Draining the Ogallala Aquifer

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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.
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The corn, soybeans, wheat, beef and cotton we’re consuming are drawing down the Ogallala. The grain and meat and fiber we’re growing to send to other countries are emptying our nation’s largest aquifer. We are, in effect, eating the Ogallala, wearing it, exporting it.

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.”

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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.

Groundwater pumped from the Ogallala allowed a parched region to be transformed into “a food production facility a quarter of a continent wide,” in the words of author William Ashworth. This agricultural powerhouse supplied so much food that the surplus was exported around the globe. In some years of extraordinary bounty, three quarters of the wheat traded on the world market was grown with Ogallala water. Among the geometric shapes of High Plains fields sprawled cattle feedlots and beef-processing plants. Fueled by the new wealth of this breadbasket of the nation, towns sprang up around the flourishing fields. The High Plains region now accounts for 30 percent of the nation’s irrigated agriculture and produces 40 percent of its beef. Crops and livestock, people and towns: All of it grew from buried waters. And those waters, which once seemed inexhaustible, are shrinking. The corn, soybeans, wheat, beef, and cotton we’re consuming are drawing down the Ogallala. The grain and meat and fiber we’re growing to send to other countries are emptying our nation’s largest aquifer. We are, in effect, eating the Ogallala, wearing it, exporting it.

After center-pivot sprinklers were developed, the water table in many areas of the High Plains started to fall, and as early as 1970 some wells that reached down into the Ogallala’s wetness began to go dry. As with nearly all aquifers in the West, the vast lake of the Ogallala is in danger of being sucked to a puddle as pumps empty it faster than rainfall can recharge it. To make crops and towns grow, many billions of gallons are withdrawn each day—over the course of a year this adds up to more water than the entire flow of the Colorado River. In the High Plains region and throughout the West, aquifer replenishment is a process almost as slow as that which weathers a jagged mountain down to a gentle hill. What takes nature millennia to fill, humans mine in a matter of decades. Some experts fear the Ogallala could disappear entirely within twenty to thirty years, leaving dry hollows beneath the earth upon which so much farmland stands.

“Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons,” wrote Garrett Hardin in 1968. More than forty years later, the commons of the Ogallala is being overused to the point of collapse. Everyone sees the tragedy coming, but each farmer is afraid that if he doesn’t use the maximum amount of water that he can extract, he will lose out because others will make use of it instead. This disincentive to conserve creates a “race to the bottom of the aquifer.”

Improving the efficiency of irrigation systems helps slow the aquifer’s atrophy, as does switching from thirsty crops like cotton to plants that need less water, such as sunflowers. But even with these changes, groundwater is still pumped faster than it is replenished. Farmers concerned about being subjected to draconian pumping limits set by state or federal government have voluntarily formed local groundwater management districts. These grassroots organizations have been somewhat effective in reducing the amount of Ogallala overdraft by implementing rules such as mandatory water metering and spacing out wells, yet the Ogallala aquifer continues to shrink. And the areas of the High Plains that still have ample Ogallala water are now being inundated by new dairies that want to enjoy the bounty while it lasts. When the water does finally run out, there is always the hope of a government bailout.

The laws regulating groundwater extraction are simpler and more permissive than the convoluted and restrictive legal system surrounding surface water. The West’s water laws evolved before people understood that groundwater and surface water are not separate systems but are joined in one hydrologic cycle. And because aquifers were assumed to be inexhaustible and their movements beneath the surface of the earth too mysterious to measure, few legal restrictions arose to limit extraction. The doctrine of “reasonable use” and the “rule of capture” that govern much of the West’s groundwater tend to sanction a free-for-all. The jumble of state laws, management plans, and permitting systems that regulate groundwater have not always evolved to keep pace with increased understanding of the interconnectivity of groundwater and surface water, or with the accelerating scarcity of the resource. On the Texas High Plains, for instance, farmers who grow water-gulping cotton are entitled to as much water drawn from the Ogallala as they can use. They are limited in the amount of water they consume not by legal restrictions but by the size of the pumps they thrust into the ground. The person with the biggest pump gets the most water. Texas is filled with big pumps, and every year there is less water.

Forcing water, which weighs more than eight pounds per gallon and is heavier than oil, farther toward the surface demands extra energy. Even in the best of times when groundwater supplies are plentiful, pumping water requires prodigious amounts of power. After the Ogallala is drained to the point at which pumping is cost prohibitive, using dryland farming techniques to raise wheat and other plants that need relatively little water is a possibility. But yields for dryland farming are much lower than with irrigated agriculture and are entirely dependent on rainfall—in droughty years there will be dwarfed crops, and should the skies turn really miserly with rain, there will be no harvests at all. As if all this weren’t grim enough, a warming climate will increase evaporation and transpiration, depleting soil moisture, which will force farmers to use more water to grow the same amount of crops.

Unrestricted mining of the Ogallala’s clear gold is unsustainable in the extreme, and everyone now knows this. Short-term riches are being reaped at the expense of long-term sustainability. Boomtowns built on an exhaustible supply of water will one day go bust. The question is when, exactly, the underground water supply will be so diminished that agriculture will have to be abandoned and the prairie will turn from green back to brown. When the water is finally used up and farming on the High Plains fizzles out, not only will most of the people leave, but along with them the soil could disappear. When the roots of dead crops wither and release their hold on the friable soil, and drought turns the land to dust and wind scours the earth, the prairie topsoil could once again, as in the days of the Dust Bowl, be blown eastward to blacken skies all the way to the ocean.

Creating a “Buffalo Commons,” a system of nature preserves that would attract tourists and their dollars by rewilding sections of the Great Plains with native grasses and forbs browsed by buffalo, when first proposed in 1987 by East Coast academics, seemed about as likely as, say, the invention of time travel machines, or western states agreeing on how to share water. But with the Ogallala’s depletion almost certain to make irrigated farming on the High Plains go the way of the Pony Express, a Buffalo Commons is beginning to seem to more and more residents of the region a viable solution to ecological decline and economic disintegration.

For now, people continue to haul in bounteous harvests of crops, and towns wrapped in white picket fences huddle beneath an immensity of sky. Farmers tinker with the water, reusing some here, using a bit less there, but still the ancient wetness is sucked from the gravels and sands that have stored it through the ages.

Read more: Learn more about the water shortage facing the West’s thirsty cities in Dam Nation: Running Out of Water in the West.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future by Stephen Grace and published by Globe Pequot Press, an imprint of Lyons Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Dam Nation.

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