A Pivotal Technology

Oct. 17, 2018

It’s fascinating to consider inventions that have shaped 20th-century American culture, such as the electric light bulb, the automobile, and the personal computer. Irrigation technology has also shifted our cultural landscape—specifically center pivot irrigation—by nourishing vast fields of circular crops across the American Midwest.

Records show that in the early 1900s midwestern farmers began pumping groundwater from wells to irrigate crops using windmills. The groundwater was deep, however, making it challenging to pump enough water to be effective on a large scale. But the emergence of pumps powered by automobile engines in the 1930s and 1940s enabled farmers to access more water from deeper groundwater sources—primarily from the Ogallala Reservoir.

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In 1948, Nebraska farmer Frank Zybach invented a new type of sprinkler system that revolved around well pumps at the center of a field. “Irrigation pipes supported by trusses were mounted on wheeled towers that could make a circuit of the field under their own power, leaving that distinctive circle pattern,” explains Joe Anderson in Smithsonian magazine. “Gun-style sprinklers sprayed water out from the pipes at set intervals. The system could cover 133 acres of a 160-acre field and didn’t have to be disassembled by workers when it was time to plant, till, or harvest.” It was a transformational technology.

Field sizes grew with increasingly powerful motors allowing for more coverage and the cultivation of feed crops. Food production boomed in the Midwest.

“The rise of center pivot irrigation turned the Plains—an area that had been dry land for more than 100 years—into a place that could sustain thirsty crops such as corn, creating an agricultural and economic powerhouse that carries the seeds of its own destruction,” Anderson explains.

Ever-expanding farms and unchecked resource use created a problem, however—aquifer depletion. The Ogallala Reservoir extends beneath eight states from South Dakota to Texas, and in some areas, water levels have declined faster than they can be naturally recharged. The challenge for landowners in these states today lies in managing economic demand and a declining natural resource.

It’s interesting to observe how an irrigation invention changed the course of American food production and altered the economic landscape. It makes us wonder what innovative technology will emerge next to help us better manage groundwater resources.

What are your impressions? What water technologies and conservation strategies do you see as a solution?
About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.