Monday, November 13, 2017

Water levels keep dropping in massive Ogallala Aquifer, hitting rural areas the hardest

Michigan State University map;
click on the image to enlarge it.
Overuse of groundwater is dangerously depleting the High Plains Aquifer (also known as the Ogallala Aquifer) to the point where six miles of surface streams are drying up every year. And "while the drying out of America’s agricultural breadbasket ($35 billion in crops a year) ultimately may pinch people in cities, it is hitting rural areas hardest," Bruce Finley reports for The Denver Post.

The Ogallala covers eight states (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, South Dakota). No agreement has been reached among them about how to save the aquifer, despite years of concern; here are our reports from 20152013 and 2012.

The stalemate has led to some perverse actions. "Colorado officials faced with legal challenges from Kansas over dwindling surface water in the Republican River have found that their best option to comply with a 1942 compact is to take more water out of the aquifer," Finley reports. "The state bought wells from farmers during the past decade and has been pumping out 11,500 acre-feet of water a year, enough to satisfy a small city, delivering it through a $60 million, 12-mile pipeline northeast of Wray to artificially resuscitate the river."

Farmers say they're trying to use less groundwater, but it's difficult. "We have come to realize that, yeah, we are overmining it. We are acutely aware of that now. There’s a definite attitude to make more than just the natural progression as far as efficiency," said Rod Lenz, president of the Republican River Water Conservation District. Here's a worst-case scenario: If the Ogallala runs dry, it will take about 6,000 years to replenish itself, David Biello wrote in Scientific American magazine.

Farmers struggle with more sustainable watering practices, which are often more expensive, with corn prices that have dropped to $3.50 a bushel, down from $7 a bushel in recent years. But they can't address the problem alone, since their customers are urban. "People in cities increasingly demand environmentally correct crops, which requires more water. "If they want natural grain-fed cattle, and non-GMO (genetically modified organism) crops — all that good stuff — it is going to take water," farm-equipment dealer Cody Powell told Finley. By using pesticides and GMO seeds, he points out, "With the same amount of water, you could get twice as much corn."

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