Lentis/The Ogallala Aquifer

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The Ogallala Aquifer is an aquifer situated mostly beneath the High Plains of the United States. This underground reservoir underlies about 450,000 square kilometers (174,000 square miles) that feeds into 8 states. (New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota)[1] For this reason, it is also referred to as the High Plains Aquifer.

The conflict surrounding the Ogallala Aquifer deals with depleting water levels due to groundwater extraction far exceeding the average recharge rate and contamination of the aquifer. A vanishing aquifer of this magnitude threatens not just the middle third of the country, but also the rest of the country and around the world.


It wasn't until 1911 when the Ogallala era began, when the first motor-driven irrigation well drilled into this aquifer in Plainview, Texas. This remarkable crack into an untapped underground reservoir proved to be a game-changer by allowing more agricultural output. Farmers were no longer dependent strictly on rain. Property values increased and allowed northwest Texas to transform into one of the world's most productive agricultural regions. Economies in the other seven states would soon follow.

Industrial-scaled extractions didn't take place until post World War II. Windmills were replaced by diesel-powered pumps, which increased output from a few gallons a minute to hundreds. The pumping technology continued to evolve meanwhile efforts for conservation were at a dangerously slow pace.[2] Farmers believed that this aquifer was inexhaustible - they saw no risk because it felt limitless and therefore sought short-term capital gain rather than worrying about long-term conservation.

Economical Impact[edit]

The agricultural success was seen throughout all of those eight states taking advantage of having one of the largest aquifers run through their state. This aquifer makes it the breadbasket of America by supplying water to at least a fifth of the total U.S. agricultural harvest. This translates to about $20 billion worth of food and fiber that would be at risk from global markets if it were to vanish.[3] Farming accounts for over 90 percent of the groundwater use and supports nearly one fifth of the corn, cotton, wheat, and cattle produced in the United States. If the aquifer was entirely drained, it would take more than six millenniums to refill the aquifer naturally through rainwater and snowmelt.

Surveying the Depletion[edit]

By 1980, water levels had dropped so low that public officials were alarmed and struggling to come up with solutions in order to conserve the aquifer. The U.S. Geological Survey had reported that yearly groundwater withdrawals had quintupled between 1949 and 1974. Some farmers were withdrawing between four to six feet a year, while the aquifer was being replenished naturally at a rate of half an inch a year. The overdraft volume equaled the flow of the Colorado River by 1975 and by 2009 had escalated to 18 Colorado Rivers.[4]

The Ogallala Aquifer could not make it a century without depleting to threatening low levels. The aquifer was being both depleted and polluted and public officials were finally ramping up conservation efforts. Surveys of groundwater sampled have detected traces of contamination like pesticides and nitrates from irrigated agriculture and confined livestock feeding operations. State governments and local water districts in the High Plains developed policies to preserve and sustain this massive underground reservoir.[5] Washington D.C. has also lend a hand helping to find sustainable solutions. The Ogallala Initiative, a U.s. Department of Agriculture project, funds research to help make the agricultural industry more sustainable. Scientists from the USDA compile data that help farmers become more efficient with how they get water to their crops.[6] Despite these efforts to slow the rate of depletion, the nation must come up with a strategy to allow future generations to benefit from this aquifer.

Key Participants[edit]


Farmers have the most significant effect on the aquifer; about 94% of the water withdrawn is for agriculture. This amounts to about 5,746 billion gallons withdrawn per year.[7] Farmers' interests can be conflicting when it comes to conservation--while they may have "no interest in wasting" the aquifer that is their "lifeblood", they want to draw enough water to produce crops [8]. Due to this, some farmers have opposed attempts to regulate water withdrawals, viewing it as a "property rights violation".[8] Some farmers believe that they should be able to draw all the water they want;[9] this complicates conservation efforts because the aquifer's depth is variable by location[10]. In addition, withdrawing water from one farm can be depleting water from adjacent farms as well.[9] Competition with other farmers exacerbates the problem of water withdrawal.[10] One farmer stated the dilemma this way: "We know we are overdrafting the Ogallala. But we are all so landlocked into these microeconomic decisions that we can't manage on a larger level".[9] In other words "Everyone wants to conserve, but no one wants to quit pumping".[9]

On the other hand farmers are adopting technologies that decrease water consumption while maintaining yield[11], saving 280 billion gallons of water in four years[12]. Some of these technologies are pivot and subsurface drip irrigation, water probes, variable rate irrigation, and genetically modified crops. These all allow more efficient use of water and can even increase yield[12], serving farmer's short and long term material interests. However many farmers consider their efforts more as "managed depletion" than true conservation[9], especially considering that pasture and corn are inherently water intensive.[13]

As previously mentioned, some farmers are opposed to forced sustainability efforts that may harm them financially. Some groups representing farmers reflect this agenda, such as the Protect Water Rights Coalition which takes issue with water districts "claiming authority to prevent private landowners from using the underground water rights awarded to them".[14] Another example is the Kansas Corn Growers Association that states "We oppose state wide restrictions on the use of water for irrigation in Kansas" as one of its 2017 resolutions.[15] Perhaps as a response to this, groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund are pursuing a "collaborative approach to agricultural sustainability".[16] Two groups seeking to conserve the Ogallala aquifer through collaboration are the National Resources Conservation Service and the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation. The NRCS in part provides "technical expertise and conservation planning for farmers" to help them conserve the resources they use.[17] The TAWC's stated mission is "to conserve water for future generations by collaborating to identify those agricultural production practices and technologies that...will reduce the depletion of ground water while maintaining or improving agricultural production and economic opportunities".[18]


Industry only accounts for about 2.6% of the water drawn from the aquifer.[7] But despite their low withdrawals relative to farmers, industrial activity is still considered a threat to the aquifer in some areas.[19] In addition, Midwestern states are trying to get more industries to move into them for the economic benefit.[20] Generally speaking, industries face some of the same challenges to conservation that farmers do, including competition (with other industries and with farmers) and short vs long term economic gain.[9]


About 2.5% of the water drawn from the aquifer is for domestic drinking water.[7] As the population of the Midwest grows, the demand for water will increase.[21] Residents disposing of petroleum products in their yards can also be a significant source of recharge contamination.[7] Generally speaking, residents face some of the same challenges to conservation that farmers and industry do, including competition (mainly with farmers) and short vs long term quality of life.

Social Issues[edit]

Two key generalizations arise from analyzing the Ogallala Aquifer: the downside of over-dependence and the merit of multifaceted approaches to complex social issues.


One issue highlighted by the Ogallala Aquifer dilemma is the over-dependence on the aquifer. The U.S. Geological Survey found that farmers are withdrawing up to 4-6 feet of groundwater per year. Comparatively, nature only replenishes half an inch annually. In Kansas, groundwater levels have dropped by 150 feet or more. Yet, very little has been done to find alternative sources of water. As droughts are common in the Midwest, farmers continued to pump water from the Ogallala Aquifer. Additionally, the Ogallala Aquifer provides $20 billion of food and fiber to the world's markets every year.[22] But as that number continues to increase, so does the dependence on the aquifer to generate more revenue for Midwestern farmers.

Today, farmers are already dealing with the repercussions of the drying aquifer. Farmers in Kansas have had their irrigation reduced by 25% to 50%. As a result, thousands of acres of fields have dried out. Without a second option, farmers have been scrambling to find a Plan B. In 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed to construct a 360 mile-long aqueduct to import water from the Missouri River to Kansas. This concrete ditch would include 16 lift stations and massive reservoirs on each end. However, the proposal was met with strong opposition and ridicule by the Legislature in Topeka over the estimated $400 million budget.[23]

By not sufficiently addressing the over-dependence on the Ogallala Aquifer earlier, Midwestern farmers are now stuck in a tight spot. To maintain their livelihoods and revenue, they must continue extracting water from the aquifer. However, they must also deal with the dropping groundwater levels. Without a clear alternative, they have turned to various strategies.

Preservation vs. Sustainability[edit]

To solve the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, farmers and scientists have turned to several solutions. These can be broken down into two categories: preservative and sustainable solutions.

Preservation strategies involve making the aquifer last as long as possible. One idea is genetically engineering crops to use less water. Scientists at MIT have researched genetically modifying wheat, rice, and maize to reduce water usage.[24] They found that changing the Arabidopsis HARDY (HRD) gene in rice improves water-use efficiency.[25] Monsanto, an agricultural biotechnology company, has looked at altering corn's CspA and CspB proteins to reduce water loss. Another preservation idea is to use crops that require less water. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a report on crop water-efficiency, finding that wheat, sunflower, maize, and millet were significantly more water-efficient than crops such as corn.[26]

Sustainable solutions prioritize the re-usability of the aquifer. These solutions are concerned with changing farming techniques to use less water. One strategy is to employ "No-till" farming. This involves leaving the crop residue after a harvest and planting the new crops in the stubble. No-till farming reduces soil moisture loss, improving the water-efficiency of each harvest. Researchers at Iowa State University found that no-till farming could reduce water usage up to 54%.[27]

While preservation involves finding technical solutions to reduce water usage, sustainability deals with changing the social habits of people to fix a problem. Neither is necessarily more effective than the other; both are approaches that can be used to find solutions. This demonstrates that social issues are oftentimes complex and allow varied approaches from both the technical and social side.

Similar Cases[edit]

The ideas of over-dependence and varied solutions can be found in other limited-resource case studies. For example, oil has been a topic of contention in the global scene. In 2010, BP estimated that the total global oil reserve was about 240.7 million tons. Accounting for current global production and consumption, this would sustain the world for another 50.6 years.[28] By depending on oil for transportation fuels more and more, the global reserve of oil has continued to decline.

There have been many approaches to reduce our dependence on oil. Technical solutions include creating cars that use less gas per mile. Toyota has unveiled its newest car design, the 2018 Prius, which is estimated to have a 54 mile-per-gallon efficiency.[29] Other technical solutions involve switching to solar and wind energy. The Ford C-Max Hybrid and Energi cars plan to be 75% solar-powered.[30]

Social approaches involve changing the habits of people to reduce their reliance on oil. These include using public transportation and carpooling. Both limit and reduce the number of cars on highways, lowering the amount of oil being used. In San Francisco alone, carpooling has saved up to 3.5 million liters of gasoline per year.[31] Carpooling has also been found to reduce CO2 emissions up to 5%.[32]


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