May 23, 2013

“We’re on the last kick,” he said. “The bulk water is gone.”

All my adult life, I have been hearing predictions that the Ogallala Aquifer (also called the High Plains Aquifer by people unsure how to pronounce "Ogallala"), a huge sponge of water under the High Plains, was dropping . . . dropping . . . dropping.

Fly east out of Colorado Springs and look at all the irrigated circles from center-pivot irrigation. They are growing corn, mostly.

Corn to feed to cattle in High Plains stockyards. Corn for ethanol (it's patriotic!) to make us energy independent so we won't be sending money to the Middle East.

All those wells pumping groundwater have led to this result.
Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers. . . . .

A shift to growing corn, a much thirstier crop than most, has only worsened matters. Driven by demand, speculation and a government mandate to produce biofuels, the price of corn has tripled since 2002, and Kansas farmers have responded by increasing the acreage of irrigated cornfields by nearly a fifth.  
From a US Geological Survey report, quoted at Coyote Gulch, the water blog:
The study shows that, since 2000, depletion of the High Plains aquifer appears to be continuing at a high rate. The depletion during the last 8 years of record (2001–2008, inclusive) is about 32 percent of the cumulative depletion in this aquifer during the entire 20th century. The annual rate of depletion during this recent period averaged about 10.2 cubic kilometers, roughly 2 percent of the volume of water in Lake Erie.
Maybe we will see more grass-fed beef (or buffalo?)  and more winter wheat in on the High Plains in the future. That's the optimistic outlook. But that slogan from the 1970s and 1980s, "A bushel of wheat for a barrel of oil!" is still just chest-thumping nonsense.


Connie said...

So scary. Why do we need to wait until a problem becomes epic before it is addressed? Makes no sense.

Chad Love said...

Saw the story as well. USGS also tried to sound the alarm back in 1998 as well with a study specific to the Ogallala that showed a pretty astounding drop in aquifer levels in the OK panhandle and SW Kansas, and that was back in '99.

This was during the peak of the CAFO wars back in the 90s when big hog operations successfully lobbied Oklahoma to change its laws to allow corporate out-of-state operations to set up shop.

I don't know how many state water board meetings I attended back then, but it was a bunch. Grassroots groups opposing it never stood a chance. The rest is history.

It's coming home to roost now, though, with the enormous water demands of irrigation, CAFO's, fracking, and the second great plow-up combined with the wild card of climate change.

The central and southern plains are in for some interesting times.