Water: A Critical Need for Rural Areas

Originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of the Iowa Barn Foundation Magazine.
Written by Neil E. Harl, Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Professor of Economics, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa; Director for the Center for International Agriculture Finance; Member of the Iowa Bar; charter board member of the Iowa Barn Foundation.

The lack of rainfall in the late summer of 2003 has called to mind earlier periods of water shortages in the state, particularly the extremely dry years of 1934 and 1936 and the three-year drought of 1954-1956. The dry spell in the 1950s led to enactment of a revolutionary new system of water allocation in 1957 that became a model for the permit or administrative system of water allocation in about a third of the states.

The early years

As settlers came pouring into Iowa in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, it was an article of faith that it was wise to settle where there was abundant wood and water. Wood was needed for fuel and for building construction; water was absolutely essential for domestic use and for livestock. In most instances, the livestock numbers were modest-a horse or two (or oxen) for transportation and motive power and a few meat and dairy animals.

As the early settlers ventured onto the prairies, water took on added significance. It was no longer assured in streams running dependably through the creeks, as tended to be the case in the wooded areas along the major waterways.

My great grandfather, who purchased 80 acres of flat prairie land in Appanoose County, Iowa, on November 13, 1863, very soon found it necessary to dig a well by hand to serve household needs for water (which were modest by today's standards of flush toilets and heavy water use otherwise in the household). That well, which was approximately four feet in diameter and almost 20 feet deep, continued to be used until 1982 when surface water runoff led to an unacceptable level of contamination. The well was replaced with a drilled wall, cased with concrete casings, to a depth of just over 40 feet with a submersible pump, to serve the needs of the house.

In that part of Iowa, rural wells have tended to be relatively shallow-some as shallow as 12 to 15 feet, many running 15 to 20 or 25 feet in depth. South Central Iowa is not underlain by a water bearing sandstone at a substantial depth, as is the case with a substantial part of the state in a band running from north-northwest to the southeast. Those water bearing strata produce aquifers which are a good source of dependable water supplies but at a substantial depth.

Greater livestock numbers in the twentieth century

As the livestock numbers increased, pressure increased for something to supplement or replace winch-operated buckets for water removal from wells or rudimentary hand pumps which characterized the early wells. Even with the more efficient hand pumps of the early twentieth century, hand pumping was not viewed as a feasible solution to providing an adequate water supply to a growing number of hogs, cattle, sheep, horses and possibly other livestock. Many youngsters growing up in that era, however, can remember fulfilling parental assignments to pump so many strokes (or produce one or more tanks of water) on a daily basis.

"Piped out" wells. One of the earliest substitutes for hand pumping in Southern Iowa was the dug or drilled well that was "piped out" to a tank at a lower elevation. The well was typically drilled or dug in a location where the percolating water from the flat level prairie would assure an adequate water supply in the well. The relatively high water table in that area made it possible to position a steel or concrete tank at a lower elevation from the well. Gravity flow to the tank was sometimes limited by a "float" that would shut off the water flow to conserve water. More commonly, however, the water was allowed to run freely, overflowing the tank.

Pipes in the "piped out" wells would eventually rust out, making it necessary to dig up the old pipe and replace with new. This often involved several days of hard work, through the clay layers beneath the wind-blown loess topsoil.

In the wintertime, it was necessary to chop the ice clear in the tank so that livestock would gain access to the water. This was a daily ritual after the onset of sufficiently cold temperatures to freeze the water in the tank beyond a thickness the animals could cope with by pushing their noses through the ice.


With the better farm incomes, particularly in the period after 1914, and availability of better built and more efficient windmills in the early twentieth century, farmers turned increasingly to windmill pumping of water. Windmills usually had either a six or eight foot diameter "head" with a vane that assured the head would be pointed into the wind. The windmill powered a conventional pump that would pump the water into a nearby concrete or galvanized steel tank.

When the windmill was not needed, a winch or lever control would halt the turning of the head. If a storm with high winds was expected, it was important to shut off the windmill. Otherwise, the head could run at such a speed as to lead to serious damage to the windmill head. Woe would befall the young member of the family who would hurriedly complete the chores and take off on a date without the windmill halted and secured. More than woe would befall the individual if a storm developed during the evening and damaged the head.


The early ponds were built on side hills and slopes with horse power and slip scrapers. Later, with the emergency of sufficient power to move the necessary cubic yards of topsoil and clay, greater capacity ponds were constructed. Depending upon the type of clay involved, in terms of the ability to hold water without undue seepage, some used a "liner" of clay or other material to cut down water loss by seepage.

Most tanks had floats which assured that the tank would be full (so long as the water supply was adequate) but not over flowing.

In recent time, care is sometimes exercised to "buffer" the pond on the upstream side so that phosphorous and other nutrients do not contribute to a build-up of algae in at least the outer reaches of the pond.

Rural water systems. A feature of the latter part of the twentieth century, was the emergence of rural water systems. For example, the Rathbun Rural Water Association obtains its water from a federally-funded reservoir, Lake Rathbun, some 15 miles away. The construction of the rural water associations was spurred by low interest rate federal funding on favorable repayment terms.

The cost of water from rural water systems usually comes at a higher cost than some alternatives and is viewed by some as a back-up system.

But the need for water has not subsided over the past century and a half. Indeed, more water is used now per farm household than ever before. It's just that we now tend to take it for granted.