David Frum

05.20.13

When the Wells Go Dry in the Great Plains

Water levels have fallen substantially since this image was created in 1997, particularly in the southern states ()

A sad story in the New York Times, which reports on the shocking decline of the High Plains Aquifer, the lifeblood of farmers from the South Dakota and Wyoming all the way down to west Texas. (I frequently refer to the Ogallala Aquifer, which is the largest in the High Plains system.) Two years of severe drought, coupled with the massive water demands for growing irrigated corn, have taken their toll on the source of the plains' Garden of Eden.

Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers.

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

This is in many ways a slow-motion crisis — decades in the making, imminent for some, years or decades away for others, hitting one farm but leaving an adjacent one untouched. But across the rolling plains and tarmac-flat farmland near the Kansas-Colorado border, the effects of depletion are evident everywhere. Highway bridges span arid stream beds. Most of the creeks and rivers that once veined the land have dried up as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels down by scores and even hundreds of feet.

On some farms, big center-pivot irrigators — the spindly rigs that create the emerald circles of cropland familiar to anyone flying over the region — now are watering only a half-circle. On others, they sit idle altogether.

Two years of extreme drought, during which farmers relied almost completely on groundwater, have brought the seriousness of the problem home. In 2011 and 2012, the Kansas Geological Survey reports, the average water level in the state’s portion of the aquifer dropped 4.25 feet — nearly a third of the total decline since 1996.

And that is merely the average. “I know my staff went out and re-measured a couple of wells because they couldn’t believe it,” said Lane Letourneau, a manager at the State Agriculture Department’s water resources division. “There was a 30-foot decline.”

Finding ways to maximize calorie production while minimizing the need for irrigation will be the central challenge for industrial agriculture in the 21st century. Groundwater irrigation has made area farmers rich, and kept countless towns alive across the high plains. For many of these little towns, that era is rapidly coming to an end.

And like so many other tragedies of the commons, the declines of these great aquifers passed largely unnoticed until it was far too late to reverse. Sad.