Draining the Ogallala Aquifer

Industrial farms are pumping the Ogallala aquifer at an alarming rate. If conservation efforts aren’t put in place, dire consequences could occur similar to the conditions of the Dust Bowl.


| May 20, 2013



Dam Nation by Stephen Grace, published by Globe Pequot Press

Scientists agree that regions in the West are heating up and drying out. “Dam Nation” by Stephen Grace presents a crash-course on the complex history of water in the West and explains how future water shortages will expose the startling fragility of civilization.


Cover Courtesy Globe Pequot Press

During the frenzied days of early emigration and expansion in the West, running out of water was rarely a concern, and a dam-building fever filled empty spaces with cities and farms. Today, metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Phoenix are desperate with thirst. Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future (Globe Pequot Press, 2012) by Stephen Grace tells the story from the beginning when Western water law was formed through the era of technological mastery and taming wild rivers to today when ongoing legal and moral battles over water consume the West. Farms in the High Plains region of the Midwest are pumping the Ogallala aquifer without any restrictions. If regulations aren’t enforced, another Dust Bowl may occur. This excerpt is taken from chapter 8, “The Wealth Below.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Dam Nation.

Beneath the parched surface of the western landscape lie oceans of water. This liquid plentitude is sometimes squeezed between layers of impermeable rock. When a well is bored into these wet depths, liquid overcomes gravity as it rushes to the place of lowest pressure and pushes upward toward the opening—an artesian well. It may even flow like a fountain, or a pump can be used to bring groundwater to the surface, where meadowlarks spread their melodic songs across the windy silence of the plains.

The Ogallala aquifer, also known as the High Plains aquifer, stretches between central Texas and southern South Dakota, and from eastern Colorado almost to Iowa, covering an area larger than the state of California. This bounty lies beneath eight states: South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. Above this aquifer the size of Lake Huron is a treeless expanse of land, vast stretches of which are as level as a floor. A dry region of fertile soil, the High Plains once supported shortgrass prairie, a multitude of bison and antelope that browsed the grasses, bears and wolves that stalked them, and bands of Plains Indians who roamed the land on horseback feasting on the shifting richness as the seasons changed, retreating to moist and sheltered riverbottoms when the summer sun scorched the plains or winter blizzards raged. No permanent civilizations took hold on the southern High Plains, no agriculture. But now, thanks to groundwater pumping, this semiarid prairie supports fields bursting with thirsty crops of alfalfa, cotton, and corn.

The mystery of springs that slithered from holes in the ground led to the realization that a fortune of water swelled below the pioneers’ feet. Stored in the sediment of primeval valleys and long-vanished riverbeds buried beneath the High Plains, meltwater from the great ice sheets of the Pleistocene lay waiting to be pumped. Once brought to the surface, it could irrigate the loess soil—rock ground by glaciers to mineral-rich silt, distributed by the wind, and anchored in place by grass. Groundwater, unlike surface water, is not rapidly depleted by drought. Rivers shrivel when the skies don’t offer rain, but the Ogallala aquifer was the product of continent-size glaciers; a few seasons’ worth of dry weather wouldn’t make the fossil water disappear. But 200,000 wells perforating the plains would.

First the buffalo were exterminated and the Native Americans who depended on them were herded onto reservations; then the native grasses of the plains were overgrazed by cattle. Homesteaders plowed up the sod and made a go of wheat farming during the wet years that coincided with a demand for grain during World War I. Windmills turned the relentless gusts that roared across the plains into power to raise up meager amounts of water for crops and cattle. Then came the Dust Bowl with its clouds of topsoil blackening the sky, and an exodus ensued. Oil and gas brought people back. And then came wells of another sort: Beginning in the 1940s, centrifugal pumps run by power line electricity replaced windmills with creaky vanes and skeletal towers, and water stored for three million years in subterranean vaults was hoisted up through holes drilled into invisible depths. Hydropower dams on western rivers provided cheap electricity to run the pumps that lifted the Ogallala’s liquid treasure from darkness below, and the abundant water allowed farmers to transform the land from crackly brown to green. The greenery, as anyone who has flown above the Great Plains knows, exists not only in a patchwork quilt of squares and rectangles but also in discs—great circles of verdure seen from on high. Each round patch is serviced by a center-pivot sprinkler made of a pipe, usually a quarter of a mile long, and mounted on wheeled towers. Nozzles spray water as the system rotates in a manmade circle of rain.





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