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Every summer the U.S. Central Plains go dry, leading farmers to tap into groundwater to irrigate sorghum, soy, cotton, wheat and corn and maintain large herds of cattle and hogs. As the heat rises, anxious irrigators gather to discuss whether and how they should adopt more stringent conservation measures.
They know that if they do not conserve, the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of their prosperity, will go dry. The Ogallala, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is one of the largest underground freshwater sources in the world. It underlies an estimated 174,000 square miles of the Central Plains and holds as much water as Lake Huron. It irrigates portions of eight states, from Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska in the north to Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas in the south.
But the current drought plaguing the region is unusually strong and persistent, driving farmers to rely more on the aquifer and sharpening the debate over its future. A current assessment by the U.S. Drought Monitor, published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows large swaths of the southern plains experiencing drought ranging from severe to exceptional.
These worrisome prospects form the dramatic backdrop to Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land, now out in its third edition. In it, my fellow historians John Opie and Kenna Lang Archer and I set current debates over the Ogallala Aquifer in the context of the regions equally conflicted past.
Draining the source
In the 1880s, farmers in the region asserted that there was a steady movement of water beneath their feet, which they called underflow, from the Rockies east. Geologist F.N. Darton of the U.S. Geological Survey located the first outlines of the aquifer near Ogallala, Nebraska. His discovery nourished the ambitions of farmers and irrigation promoters. One booster, William E. Smythe, visited Garden City, Kansas, and cheered the irrigated future. Pumping underground water, he told his audience, would build little homes of pleasing architecture. We will surround them with pretty lawns and fringe them with trees and hedges in a new Kansas dedicated to industrial independence.
That bucolic vision took decades to realize. Windmills could only pump so much water, which constrained the amount of land farmers could put into production. And the Ogallalas sand and gravel composition slowed the downward flow of surface waters to refill it, even in wet seasons.
This did not matter until farmers started adopting better drilling technology, gas-powered water pumps and high-tech irrigation systems after World War II. These advances turned the Central Plains into the worlds breadbasket and meat market, annually generating US$20 billion worth of foodstuffs.
As more pumps were drilled into the aquifer to capture its flow, some started to come up dry, which led to more drilling and pumping. Between the late 19th century and 2005, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates irrigation depleted the aquifer by 253 million acre-feet about 9 percent of its total volume. And the pace is accelerating. Analyzing federal data, The Denver Post found that the aquifer shrank twice as fast from 2011 through 2017 as it had over the previous 60 years.
The current drought is only adding to these woes. University of California-Irvine hydrologist Jay Famiglietti has identified the Ogallala region and Californias Central Valley as the two most overheated and water-starved areas in the United States.