Book Review: The Groundwater Atlas of Nebraska: Resource Atlas No. 4b/2013 Third (revised) Edition

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Review by Ann Bleed

Title: The Groundwater Atlas of Nebraska: Resource Atlas No. 4b/2013 Third (revised) Edition
Authors: Jesse T. Korus, Leslie M. Howard, Aaron R. Young, Dana P. Divine, Mark E. Burbach, Michael Jess, and Douglas R. Hallum with contributions from R. F. Diffendal Jr. and R. M. Joeckel, edited by R. F. Diffendal Jr.
Publisher: Conservation and Survey Division, School of Natural Resources, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Although most of Nebraska is considered to be semiarid, because of groundwater the state has many miles of rivers, including an officially designated Scenic River along a portion of the Niobrara River and the iconic Platte River, a major stopping place for birds as they migrate across the state. In Nebraska’s Sandhills, groundwater has also created numerous lakes, wetlands, and meadows, which support wildlife and cattle, even during droughts. Groundwater also provides water for most Nebraskans domestic and agricultural uses.

However, during the drought of the 1930s, many Nebraska farmers watched their crops dry up and some lost their homes because they didn’t know there was water beneath their parched fields. It was during these dust bowl days that Eugene Condra and Vince Dreeszen, from the University of Nebraska’s Conservation and Survey Division, began a test-hole drilling program to describe Nebraska’s groundwater aquifers. In large part because of information from their work and that of many others that followed at CSD, today Nebraska has more irrigated acres than any other state in the US, 83 percent of which are irrigated with groundwater. Because of this groundwater and the research that enabled Nebraska to make extensive use of it, Nebraska is consistently one of the top ranked states in the US for red-meat, ethanol, and grain production.

The quality of the research and educational efforts of the CSD continue today, as is demonstrated by the publication of the latest version of The Groundwater Atlas of Nebraska: Resource Atlas No. 4b/2013. The result of the collaborative effort of dozens of past and present scientists and support staff from the CSD, the new Nebraska Groundwater Atlas was recently chosen by the Association of American State Geologists and the Geological Society of America to receive the very prestigious John C. Frye Memorial Award, which recognizes the best publication in the field of environmental geology published by a state geological survey or by the Geological Society of America.

Whereas previous atlases were mostly filled with maps that only groundwater experts understood, the latest atlas makes this information accessible to anyone with an interest in groundwater. Only sixty-four pages in length, the Groundwater Atlas is filled with over forty-two figures presenting not only the most up-to-date maps characterizing Nebraska’s groundwater aquifers but also clearly and simply explained figures describing groundwater hydrology and how and why Nebraska’s groundwater resources have changed over time. Unlike previous groundwater atlases, the new maps also show the separate locations of the different rock formations that over the past 218 million years created Nebraska’s groundwater aquifers. These portrayals, and the explanation of the forces that created each formation, provide a vivid picture of Nebraska’s long hydrogeologic history. Other new maps show the variations in evapotranspiration and groundwater recharge across the state. The addition of these maps adds a new and important element that further explains why water availability differs so greatly from one area of Nebraska to another. The new atlas also tells and shows pictures of a bit of the history of irrigation and groundwater research in Nebraska. For all these reasons, the John C. Frye Memorial Award was richly deserved.

On the other hand, I have to admit that one of my first reactions to the new atlas was one of some disappointment. Whereas the previous groundwater atlas provided details on the elevation of and depth to the water table, and the saturated thickness of the groundwater reservoirs for almost the entire state, in the new atlas these maps contain large blank areas where no such data are presented. The eastern part of Nebraska, where over half of the state’s population lives, is one such area. Upon reflection, however, I realized this lack of data was actually a reflection of how much the CSD has learned about Nebraska’s groundwater since the last groundwater atlas. With greater understanding of the groundwater aquifers in some areas of the state has come a greater awareness of how much we don’t know about other areas. Thus, the new maps are both a more honest reflection of the state of our knowledge and a vivid reminder of where we have a lot more work to do. As R. M. Joeckel wrote in the afterword of the atlas, “we have only indirect and incomplete knowledge” about this “beautiful and seemingly magical thing,” which has accumulated over “spans of time unfathomable to most humans.”

Nebraskans have benefited from and have come to rely greatly on the state’s groundwater. However, as the atlas itself explains, this resource is not unlimited, and in certain areas of the state the quantity and quality of this valuable resource has been greatly diminished. Certainly it behooves anyone who cares about maintaining the good life of Nebraska to both learn about Nebraska’s groundwater and develop an understanding of how weather and humans impact this valuable resource. For both the scientist looking for the results of the most recent research and the nonscientist, who will also benefit from the simplicity and clarity of the atlas’s explanations of groundwater hydrology, the new Groundwater Atlas of Nebraska is a good place to start. Moreover, this publication is worthy of more than a simple read. Like any good atlas, it is also a valuable reference tool. And at a cost of only $15, less than only a few cups of coffee, it is truly a bargain.

The atlas is available from the Nebraska Maps and More Store on the first floor of Hardin Hall at 33rd and Holdrege streets or it can be ordered by phone at (402) 472-3471 or online at http://nebraskamaps.unl.edu. The atlas is also available from Amazon.com.

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