like us to do? Professor Miller, what exactly do you want us to do here? This is my family. I'm sending my children to college. This is food for America. So if you were the water czar, if it, and I know that's not the kind of model you would want for this change, but if you were suddenly the water czar and you could advise the Ogallala occupants, what would you tell them?
CM: 46:15 I would tell them that to think about those places in the past that were utterly dependent upon water and that found themselves in deep jeopardy because they didn't act in time. Um, and they've already known that. I mean the Ogallala region went through this with the dust bowl. Um, that's only what, 80 years ago, 85 years ago, um, we, we have a very close analog that we need to be thinking about. And not that the dust storms are necessarily going to come back, but the full on human loss that occurred as a result of that ought to be fresh in people's minds. And I recognize that part of the way you make it not fresh in your mind is to basically pivot irrigate everything, right? We've got the water now. We figured out the problem. Well, actually that is the problem. Um, and so I think part of what I mean, it has to be done delicately. It has to be done thoughtfully and with some sense. Um, but I think one of the things that Teddy Roosevelt Gifford Pinchot and that generation also taught us and gave us the language that I would have hoped would be more dominant than it is today, which is about resilience and which is about thinking out, not just for my and my children's generation, but what are their grandkids going to do? What are the great grandkids going to do? And if we have as a model, the fact that our work, whatever that work is, needs to better the world, then I think we can start to have a conversation about some of the ways by which to do this in a collaborative process across the plains. Because you're right, the Land Institute hasn't made a big mark in this world. Um, we can have all of the prairie grass preserves at a small scale that we want, um, but, but that doesn't feed the world and I think one of the ways grimly to think about this is that we're pumping so much water out of the Ogallala were pumping so much water out of the California aquifers, multiple, um, that those places may not by the end of this century continue to be the extraordinarily productive terrain that they have been. And that's going to be devastating.
CSJ: 48:30 Oh, really important. Third Edition University of Nebraska Press. John Opie. Kenna Lang Archer and my friend Char Miller. What are you working on now, sir?
CM: 48:40 Well, I actually, I just this week actually today a book on San Antonio, Texas comes out in sort of commemoration of its 300th anniversary and as you well know, we have just edited a collection of really fine essays and chapters for a book on Teddy Roosevelt. So I'm hoping for that to come out in the next year or so.
CSJ: 48:59 Yeah, during the anniversary of, of Roosevelt's death. So this is, this is terrific. When you are ready to go to Wallace County, Kansas, I will meet you there and I will be your wing man and we'll set up a little town meeting and I will introduce you say you have some thoughts on the Ogallala and I'll keep the car running in the parking lot, my friend. What a great time talking with you. Thank you so much.
CM: 49:21 Thank you so much Clay, thanks David.
DS: 49:23 Talk to you soon. It's a great read. I encourage you to check the book. Go to Jeffersonhour.com and you can find more out about that book, but before we go this week I, you know, I still have this image from are the beginning of the show of Jenkinson the farmer in the fields of Kansas.
CSJ: 49:41 When I got married, my wife Etta Walker. This extraordinary woman was a grain elevator operator.
DS: 49:48 Oh, I didn't know.
CSJ: 49:48 That in itself made me think
DS: 49:50 I thought she was a lawyer?
CSJ: 49:51 Well she became one. So she's this grain elevator operator. She lives on this farm out in western Kansas. So I go there and we were married and we lived there for a couple of years and so my father in law looked upon me as like an English major, you know, like a nerd, dangerous, but he let me do some things and I won't tell the story of how I nearly burned the farm down that time and I won't tell the story of how I saved the 500 sheep in the terrible blizzard that came through that that other time. There are lots of stories about my life as a farmer, but I'll tell you just this little one. My father in law did not trust me with combines or anything very serious
DS: 50:29 A wise father in law.
CSJ: 50:31 But he did let me cultivate some corn - you ever done this? So a cultivator is like a weeding machine that goes between the furrows, the rows of corn and you have to line up the cultivator precisely. Otherwise it takes out the corn rather than the weeds.
DS: 50:48 Not what you want.
CSJ: 50:48 And so he shot, you know, he taught me how to drive a tractor and he taught me how to align it up and we went a few rounds on, he said, all right, you're on your own. And I would do this. And he'd come back about every three hours. And he'd say, Huh, you know, avoid the cultivator blight, meaning that I was actually cutting down corn rather than weeds because lining it up is very, very difficult. And you have to concentrate. You can't just sit back, you know, it's not like driving a highway in the American west, you concentrate every second. Anyway, this is this huge field. It's the size of a, it's a whole section that I'm doing this day after day and I'm, I usually leave the tractor out there and just drive my car to the edge of the field. But one day he said bring the tractor in because we need to make a couple of adjustments. So at the end of the day, I'm to bring the tractor with this gigantic 40 foot cultivator on the back of it - the tractor is bigger than anything I've ever been in back to the farm. It's about a mile away and I would go around the field looking for a way to get out of the field. But there was a ditch, you know, there's the ditch where the road and the field and I was afraid that if I went down and I'd topple the whole thing and be killed or worse, and so I couldn't find a way out. And so I went three or four or five times around this whole field looking for an exit that wouldn't create chaos. And finally he came out and said, I'll do it. And he knew that I was lost out there. So he, then we, we brought the cultivator in and, and we made the adjustments and the next day he said, ah, you, I think, I think I can trust you to take it back and go by the same route we came and I said, oh no problem. So I'm in the driveway of this quonset, I'm driving out in the back of, I hear this noise in the back of cultivators, taken out all of the mailboxes of the property, a state highway sign, I'm, I'm knocking things over all the way back out to the field. And so that was sort of the end of my life as a corn cultivator. I did not damage the tractor or the cultivating machine, but I did some damage to the mailboxes and to the state highway sign. And so after that I was given some more genteel work to do on that Jeffersonian farm. So that's my life as a Jeffersonian, but I loved it. I'd tell you I loved it and I boast about it all the time.
DS: 52:58 Well, great conversation this week. Thank you. And, uh, your, your true confessions.
CSJ: 53:02 Thanks to Char Miller. Sometime, I'll tell you the story of how I almost burned the farm down. We'll see you next week for another exciting edition of the Thomas Jefferson Hour
DS: 53:13 The Thomas Jefferson Hour is brought to you each week by Dakota Sky Education. The program is distributed nationally by Prairie Public Radio. President Thomas Jefferson lived from 1743 to 1826, and this program presents his views. President Jefferson is portrayed by the award-winning humanities scholar and author Clay S. Jenkinson. To obtain a copy of this or any show for $12 donation, please call (888) 828-2853. This program is also available online at jeffersonhour.org and on iTunes. If you'd like to correspond with President Jefferson, or submit a question for him to answer on the program, please visit the website at jeffersonhour.org. The Thomas Jefferson Hour is produced at Makoché Recording Studios in Bismarck, North Dakota. Music by Steven Swinford. Thank you for listening. Please tune in again next week for another thought-provoking, historically-accurate program through the eyes of Thomas Jefferson.