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A Landscape of Non-Renewable Resource Use: Natural Gas Pipelines, Groundwater Irrigation, and the Transformation of High Plains Agroecosystems, 1950-1980

Sat, March 17, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Riverside Convention Center, MR 8


After WWII, farmers on the High Plains broke the ecological constraints of the region’s semi-arid climate with the help of abundant supplies of cheap, locally-sourced, and pipeline-networked natural gas. Prior to the 1950s, dryland farmers used windmills to draw subsistence-scale volumes of groundwater to the surface to alleviate drought conditions, but could not lift enough water to the surface to engage in industrial-scale irrigation. Starting in the 1930s and 1940s, regional oil and gas companies began to develop the continent’s largest natural gas field, the Hugoton-Guymon Field stretching between southwestern Kansas and the Oklahoma-Texas Panhandle. In the 1950s and 1960s, several companies drilled hundreds of wells throughout the region and built a natural gas pipeline network that cross-crossed the High Plains and extended hundreds of miles to major urban/industrial markets in Chicago, New York, and Houston. The vast majority of the natural gas produced from High Plains wells was consumed elsewhere, but the pipeline infrastructure provided farmers with the concentrated energy needed to both dramatically increase the cropland biomass productivity of High Plains agriculture and physically inscribe energy-intensive center-pivot sprinkler irrigation technologies onto the landscape. Breaking the ecological constraints of the High Plains meant using one non-renewable resource (natural gas) to exploit another (aquifer groundwater).