Drying Up: The Ogallala Aquifer
I’ve always known that clean, fresh water is running out and will potentially cause political conflict and environmental devastation, but I didn’t know the full extent of the problem. I’m currently reading Marq de Villier’s book, Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource which has completely opened my eyes to some of the problems and the over-drafting of the world’s water supply. One of the examples discussed in the book looks at the discovery and subsequent mining of aquifers, particularly the Ogallala.
The Ogallala aquifer is located under the Great Plains, covering parts of eight states including: Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota. This area is considered the breadbasket of America and produces most of the agricultural bounty our country depends on for food and exports. According to an article in Scientific American, more than 90% of the water pumped out of the aquifer is used to irrigate crops, supporting $20 billion of food and fiber production. It supports almost one-fifth of US production of wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle.
The problem? The Ogallala will run out of water, and at the rate we’re going, soon. Scientists have estimated that it would take 6,000 years for the aquifer to naturally replenish itself, but we are taking water at much faster rates. Within the boundaries of the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, the water level is dropping at 1.74 feet per year.
Though local governments have started managing water use to promote more responsible irrigation policies, they are still headed for depletion rather than sustainable use. And the agricultural practices are only encouraging another Dust Bowl when the water finally does run out. Marq de Villiers writes:
“For a few short decades, the flowering of the mythical Wild West and the Lonesome Cowboy, there were great cattle drives from West Texas to the railheads in Kansas, but the ecological consequences were not nearly so romantic: overgrazing, soil depletion, the beginning of desertification marked by invasions of mesquite and arid-land weeds, and prolonged droughts. . . (after a brief period of wet, prosperous summers in the high plains) The farmers had come to the High Plains from the high-rainfall areas of the East. They brought with them eastern techniques, the worst possible for farming in the West, including the shallow plowing of marginal land, the destruction of groundcover and windbreaks, and an ignorance of what wind would do to sandy soil when it had nothing to anchor it.”
So, the question is, what are we doing to prevent another Dust Bowl and an agricultural disaster? Instead of looking at the past and trying to sustain the land, we are heading down the same path, and towards the same mistakes. When the water runs out, and food production is halted, where will we get water? Food? The current attitude is to worry about those problems somewhere down the road. But, shouldn’t we be taking steps to protect our water supply now?
We’ve converted historically dry lands into lush agricultural fields. As the population grows and there is ever greater demand for food, we need a sustainable system for cultivating food and water. So what steps can we take? One critical step is to reduce our dependence on the major crops of the Great Plains such as beef and corn. Corn is processed and used in the majority of what we eat. Beef and other meats are consumed in an alarming quantity. An article in the NY Times says,
The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. (In the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years.) World meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050, which one expert, Henning Steinfeld of the United Nations, says is resulting in a “relentless growth in livestock production.”
We can also promote smaller, local farmers with CSAs, farmer’s markets and consumer choice. When irrigation is needed, we ought to use micro-irrigation techniques to be as efficient with water as possible. And most importantly, we need to be aware of the limitations of the resources we are using. We can only withdraw so much before we’ve abused the otherwise sustainable system.
There is a limited amount of fresh, drinkable water in the Ogallala aquifer and similar aquifers around the world, and if we keep taking it at the current rate we face depletion and the ugly consequences.