Slow Death of the High Plains Aquifer

High Plains Aquifer Dwindles, Hurting Farmers - NYTimes.com

…when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.

via High Plains Aquifer Dwindles, Hurting Farmers – NYTimes.com.

The Ogallala aquifer is running dry, after years of being used to make the US the “breadbasket” of the world.  The aquifer irrigates the plains of the central US, making the fertile land verdant and green.  Circles of corn, soybeans, and other crops bloom under the spray of center-pivot irrigation systems.

Invented in the late 1940s by a Colorado farmer, these monstrous contraptions enabled US farmers to provide us with more food than we could eat, and allowed the US to become the number one food exporter of the world.  But hidden away beneath the land, out of sight and out of most people’s thought, the aquifer was slowly being depleted.  One farmer, Mr. Yost, tracked a well his grandfather drilled in the 1960s:

from 1,600 gallons a minute in 1964, to 1,200 in 1975, to 750 in 1976.

When the well slumped to 500 gallons in 1991, the Yosts capped it and drilled another nearby. Its output sank, too, from 1,352 gallons to 300 today.

When the water is gone, that’s it.  It took thousands of years for the water in the aquifer to accumulate – from glacial melt and rain.  We’ve pumped it out much faster than recharge could occur.

In the last federal agriculture census of Kansas, in 2007, an average acre of irrigated land produced nearly twice as many bushels of corn, two-thirds more soybeans and three-fifths more wheat than did dry land.

As wells dry up, farmers are shifting to crops that use less water, such as milo instead of corn.  But with the demand for corn – for biofuels, livestock feed, and human consumption – at an all-time high, the lure remains.

Will we learn to be more conservative in our water use?  How much less food will be produced in the future?  What jobs will be lost as farmers cut back?  How will food prices be affected?  How will all of this impact you?

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