Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Egypt and Irrigated Ag

Many believe that Egypt, over the course of its long history, has developed the most stable farming-based civilization in history.  I don't know if this was meant to apply to the entire country, but I'm pretty sure it clearly applies to the agricultural activities associated with the Nile River.  And keep in mind that agriculture is also (arguably) the single most crucial development in human history.   So it's pretty clear that Egypt knows a thing or two about sustainable ag irrigation.  So what is it that they do to garner these accolades?

Their methods have been perfected over thousands of years and are still to this day dictated entirely by the flooding cycle of the Nile River. Their approach is a natural form of irrigation incorporating the three distinct water seasons of every year. The process begins each July through October when the wet season arrives and the Nile floods.  On average the river level rises 27 feet, flooding miles of farmland along the river banks under about 5 feet of water.  With accurate elevations, they would use a series of manmade ditches to channel these flood waters to basins likely to flood during the normal flood year.  All the basins were left sitting saturated for about a month, soaking up all the water they could, before being systematically drained down-gradient over the next month or so.

Then began the planting season (October) when wheat, barley, figs, melons, pomegranates, flax and other minor crops would begin to grow.  Of course the flooding not only brought water, but also mineral rich sediments that replenished the soil nutrients used by the previous crop. 

Finally the harvest season would arrive in March after about a 5-month growing season.  Hopefully the bounty of the harvest would be brought in quickly and provide all their needs for the year - as in early July the cycle would begin again.

The success of this system lay in its use of a single crop system (which tended to not deplete the soils), and replenished water and nutrients.  It also depended on the predictable 27 foot flood stage - which was usual, but never guaranteed.  If the flood stage was a bit higher or lower, there would be consequences.  Lower stages resulted in un-irrigated lands and loss of production, while higher stages affected villages, people and animals integral to the normal ag production processes.  Today the flood stages are more consistent now that the High Aswan Dam has been built and the annual floods are better controlled than before.   

With such a set-up, is it any wonder that Egypt's irrigation has remained as stable as it has throughout history?  Of course, stable also means little opportunity to grow or increase production, which can be a problem as time marches on - at least to the western mind-set.  I wonder how Kansas would manage the waters if the Nile ran through our state?  Dream on!!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Another Near Miss...Abandoned Well Accident

It was a beautiful Saturday morning in the Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park on Saltspring Island, British Columbia even though it was late November, 2011.  A family of four (Dad, Mom, son and daughter) were hiking near the base of Mount Maxwell.  The kids were just off the trail some 20 feet or so when the 9 year old daughter stepped down on ground that gave way beneath her.  In a heartbeat she was waist deep in a hole - only because she was able to grab nearby branches.  The old well would have consumed her entirely had her frantic grab not been successful.  Dad was there in just a few more seconds and got her pulled to safety. 

Again, we have an abandoned well story that turns out happily.  But I was intrigued by the rest of the story as reported by the Gulf Islands Driftwood, which goes on to write:  "When the family returned on Sunday for a closer look...they estimated the well to be at least seven meters (24 feet) deep.  Not wanting to attract any attention to the site, the [family] capped the hole with several sheets of plywood and covered the area with leaves and branches."

Yikes!  Anyone see a problem with this remedy?  Fortunately cooler heads prevailed as the paper also reported:  "...an employee with the company that manages the Island's provincial parks, said this was the first time she's heard of such an incident on the island.  She said an effort will be made to contact the family, locate the hole and inform BC Parks about the danger."  We can only hope that BC Parks will actually remediate the old well once located.

It is literally astounding how many such stories there are of people and animals falling into wells.  If you own such a well, make sure it is protected if active and plugged if abandoned.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

GMDA Summer Conference - Colorado Springs

GMDA is the Groundwater Management Districts Association - a group of districts and associated entities that have policy responsibilities for groundwater resources in the various states.  The Summer conference (June 2-4) had a number of very interesting topics and speakers this year - from climate change and groundwater impacts to making the most of water resource advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C.

Several of my favorites were the climate change talk of Bruce Bacon, CEO of AMCi; Missouri River Transfer Proposal by Mark Rude, Director of Kansas GMD 3; and the Southern Delivery System of Colorado Springs by Mark Pifher, permitting manager of Colorado Springs Utilities.

Most of you missed this event, I know, because I didn't see you there. But not to worry, the talks (most of them anyway) will soon be posted on the GMDA website for review and contemplation.  There is also membership information there which you should consider.  How can you possibly consider yourself a groundwater resource person without joining GMDA?

Anyway, the 2014 Winter Conference (39th) will be in Biloxi, MS in January (final dates will be set soon).  Why not come on down and join us?  Bookmark the website and check it in a couple of weeks for more details.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

An Early Kansas Irrigation Plan

It was the Fall of 1882 and things were dry in SW Kansas.  Two brothers came up from Spearville with a plan to irrigate BIG from the Arkansas River in Gray County.  They dreamed of a large irrigation canal and a series of peripherals that could water quite a stretch of land.  They surely had ideas, but what they lacked was capital.  For the funding, they turned to a millionaire acquaintance from their erstwhile home town of Rochester, NY - one Asa Soule.

Mr Soule was known as the Hops Bitter King who had made his fortune selling a patented syrup made from bitters, hops and alcohol that was guaranteed to cure whatever ailed you.  He was also a man who wanted to grow his fortune, so he moved to Gray County and invested heavily into the brothers' plans, as well as land and city lots. 

The main canal of the Eureka Irrigation Canal Company was 96 miles long and was dug along the North side of the Ark River through both Gray and Ford Counties.  The workers on his canals were mostly farmers working while not farming.  It took two years to complete it, but unfortunately, the project hit major snags upon its completion - including flood damage to the diversion dam, very leaky soils and very undependable river flows.

The whole undertaking was soon known as Soule's Folly, but he managed to sell it to foreign investors.  Over the ensuing years the canal changed hands a number of times but never became a profitable venture. It did, however help lure many settlers into the region on the expectation of irrigation water - most of whom managed to stay on.  It also set the mindset for surface water irrigation that would persist for a long time - at least until groundwater was developed. Vestiges of the canals can still be seen if you know where to look.

Irrigation in SW Kansas today is strongly groundwater based.  For a good look, visit the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Great Kansas City Flood of 1903

In early May of 1903, a steady rain began to fall across Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri.  For days the rain fell which included severe storms, hail and tornadoes.  By the end of the month, rivers and streams throughout Kansas were flowing to overflowing.  And where did all this water go?  The Kansas water went into the Kansas River while the Nebraska water went into the Missouri River - both of which meet in Kansas City. 

On May 20, 1903, the Missouri River near the West Bottoms in KC was 12 feet, nine inches deep.  Eight days later, a weather forecast printed in the Kansas City Star newspaper predicted "another spell of bad weather" that would "test the patience of the people of Kansas City and its vicinity." A weather observer predicted thunderstorms and stated, "Of course there will be high winds, but not of the kind that wreck towns and kill people."

Keep in mind the West Bottoms at that time was largely an industrial area - home of the rail and stockyards, packing plants, factories, warehouses, and mills.  Hundreds of less wealthy immigrant families lived there.  The Union depot also stood in the Bottoms, and restaurants, cafes, and saloons serviced the entire area.

Well, the forecast rains did come.  Both rivers, already high, continued to rise.  By May 30, the Missouri was 25 feet deep.  The next day it was 35 feet deep.  The Kansas River was between three and five miles wide along its eastern Kansas course.  In the West Bottoms, the rivers ceased to exist altogether and instead formed more of an inland sea.

Union Avenue in Kansas City, with Johnston's cafe at far right
Work ceased at factories and mills.  Livestock were decimated - either drowned or swept away with the currents.  Trains could not access the city and all but one bridge over the Missouri were gone.  Seven feet of water flowed into the Union depot.  Streetcars were inoperable.  Public utilities such as gas, water, and electricity were out.  Most of the residents did not evacuate for various reasons - some had no place to go, others couldn't bear to leave their homes and the rest were confident that this flood would be no worse than others they had experienced.

As one reporter put it, "The river front population has a way of adapting itself to the temporary inconveniences that arise from the irregularities of the Missouri."  This flood, however, proved to be more than an irregularity.  Many were stranded on rooftops - their only hope of rescue from friends' and neighbors' boats. 

A week later the water receded and clean-up began by the building owners.  J.A. Johnston was one of those intrepid owners whose cafĂ© (right across the street from the old Union depot) was getting its post-flood attention .  He reported that the water in the cafe reached a depth of seven feet, two inches.  He was lucky enough to find his business' clock, still hanging on the wall, which was stopped on Tuesday, June 3, 1903, at 9:22 A.M.  He had the water line marked on the clock casement to memorialize the incident, and in 1906 donated the clock to the Kansas Historical Society where it remains today.

Now you know a bit more about the great 1903 Kansas City Flood.  What I find incredible was that only 19 people died.  Amazing.  Of course, since the clock has been removed from the wall, the significance of its elevation datum has been lost, but I wouldn't be surprised if each new generation of the Johnstons lay claim to the fact that the clock hung on a higher story than the previous generation.  That'd be embellishment - KC style!