The Disappearing Ogallala Aquifer

The Ogallala Aquifer Crisis Is Uniquely American, With Global Consequences

The Ogallala Aquifer is a huge table of groundwater that covers portions of eight Western States. The system contains as much water as Lake Huron and is one of the planet’s largest sources of fresh water. Unlike “actual” lakes, the water lies just beneath the surface, visible in a few locations as wetlands or ponds. Most people have never heard of the Ogallala (also known as the High Plains Aquifer) to some degree because it is rarely visible as surface water..

Yet the Ogallala is the water supply that keeps a large component of western American industrial agriculture in business, the heartland’s wheat fields, also the source of corn, sorghum, soybeans, wheat and cotton. This is where the irrigation circles (otherwise known as pivot irrigation) get their water. About $25 billion of annual agricultural output depends on this vast reservoir.

But the Ogallala is on the verge getting tapped out.

What farmers thought was inexhaustible 25 years ago has been depleted many times faster than it can be replenished. If it runs dry, it will take about 6,000 years to fill back up. Whe

As one scientist put it: there are too many straws in the resource. Wells are now 300+ feet deep and the aquifer simply can’t replenish itself as fast as the crops drink it up. Not even close.

At this point in time, water is being pumped that has been deep underground for hundreds of thousands of years.  Water levels in Kansas have dropped up to 14ft since 1996, about a foot a year. BUT in 2011, level drop rates more than doubled, to 2.2 ft. per year. In some places in southern Kansas, water level has declined 150 feet and wells have been abandoned.

In some parts of the region, it takes one year to recharge the aquifer 1 inch through natural percolation.

Do the math.

There is more bad news: the region – already rated as semi-arid – has been in the throes of severe drought since 2011. The condition has vacillates from severe to extreme to exceptional drought, the two worst categories.

Climate scientists expect this state of affairs to persist and worsen. This is a long term event that will increase demand on the aquifer while reducing the ability of the aquifer to recharge.

Unless major changes are made.

Western states are generally Red states, led by hands off Republicans inclined to let the farmers handle it themselves. It’s not that they don’t know there is a crisis looming, it’s that they lack the political courage to do anything about it. Some farmers and institutions are taking steps, but the future is unclear. Humans sometimes do amazing things when threatened. Some of the amazing things are good. Sometimes they are the opposite of good, like electing strong men they think will save them.

Sometimes they wait until it’s too late.

Since we seem to get stuck on economic arguments, consider the economic price of losing the Ogallala: a slow moving economic and cultural catastrophe that will change the face of America.

Kind of like global warming.