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Saving the Ogallala Aquifer and the Future of American Agriculture

Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:11 am

By Paige Snepp

Human beings require three things for survival: food, water, and shelter. In the American midwest, farmers face the permanent loss of two of those three necessities. The vast Ogallala Aquifer underlying America's breadbasket is disappearing — the very aquifer that transformed the high plains of America from a Dust Bowl wasteland to an agricultural paradise. Nourished by the vast Ogallala, the green crop circles of the American midwest have been the bountiful cornucopia of both the U.S. and the world for a century. Farmers tap the 15,000 year-old water source (stretching over 174,000 square miles) to irrigate everything from corn to soybeans. As a result, the overpumping and depletion of the Ogallala poses a massive danger to both the U.S. and the rest of the world. It is erroneous to claim that water is a commodity and can be treated just as any other property. Water is the root of life. It is far beyond the scope of personal property and is a basic human right. It is a commodity; however it remains a people’s commodity. For this reason, the Ogallala aquifer should be protected from its current overexploitation. Four essential reasons for action are the failure of current policies, the aquifer’s influence on the local and global economy, the aquifer’s increased importance as a result of climate change, and the moral obligation of legislatures to protect the downtrodden citizens of affected communities.

First and foremost, current dated policies are enabling its destruction of the invaluable Ogallala. This aquifer, whose ancient waters have soaked through the soil for thousands of years, is only usable once within hundreds of lifetimes. Once depleted, it will take another 6,000 years to recharge. In Challenge journal article “Needed: A New Water Policy” by Sandra Postel, Postel describes the shortcomings of water management practices and the inevitable depletion of the Ogallala. Postel states, “Water levels beneath large portions of the southern and central plains have dropped 50 to 100 feet since groundwater development began” (Postel 44). The drop describes a pace of water withdrawal that is exponentially faster than the rate of replacement. This is the crisis of the Ogallala. Even with the situation becoming dire, water is still being squandered as a result of policies that discourage conservation. One such policy is the low price of water. Postel states,“subsidies mask water's true value from urban consumers” (Postel 45). As a result of this, “Farmers supplied with water from federal projects, for example, pay on average only one-fifth of the water's true cost” (Postel 45). As a result of this finite resource having such a low price tag, consumers feel compelled to use — and waste— as much of it as they please. On top of this, the government is also directly responsible for the waste of this precious commodity. Postel states, “Many [farmers] get a tax break by claiming a depletion allowance based on the drop in water level beneath their land that year. The greater the depletion, the greater the allowance” (Postel 45). So, not only do farmers pay an almost negligible sum of money for this critical resource, but they are also are rewarded for wasting it. With this absurd rule, what incentive would any farmer have to conserve water? None. And furthermore, even existing water protections aren’t conducive to sustainability. States such as Kansas have taken measures to protect their groundwater resources, but these have proven to be of little effect. In the Natural Resources journal article “The Political Cultures of Irrigation and the Proxy Battles of Interstate Water Litigation” by Burke Griggs, Griggs outlines the political battles over the management of the Ogallala. He states, “[Kansas] legislation . . .[formed] local groundwater-management districts, or GMDs” (Griggs 33). He goes on to state, “local GMDs led a successful effort to amend the GMD Act in 1978 to allow for intensive groundwater-use control areas, or IGUCAs” (Griggs 33). This showed that even in Kansas, a state extremely hard-pressed for water because of the overpumping by their neighbor Nebraska, policymakers took their first steps to remediate their water crisis. These IGUCAs encouraged local chief engineers to “reduce pumping to sustainable levels” (Griggs 33). But all of this is essentially meaningless for the Ogallala. Since chief engineers would have to take it upon themselves to establish protections for the resource, suspicion of ulterior motives of these individuals by GMDs has prevented any such policies. So, although local management is critical to the conservation of this resource, its protections have not been extended to the Ogallala. This is just one example of countless stories from affected states. Overall, current policies are either encouraging the waste of this unreplenishable resource or failing to protect the aquifer. For these reasons, direct, immediate action should be taken to conserve this invaluable resource.

Secondly, another reason the Ogallala should be protected is because it has a high amount of influence over local and global economies; any reduction in output could have global ramifications. In Jayson Beckman, John Dyck, and Kari E.R. Heerman’s report for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “The Global Landscape of Agricultural Trade, 1995-2014,” a general profile of the world’s agricultural economy is given. The report stated, “the United States remained the second-largest [agricultural] exporter in 2012-2014” (Beckman 13). Additionally, according to the USDA.gov, “Agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $1.053 trillion to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017,” with America’s farms contributing “$132.8 billion of this sum” (“What Is Agriculture's Share of the Overall U.S. Economy?”). A large portion of this agricultural prosperity can be attributed to the Ogallala Aquifer. In Kevin Dennehy’s report for the United States Geological Survey, “High Plains Regional Ground-Water Study,” he gives details on a study of the draining of the Ogallala. Dennehy states that the Ogallala Aquifer “yields about 30 percent of the Nation's groundwater used for irrigation” and “provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people who live within the aquifer boundary (more than 2.3 million people)” (Dennehy 2). Given this tremendous reliance on this aquifer to cultivate their large array of crops, U.S. farmers would suffer immensely from the overexploitation of this critical resource. The larger impact of any harm to their operations would be the U.S.’s decreased influence within the global community, as well as its decreased output of agricultural products to other nations which rely on U.S. imports. The effects of this could potentially reach a disruption in the global economy. Even so, the more likely outcome would hit the U.S. economy the hardest. In Beckman’s report, it is stated that the “share of U.S. agricultural imports from regions dominated by developed countries . . . [remained] at just over 60 percent [from 1995 to 2015]” (Beckman 16). With the drying Ogallala’s handicap on the agricultural sector, the U.S.’s ability to export goods and self-sustain will be diminished. The U.S. economy would likely become more reliant on the importation of agricultural goods from unaffected countries, increasing the 60 percent reliance on foreign imports. If this overpumping continues, world food supplies, the U.S. economy, and the world economy will suffer the consequences of decreased U.S. agricultural exports. From an economic standpoint, the Ogallala should be protected to ensure future prosperity.

Next, because of the pressing issue of climate change, the protection of the Ogallala’s existence is more critical than ever before. Now, with global warming occuring at a faster rate than ever, the effects of its depletion would be catastrophic. In John Carey’s journal article “Global Warming: Faster Than Expected” for Scientific American, Carey gives a full picture of the effects of climate change. Carey states, “Climate change is causing more extreme weather events such as floods and droughts while fundamentally altering regional climates” (Carey 52). Furthermore, according to NASA.gov, “A reduction of soil moisture, which exacerbates heat waves, is projected for much of the western and central U.S. in summer.” The most alarming of these statistics is that which states: “by the end of this century, what have been once-in-20-year extreme heat days (one-day events) are projected to occur every two or three years over most of the nation” (“The Effects of Climate Change”). These ravaging heat waves evaporate much of the surface water available for irrigation, making the increased reliance of midwestern farmers on the Ogallala unavoidable. The effects of climate change are already starting to show, with wells already drying up across multiple states. In journalist Laura Parker’s article for National Geographic, Parker talks about about the overall effect on midwestern communities that she observed in her visits. Parker states, “The aquifer is so dry that center-pivots draw from multiple wells, the unofficial record being one pivot near [Lubbock, Texas] that draws from 21 wells” (Parker 110). Given the region’s enormous dependence on these wells, their dwindling presence will eventually leave these individuals high and dry when the crushing climate change-induced droughts make below-ground water a necessity and not an added benefit. Additionally, local and global population growth makes ultra-efficient food production a necessity in the coming years. In the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report “How to Feed the World in 2050,” the report outlines a plan to meet the needs of the 2050 population of 9.1 billion. It states, “Just satisfying the expected food and feed demand will require a substantial increase of global food production of 70 percent by 2050” (FAO 2). So, with America and one of the world’s breadbaskets being cut down by the draining of the Ogallala, an essential source of the world’s nutrition is being destroyed. With this, the world gains an additional burden on the already hopeless state of nutritional inequity in the world. Overall, the Ogallala should be preserved because in the coming decades, reliance on groundwater will become a necessity in order to survive times of drought and support a booming world population.

However, a view held by some is that property rights should stretch to commodities, such as oil or water. While it is true that water is a commodity, it is a commodity that should belong to and be managed by the public. It is a critical resource that is necessary for life and growth of all, not just for the greed and opulence of the few. In the 2015 Environmental Law journal article “The Tragedy of the Vital Commons” by Alexander Pearl, Pearl elaborates on the laws surrounding the pumping of the Ogallala. Within it, Pearl states, “[Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day] addressed the issue of whether a property interest exists in something not yet captured. The court determined that a vested property interest does exist in groundwater within the aquifer prior to extraction” (Pearl 1046). This essentially means that, in Texas (where this court case took place), a person may pump as much water as they please from their property, regardless of the effect on others. This is a perfect example of the aforementioned debate. Left to their own devices, these individuals are draining the Ogallala at a breakneck speed. Pearl continues, stating, “Small towns all over West Texas and the High Plains are nearing extinction due to water shortages” (Pearl 1047). National Geographic’s Laura Parker confirmed this. In Parker’s visit to the small town of Lazbuddie, she was told that residents did not have access to running water and that when the community well failed, it “coughed up so much sand that it destroyed the [local high] school’s plumbing fixtures” (Parker 111). As a result of the wealthy capitalizing on a vital natural resource, entire communities have been stripped of their basic human right of water. Left with nothing, these residents have had no choice but to move in search of a livable existence. So, the overexploitation of the Ogallala is not merely an abstract idea creating blips in the national economy, but a pressing social crisis that threatens the very essence of America. To protect these people who do not have a voice, it is critical that we stop this wasteful opulence.

In conclusion, the protection of the Ogallala is essential for the survival of U.S. agriculture. The question is how this can be achieved. States should begin by establishing a communal definition of water rights. By doing so, states would define water as a resource belonging to the community, not just one belonging to those who have the means to pump it for profit. Once this has been achieved, the next step is for states to create local bodies, such as Kansas’ chief engineers within the IGUCAs, to protect and enforce the conservative pumping of this resource (existing protections within Kansas and similar states should be extended to the Ogallala). Individuals affected states must petition their local legislatures to adopt these changes and create new laws protecting the people’s right to water. Next, an additional method in which states could encourage the conservation of this resource (while benefiting the treasury) is to slightly roll back the state subsidies on water— just enough to discourage overuse but not hurt poor farming clientele. Additionally, water utilities should adjust their prices based on proportional water usage and crop type while the government should cut tax breaks for those who drain their wells. Meanwhile, remedies that could be adopted by farmers to protect their future in the industry include adopting low pressure watering systems and modern water conservation technologies. They also may adopt dryland farming, which requires no irrigation for the cultivation of wheat and other drought-resistant crops. Any of these methods may become a necessity in the future. Overall, all of these methods will only have an impact in tandem with each other. The drainage of the Ogallala is inevitable, but the people and legislatures of the midwest should look within themselves to protect this lifesource for their children, their children’s children, and the world.

Works Cited

Beckman, Jayson, et al. “The Global Landscape of Agricultural Trade, 1995-2014.” USDA ERS, https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=85625.

Carey, John. “GLOBAL WARMING: Faster Than Expected?” Scientific American, vol. 307, no. 5, 2012, pp. 50–55. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26016173.

Dennehy, K.F. "High Plains regional ground-water study: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet FS-091-00." USGS, 2000, https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/85626/eib-181.pdf?v=0.

Griggs, Burke W. “THE POLITICAL CULTURES OF IRRIGATION AND THE PROXY BATTLES OF INTERSTATE WATER LITIGATION.” Natural Resources Journal, vol. 57, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1–74. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26202187.

Pearl, M. Alexander. “THE TRAGEDY OF THE VITAL COMMONS.” Environmental Law, vol. 45, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1021–1062. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43799779.

Postel, Sandra L. “Needed: A New Water Policy.” Challenge, vol. 28, no. 6, 1986, pp. 43–49. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40720715.

Parker, Laura. “To the Last Drop.” National Geographic, 2016, pp. 86–111. “How to Feed the World in 2050.” FAO.org, FAO, http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/expert_paper/How_to_Feed_the_World_in_2050.pdf.

“The Effects of Climate Change.” NASA, NASA, 30 Sept. 2019, https://climate.nasa.gov/effects/.

“What Is Agriculture's Share of the Overall U.S. Economy?” USDA ERS - Chart Detail, USDA, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=58270.