Daily Earth Science Geosphere Repost

Flatland Junction

Always a town, sometimes a lake

When John’s dad arrived in Flatland Junction, just after World War II, it was a bustling little town on the high plains of the American West. Crops grew in all directions from the center of town, and the economy was humming. John’s dad wasn’t a farmer, but he had a talent for fixing things. It didn’t matter what was broken, he could look at it, take it apart, clean and repair as necessary, and when he finished, it worked better than the day it was originally bought. He fit right into the community with a small business fixing anything from cars, trucks, and tractors to irrigation systems.

Now, irrigation systems were high on the importance list because, despite all the farming going on, there was nary a river, stream, or lake to be seen within a hundred miles of town. If there is one thing crops need to grow, it’s water. The land was perfectly flat, and when it rained, water either had to soak into the ground or puddle on top — there was nowhere for it to drain. The story told by the locals was Flatland Junction got its start because it was at a prime location where four perfectly flat pieces of land met. John repeated this explanation incessantly as a child until he learned the town originally got its start as a rest stop on one of the first transcontinental railroads.


Never-the-less, John was fascinated by the irony of having a lack of water and an abundance of crops. He liked to help his dad when irrigation system repairs were needed. He would look at the wells pumping water from the ground and ask where it was coming from. There were plenty of answers to go around. Some claimed rivers flowed under the land, but others said there were lakes down below. Several claimed water seeped from the center of the earth to the surface because God told it to.

John was dubious of all these answers until one day, a farmer told him the water came from the Ogallala. It was unclear what an Ogallala was, so John kept asking questions. It turned out the Ogallala was a thick layer of sand and grit below the ground, and the spaces between the sand grains were filled with water. The farmer called it an aquifer, but he was less sure about how the water got there in the first place. However, when John asked if the aquifer would ever run dry, the answer was a firm “no.”

This answer “no” was also the general consensus of the community at large. So, the pumps ran, day in and day out, irrigating the fields and supplying water to the town. But believing the water would never run out and reality are two different propositions. Reality presented a more chilling assessment of the situation. The aquifer was like a bank account where water from rain and snow soaked into the ground, making a deposit. Farmers and the city made withdrawals from the account by pumping water out. The folks around Flatland Junction were good farmers but poor bankers as it turned out. Over the years, there were more withdrawals than deposits.

Running Dry

Wells started running dry, and people began noticing how water would build up in the center of town when it rained. Eventually, the water would disappear into the ground, but the puddling water problem worsened over the years. Below the ground, unnoticed by the Flatland Junction community, changes were taking place. Because the aquifer is primarily composed of unconsolidated sediments, the water stored between sand and silt grains provides some structural support. If enough water disappears, the aquifer collapses, packing sand and silt grains closer together, leaving less space for new water to fill. This process is irreversible, so even if the aquifer fills up again, it can never hold as much water as it initially did.

Finally, a freak storm dumped an unholy amount of water on Flatland Junction, and the entire town, along with some of the surrounding countryside, became a temporary lake. The water was eight feet deep at John’s house, and he and his wife abandoned the first floor, retreating upstairs with their dog.

All actions create equal and opposite reactions. As the aquifer collapsed, something had to give, and this particular something was the ground surface. Once the government engineers took surveys and studied the problem, they proclaimed Flatland to no longer be flat. Flatland Junction now sat in the center of a large depression caused by ground subsidence from the Ogallala aquifer’s collapse. The town essentially occupied the center of a large, shallow punchbowl.

The good news was rainwater had somewhere to flow to instead of puddling on the ground where it fell. The bad news for Flatland Junction was all streams flowed to the center of town, creating what the locals now call Flatland Lake.


Feature Image: Outside of Flatland Junction (Modified by ArcheanWeb) — Original Credit: Photo by Raychel Sanner on Unsplash

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.