The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the largest aquifers in the world, spanning almost 200,000 square miles across the states of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.
Ogallala, named after a Nebraskan town, expands down the eastern slope of the Rockies from South Dakota to the Texas Panhandle, and was formed between two and six million years ago, in the Pliocene age.
About 27 percent of the irrigated land in the United States sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, which produces 30 percent of the nation’s ground water used for irrigation, and provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people who live within the aquifer boundary.
Now the Ogallala Aquifer is running dry, and this body of fresh, pristine water does not replenish.
The Telegraph’s Charles Laurence notes it was only in the 1940s, after the Dust Bowl, that the US Geological Survey determined the watering holes farmers were drilling was from the Ogallala.
Newer technology enabled those drilling the wells to reach the deepest water, writes Laurence, and from the early 1950s the boom was on. Some of the descendants of Dust Bowl survivors became millionaire landowners.
“Since then,” says David Brauer of the US Agriculture Department agency, the Ogallala Research Service, “we have drained enough water to half-fill Lake Erie of the Great Lakes.”
That amounts to billions upon billions of gallons. The problem, says Brauer, is that in a brief half-century we have drawn the Ogallala level down from an average of 240ft to about 80.
Laurence points out that the irrigated Plains grow 20 per cent of American grain and corn; America’s industrial agriculture dominates international markets. A collapse of those markets, warns Laurence, would lead to starvation in Third World countries that depend on cheap American exports.
“The Ogallala supply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm,” Brauer says. “That is beyond reasonable argument. Our goal now is to engineer a soft landing. That’s all we can do.”
Laurence notes that apart from the Ogallala, the main water source remains the Colorado River, flowing west from the Rockies, providing drinking water for Las Vegas, irrigation for California’s Central Valley, and the swimming-pools of Los Angeles.
But Laurence claims the Colorado now runs dry before it reaches the Pacific, which may end up being calamitous for the Sunshine States.
Some smart, educated farmers now employ state-of-the-art water irrigation systems to minimize waste; some have switched from corn, wheat and cattle to crops that require less water like cotton and sorghum.
“The heart of the Dust Bowl was here, you know,” says Wayne Plunk, whose great-great-grandfather came over from Germany. “We are drying up. People don’t learn from history, and if we keep breaking the ground and run out of water, it’ll happen again.”
One way or the other, Plunk predicts farming the High Plains will have to end. Until that day, there will be a battle for the water that remains in the Ogallala Aquifer.