BOOKS/Alvena Bieri

Hogging the Water

One spring day in 1955 the Oklahoma panhandle was hit by a major dust storm. As I left my apartment to go across the street to Guymon Junior High School where I taught English my first year out of college, I noticed that the sky was strangely dark. By noon street lights were on all over town, and it was dangerous to drive. By nightfall everything was covered with dust, everything. Early the next morning the school janitor started cleaning. With his wide push broom he would sweep a few inches ahead and then stop and scoop the dust into his big container. And so it went all day, down the halls and in the gym.

"I thought the Dirty Thirties were over," I told a long-time resident of Guymon. He just looked painfully away and muttered something like, "Occasionally we still get a little dust up here." The sad fact is that farming long ago had taken off the native grasses that had kept the precious soil from blowing, and about every 20 years there would be another drought and more dust storms.

So it was with these memories of the one year I lived in the panhandle that I started reading John Opie's book, Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land (second edition, 2000, the University of Nebraska Press, $25)

The Ogallala is a huge aquifer underlying 174,000 square miles in the western Great Plains, stretching from Nebraska and Wyoming to Colorado, Kansas, part of New Mexico, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. These parts of Oklahoma and Texas and southwest Kansas were the heart of the 1930s Dust Bowl, and this area is the author's center of attention.

John Opie, a retired professor of history, says he started thinking about this area more than 20 years ago when he began studying the potentially bad effects of global warming on places with low precipitation. An old panhandle joke points out just how rare moisture is in that area. On a rainy day a young farmer calls to his wife inside the house, "Quick, bring little Billy outside! He's five years old, and he's never seen a rain."

Opie writes that the midwestern farmers who settled these lands in the 1880s thought their skill, simple technologies, and a little luck would see them through to future years of prosperous farming. They wanted to believe that drought was rare, an irregularity. it was painful for them to realize slowly that drought and economic insecurity were the rule, not the exception.

But then in the 1960s irrigation from the aquifer transformed the landscape -- from dustblown and dry to lush and green, and now 150,000 irrigation pumps are going all over the High Plains. Opie writes, "Thanks in part to the Ogallala Aquifer beneath it and a persistent sun above it, Texas County [where Guymon is] routinely produces more cattle, hogs, and wheat than any other county in Oklahoma."

But new problems have come. The main one is that the aquifer is going to run out of water, probably within the next 20 years. A second is that Seaboard Farms, a corporate pig raising outfit, is now going, excuse the expression, hog wild.

Hitch Enterprises is an example of how the business giant is taking over. Paul Hitch, in the fourth generation of successful farmers, was already the operator of what Opie says is the largest cattle feedlot in the United States, on Coldwater Creek, south of Guymon. Then he decided to raise hogs too, and he has built 28 hog barns and rented them to Seaboard. In Hitch's words, "You can produce a lot more raising hogs than dryland wheat."

The connection between hogs and water is clear and direct. They drink a lot of it, and it takes a lot more to clean up after them. But even at their cleanest, hogs create terrible smells, odors that blow across the plains for miles. The smell alone has cause many panhandle residents to turn against this corporate transformation of the clean and almost empty land. Maybe Paul Hitch doesn't mind bad smells. Maybe he wears nose plugs. But like a good American businessman, he is against anything he considers anti-business.

Opie's book is mainly an environmental history, very detailed. He looks at the Great Plains as a sort of test case for environmentalism. He sees in the history of the plains that "catastrophe" more than prosperity has been its past. His underlying question is, Will it be sustained, or will it become "a degraded system on its way to ecosystem failure, and infrastructure collapse?" As I understand it, he doesn't offer many alternatives. Maybe that's because they're aren't many. It could be that some of us will live to see the suggestion of sociologists Frank and Deborah Popper carried out. Ten or 15 years ago they got the idea that the whole of the Plains should be turned back to nature in the form of a gigantic public space they would call the Buffalo Commons, the ultimate national part. It may just come to that.

Alvena Bieri is a writer in Stillwater, Okla.

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