Why Kansas is running out of water

ogallala aquifer water levels
CC BY 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

If you eat corn or wheat in the United States, there's a good chance it was grown with the help of paleowater left over from the last ice age when glaciers covered the Great Plains.

And as neat and healthy as that sounds -- paleowater! -- this is not good news. See, due to a lack of rain, farmers in places like Western Kansas are using the subterranean paleowater found in the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate their crops. And that ancient water is running out faster than it can be replenished by rain.

The Ogallal Aquifer is one of the largest aquifers in the world, running beneath parts of eight states in the central US. And it is this giant, ancient aquifer that is being sucked dry faster than rain can keep up.

Put another way, we've nearly used up a million-year-old source of water in the 100 or so years we've been tapping into it for irrigation.

Not good.

This situation led Brad Plumer at WonkBlog to ask, "How long before the Great Plains runs out of water?" He points to new research with a troubling answer:

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tried to come up with an answer for the crucial Kansas section of the aquifer. At current rates of use, farming in that area is likely to peak by 2040 or so due to water depletion.

With better conservation techniques, western Kansas could probably stretch things out so that farm production doesn't peak until the 2070s. But avoiding any sort of peak altogether would require drastic measures — beyond anything contemplated today.

To be clear, this doesn't mean that the Ogallala Aquifer will be totally empty in 2040 or 2070, but rather that parts of it will be unable to support the rapid expansion of food production and aquifer irrigation at the rate we're currently going.

So, obviously, we need to cut back on using this water for irrigation and use the water we do use more efficiently.

As Plumer found, there are ways to be more efficient, but it is easier said than done:

Water use efficiency is already increasing by 2 percent per year, the study found, thanks to better crop genetics and irrigation techniques. And a separate paper this year from Kansas State University found that immediately cutting groundwater use in the region by 30 percent would be possible with existing technologies. The economic hit would be modest: In many cases, the gains from extending the life of the farmland would outweigh the upfront costs.

But now what if Kansas wanted to farm sustainably and keep its aquifer around forever? That's more daunting. As Steward and his colleagues found, farmers would have to cut their groundwater pumping by 80 percent today — to bring depletions in line with rainwater recharge. This would require a drastic reduction of corn and cattle production.

"That ain’t gonna happen," notes John Fleck, a journalist who has been tracking water issues out West for many years. (And credit to Fleck for calling our attention to the study in the first place.)

The authors of the PNAS study seem to agree that it's unlikely that farmers in the Plains would realistically cut water usage enough to make the aquifer last for all time.

Get that? Even the researchers at the National Academy of Science have concluded that growing less corn and fewer cows in order to not use up one of our last remaining ancient water sources is just too much to ask. Farmers won't do that. Consumers want their beef. So what if we have to use our precious supply of 100,000-year-old water to give it to them?

So, at this rate, the aquifer is a goner, it's now just a matter of how long we can sustain it.

The Kansas City Star recently published an editorial on this crisis and the need for Kansans to address it now before it is too late:

Kansas has had a highly productive relationship with the Ogallala Aquifer for years. Rainfall is short for raising crops and cattle in the western sector of the Sunflower state. The aquifer has filled the moisture gap, enabling agriculture to thrive bountifully there.

Indeed, the aquifer has been a vital force in making agriculture one of the most reliable and prosperous players in the state’s economy.

But the partnership, which many thought could never be disrupted, is in trouble.

Too much is being asked of the aquifer, a reservoir of water that lies beneath eight states in the middle of the country. This valuable resource cannot replenish itself fast enough to meet the relentless, even irresponsible, demands placed on it by farmers, ranchers, cities and industry.

Relentless, irresponsible demands. This sums up so many of the environmental crises from which we're currently suffering.

Lastly, I'd be remiss to leave out another threat facing the Ogallala Aquifer that has rallied people from all over the country. And that is the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Port Arthur, Texas. Keystone XL was proposed to run dangerously close to this water source, though the company has since revised some of the route, but not sufficiently according to opponents.

We're already threatening this water source enough by sucking it dry. Now we're potentially going to face a catastrophic oil spill which could taint the water forever, as well.

When will we ever learn?

Why Kansas is running out of water
If you eat corn or wheat in the United States, there's a good chance it was grown with the help of paleowater left over from the last ice age when glaciers covered the Great Plains.

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