Irrigation Through The Years

Town and Country

Irrigation has been around almost as long as agriculture, and has been in the U.S. since before European settlement.

Published on: September 20, 2013

After two farm shows within a week of one another, I'm finally starting to get caught up on everything from the Farm Progress Show and Husker Harvest Days. Being in central Nebraska, Husker gives a closer look at the irrigation side, including everything from central pivots to subsurface drip irrigation, which has found a place in the Midwest in recent years due to its efficiency in water use – it's common knowledge by now that the water level of the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water for much of the Great Plains, is becoming an issue.

Advancements in irrigation are nothing new. Like agriculture itself, irrigation has come a long way, and has been around almost as long. According to the Irrigation Museum website's timeline, it was first used around 6000 B.C. in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Here, canal systems were used from the Nile and Tigris/Euphrates rivers, diverting flood waters on to fields for 40 to 60 days. Of course, other civilizations adopted similar systems and irrigation evolved over time. By 1800, 19,760,000 acres around the world were irrigated, compared to an estimated 600 million acres today, according to the timeline.

Irrigation in the U.S.

Irrigation was introduced to the Great Plains region of the U.S. in the 1800s, according to the timeline. Many know the most commonly-used method today in the region is center pivots – apparent in satellite images of the green crop circles during crop season. The Wessels Living History Farm website points out its introduction by Frank Zybach in the mid-1900s, allowing increased distribution of water. But irrigation was in use in the desert long before the Great Plains.

The use of irrigation systems by Native Americans in the Southwest is often overlooked. Actually, the entire history of the U.S. before European settlement is often overlooked. The Living History Farm website points out that although Europeans didn't immediately see the need for irrigation in a semi-arid region like the Great Plains, elaborate irrigation systems were being used in the Southwest when Spanish conquistadors arrived, In fact, a 2009 dig near Tucson uncovered that irrigation was used in the region as early as 1200 B.C.