Farmers Are Drawing Groundwater From The Giant Ogallala Aquifer Faster Than Nature Replaces It

Farmers Are Drawing Groundwater From The Giant Ogallala Aquifer Faster Than Nature Replaces ItWater from an irrigation system sprays flowering cotton plants on the farm of Allen Entz in Hydro, Okla, Aug. 16, 2012. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Every summer the U.S. Central Plains go dry, leading farmers to tap into groundwater to irrigate sorghum, soy, cotton, wheat and corn and maintain large herds of cattle and hogs. As the heat rises, anxious irrigators gather to discuss whether and how they should adopt more stringent conservation measures.

They know that if they do not conserve, the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of their prosperity, will go dry. The Ogallala, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is one of the largest underground freshwater sources in the world. It underlies an estimated 174,000 square miles of the Central Plains and holds as much water as Lake Huron. It irrigates portions of eight states, from Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska in the north to Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas in the south.

But the current drought plaguing the region is unusually strong and persistent, driving farmers to rely more on the aquifer and sharpening the debate over its future. A current assessment by the U.S. Drought Monitor, published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows large swaths of the southern plains experiencing drought ranging from “severe” to “exceptional.”central plains farmers2 8 9

These worrisome prospects form the dramatic backdrop to “Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land,” now out in its third edition. In it, my fellow historians John Opie and Kenna Lang Archer and I set current debates over the Ogallala Aquifer in the context of the region’s equally conflicted past.

Draining the source

In the 1880s, farmers in the region asserted that there was a steady movement of water beneath their feet, which they called “underflow,” from the Rockies east. Geologist F.N. Darton of the U.S. Geological Survey located the first outlines of the aquifer near Ogallala, Nebraska. His discovery nourished the ambitions of farmers and irrigation promoters. One booster, William E. Smythe, visited Garden City, Kansas, and cheered the irrigated future. Pumping underground water, he told his audience, would build “little homes of pleasing architecture. We will surround them with pretty lawns and fringe them with trees and hedges … in a new Kansas dedicated to industrial independence.”

Farmers Are Drawing Groundwater From The Giant Ogallala Aquifer Faster Than Nature Replaces ItOgallala Aquifer water-level changes from predevelopment (about 1950) to 2015. USGS

That bucolic vision took decades to realize. Windmills could only pump so much water, which constrained the amount of land farmers could put into production. And the Ogallala’s sand and gravel composition slowed the downward flow of surface waters to refill it, even in wet seasons.

This did not matter until farmers started adopting better drilling technology, gas-powered water pumps and high-tech irrigation systems after World War II. These advances turned the Central Plains into the world’s breadbasket and meat market, annually generating US$20 billion worth of foodstuffs.

As more pumps were drilled into the aquifer to capture its flow, some started to come up dry, which led to more drilling and pumping. Between the late 19th century and 2005, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates irrigation depleted the aquifer by 253 million acre-feet – about 9 percent of its total volume. And the pace is accelerating. Analyzing federal data, The Denver Post found that the aquifer shrank twice as fast from 2011 through 2017 as it had over the previous 60 years.

The current drought is only adding to these woes. University of California-Irvine hydrologist Jay Famiglietti has identified the Ogallala region and California’s Central Valley as the two most overheated and water-starved areas in the United States.

Relying on technological fixes

This is not the first time that humans have pushed ecosystems on the Central Plains to the breaking point. Starting in the late 19th century, settler-colonists plowed up native grasses that protected the soil. When a series of intense droughts struck in the 1930s, dried-out topsoil was primed to erode in the infamous Dust Bowl. Howling windstorms widely known as “black blizzards” blotted out the sun, blowing away exposed soil and displacing much of the human population.

Farmers who hung on through World War II placed their hope in highly engineered solutions, such as high-powered pumps and center-pivot irrigation systems. These innovations, along with ongoing experiments to determine the most profitable kind of crops to grow and animals to raise, profoundly altered global food systems and the lives and livelihoods of Plains farmers.

Today some advocates support a similar fix for farmers’ water needs: The so-called Great Canal of Kansas, which would pump vast quantities of water from the Missouri River in the east over 360 miles west to the most arid Kansas counties. However, this project could cost up to $20 billion to build and require annual energy outlays of $500 million. It is unlikely to be constructed, and would be a Band-aid solution if it were.

Farmers Are Drawing Groundwater From The Giant Ogallala Aquifer Faster Than Nature Replaces ItCrop circles in Finney County, Kansas, denote irrigated plots using water from the Ogallala Aquifer. NASA

The end of irrigation?

In my view, Plains farmers cannot afford to continue pushing land and water resources beyond their limits – especially in light of climate change’s cumulative impact on the Central Plains. For example, a recent study posits that as droughts bake the land, lack of moisture in the soil actually spikes temperatures. And as the air heats up, it further desiccates the soil.

This vicious cycle will accelerate the rate of depletion. And once the Ogallala is emptied, it could take 6,000 years to recharge naturally. In the words of Brent Rogers, a director of Kansas Groundwater Management District 4, there are “too many straws in too small of a cup.”

Some far-sighted farmers are responding to these interlocking challenges. Even as they pursue efficiencies in irrigation, many are shifting from water-intense crops like cotton to wheat. Still others, notably in west Texas, are converting back to non-irrigated dryland agriculture – a recognition of the stark limitations of irrigation dependency. Farmers who are depleting other aquifers in Latin America, eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia could face similar choices.

The ConversationWhether these initiatives will become widespread, or can sustain agriculture on the Central Plains, is an open question. But should instead farmers and ranchers drain the Ogallala Aquifer in pursuit of quick profits, the region may never recover.

About The Author

Char Miller, W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History, Pomona College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related Books:

English Afrikaans Arabic Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) Dutch Filipino French German Hindi Indonesian Italian Japanese Korean Malay Persian Portuguese Russian Spanish Swahili Swedish Thai Turkish Urdu Vietnamese

LATEST VIDEOS

Jay Inslee Tells Hayes That He Wants To Gut The Filibuster To Fight Climate Change
by MSNBC
Washington Governor Jay Inslee is running for president on the single issue of climate change and argues that doing…
Causes and Effects of Climate Change
by National Geographic
What causes climate change (also known as global warming)? And what are the effects of climate change? Learn the human…
Extreme Weather and Global Warming
by NASA Goddard
Is the frequency of extreme weather events a sign that global warming is gaining pace and exceeding predictions? Bill…
Thanks to Climate Change, Wet Winters No Match for Drier California Summers
by KPIX CBS SF Bay Area
If the emerald-green hills around Northern California have you thinking recent rains have put a damper on the fire…
Climate Change Is Not One Issue
by MSNBC
"Climate change is not one issue," said David Wallace-Wells, author of "The Uninhabitable Earth," but is…
The Heat: Climate change
by CGTN America
Images gathered by NASA show an increase in foliage in China and India. The greening effect is mainly due to ambitious…
No company is doing enough to combat climate change: Jeremy Grantham
by CNBC Television
Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of GMO, on climate change and what needs to be done to combat it.
Power Plants Are POISONING Groundwater All Over America
by The Ring of Fire
According to a new report, 90% of coal-fired power plants across the country have completely contaminated the…

LATEST ARTICLES

Default Image
Come on, UK weather forecasters – tell it like it is on climate change
by Adam Corner
They have a national reach that most climate campaigners would die for. They are familiar and respected experts on the…
Green New Deal: 6 places already reducing emissions from buildings
Green New Deal: 6 places already reducing emissions from buildings
by David Roberts
One of the elements of the Green New Deal resolution that has caused the most consternation among critics on the right…
Default Image
UK environmentalists target Barclays in fossil fuels campaign
by Matthew Taylor
A UK-wide campaign is being launched to persuade one of the country’s biggest high street banks to stop investing…
Oceanic carbon uptake could falter
Oceanic carbon uptake could falter
by Tim Radford
What does oceanic carbon uptake achieve? Greenhouse gas that sinks below the waves slows global warming a little and…
Britain (Yes, Rainy Britain) Could Run Short of Water by 2050, Official Says
Britain (Yes, Rainy Britain) Could Run Short of Water by 2050, Official Says
by Global Warming & Climate Change
“Climate change plus growth equals an existential threat,” Mr. Bevan said. To avoid severe water shortages, he added,…
Default Image
Record high US temperatures outpace record lows two to one, study finds
by Associated Press
Over the past 20 years, Americans have been twice as likely to sweat through record-breaking heat rather than shiver…
Climate change: Water shortages in England 'within 25 years'
Climate change: Water shortages in England 'within 25 years'
by BBC News - Science & Environment
Image copyright PA Image caption Low water levels at Wayoh Reservoir near Bolton in the UK heatwave in July 2018 Within…
Default Image
Why you'll never meet a white supremacist who cares about climate change
by Rebecca Solnit
As the news of the Christchurch mosque massacre broke and I scoured the news, I came across a map showing that the…