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Andersen: The underground drought

While the mountains of Colorado are shedding a healthy snowpack this spring, drought persists in the Midwest. The New York Times reported May 20 that the High Plains Aquifer, which has been supporting huge crop yields in Midwestern states for more than half a century, is drying up.

This comes as no surprise. Forecasts for drawing down finite underground water sources have been issued for years. Now that it’s really happening, now that farmers are pumping more sand than water, now that fields are drying up and yields are dropping, it becomes news. Maybe now we take certain limits seriously.

This vast aquifer, described as “a waterlogged jumble of sand, clay and gravel that begins beneath Wyoming and South Dakota and stretches clear to the Texas Panhandle,” still holds water, the Times reported, but fewer regions can support large-scale agriculture.

“The aquifer’s northern reaches still hold enough water in many places to last hundreds of years. But as one heads south, it is increasingly tapped out, drained by ever more intensive farming and, lately, by drought,” the Times reported.

Despite fluctuations in precipitation, the High Plains Aquifer is not recharging quickly enough to provide consistent, dependable water. As we’ve done with other resources, we have drawn down the most crucial resource of all.

The nation’s “bread basket” is at risk, which means grain harvests may shrink, which means feedlots will pay more for growing corn-fed steers for the meat industry, on which much of America depends for protein. The cost of food is going to rise as the aquifer drops.

This draw-down of the aquifer is of major significance, as the Times reported: “I know my staff went out and re-measured a couple of wells because they couldn’t believe it,” a water resources manager said. “There was a 30-foot decline.”

This underground drought is affecting the high plains of the Kansas-Colorado border, where stream beds are dry, leaving desert arroyos and parched wells. One day it may all return to buffalo grass and vacant farms.

In Colorado, we have become accustomed to water battles over precious streamflows. Plains farmers face a similar quandary, wondering who will be the highest bidder for failing water supplies. When the bidding is among farmers, industry, biofuels and urban growth, the deck is stacked against the farmers. Water makes more money elsewhere, and there it will flow.

“The villain in this story,” the Times stated, “is in fact the farmers’ savior: the center-pivot irrigator.” If you have ever flown across the Midwest, the green circles laid out below reveal wells tapping the aquifer. If you look down these days, a lot of those circles are brown or only semicircles of green.

Years ago, I worked on a farm in the Sand Hills of northern Nebraska. One of my jobs was harvesting millet with a swather on a pivot-irrigated circle where the crop grew thick and verdant. Other circles were dedicated to corn, which we harvested in such volume that it was dumped on the streets of Valentine because the dryers couldn’t handle it quickly enough. Those mountains of corn may become only memories.

Analysts predict that in the future, water will prove more precious than oil, and it seems we may be approaching that time. This is certainly the case in parts of the Middle East, like Syria, where wars are being fought over water. Agricultural technology has literally made deserts bloom, but that bloom is waning. The limits we stridently deny are imposing strict rules for the future.

Mining water in the Midwest will go on with technological innovations that will squeeze every last drop. Peak water will mark an inevitable decline that could return the Great Plains to what was historically called “The Great American Desert” before the advent of the plow.

My advice to high school students: If you want to enter a lucrative field, study water law. Talk about job security! As water warriors seek shares of reduced streams and aquifers, the ones getting rich will be the lawyers, not farmers.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He can be reached by email at andersen@rof.net.


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