The Great Plains’ Looming Water Crisis

Jul 2, 2015

Depletion of a giant aquifer threatens vital U.S. farmland

Farming in the northeast corner of Colorado used to be simple: plant corn and watch it grow, irrigated by the massive Ogallala aquifer. Today the sprinklers at Marvin Pletcher’s farm in Yuma County, about 120 miles from Denver, put out half as much water as a decade ago, and he keeps them low to the ground to prevent evaporation. Half of Pletcher’s 1,300 acres are planted with wheat, sorghum, sunflowers, and pinto beans—crops that are less thirsty than corn, but also less profitable. “I have four wells in operation. In 10 years I’ll be lucky if I have one,” says the fourth-generation farmer. “We’re all drinking from the same bowl of water here, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

The Ogallala aquifer lies under eight states from South Dakota to Texas. If it were above ground, its 174,000-square-mile surface area would be nearly double all five Great Lakes. About one-fifth of all U.S. cattle, corn, cotton, and wheat depend on the Ogallala. Without it, meat prices would rise, farm exports fall, and rural communities wither, says Bill Lapp, a former chief economist for ConAgra Foods and the Omaha-based president of Advanced Economic Solutions, an agriculture consultant.

About 30 percent of the aquifer’s water has already been pumped out of the ground. An additional 39 percent is expected to be gone in the next 50 years. Replenishing it would take millennia. That’s forcing quiet shifts in the region’s agriculture, with farmers in dried-out areas facing restrictions on bank loans and pressure to switch crops.

As a child, Rick Seedorf drank from irrigation pipes that flooded fields with seemingly endless water. The 63-year-old farmer raises irrigated corn and sugar beets and nonirrigated wheat outside the town of Yuma, the county seat. Plentiful supplies of water led to overdevelopment, he says. “If we had given more thought to where the soil was best or the supply was greatest, we might be able to get more out of the land,” Seedorf says. “It would have been great if that had happened, but how do you fix that now?”

The availability of irrigation dramatically affects land values, causing credit to dry up along with the water, says Doug Keil, chief credit officer for Premier Farm Credit in Sterling, Colo. Irrigated cropland averages $4,450 an acre in Colorado, vs. $1,200 for nonirrigated land and $760 for grassland to graze cattle, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Someone will ask for a 20-year loan, and the appraiser will ask for a well test that makes it a 10-year loan because the water isn’t thick enough,” says Keil.

Based on current national prices and yields, an acre of corn brings a farmer $583.80 on average, while an acre of wheat is worth $216.58. Wheat is cheaper to grow than corn, so farmers can get by on lower revenue. But everyone in the supply chain, from the seed dealer to the machinery seller, also ends up with less income, says Greg Page, executive chairman of Cargill, the world’s largest agribusiness. Businesses from biofuel producers to rail lines all need to prepare for lower volumes, he says: “Crop densities go down and you end up with too many grain elevators, too many rail tracks.”

Some parts of the Ogallala are doing better than others. Northern regions, including Nebraska, where water may be deep enough to last hundreds of years, are less stressed than the southern High Plains, which a 2012 U.S. Geological Survey study estimated will lose irrigation capacity on 35 percent of the land in the next three decades.

Unlike California, where the acute water crisis is forcing overdue action, there has been little coordinated response across the Great Plains. In western Kansas, farmers have set up voluntary districts to reduce water use by 20 percent, part of a statewide 50-year conservation strategy. In Texas, voters in 2013 committed $2 billion for a new fund that will invest in projects that boost storage capacity.

Local initiatives can help slow the depletion, but what’s ultimately needed is a multistate response, says Sasha Richey, a hydrologist at Washington State University in Pullman. “The good news is we can increase the sustainability of the system” with water-saving technology and wiser resource management, she says. “You need to jointly decide the goals, then come up with local strategies.”

Some farmers will be “mining the vein until it runs out,” says Seedorf, who is among those anticipating a return to a more parched era. Pletcher, whose ancestors settled in the area a century ago, calls wheat and sunflowers “grandfather crops” because they were common in the region before the 1940s, when full-scale pumping began. “The thing is, we’ve built some pretty nice schools and some pretty nice hospitals, and we have a nice tax base all based on irrigated ground,” says Pletcher, who is on a local water board. “The light switch has been on for a while now, and when it gets switched to dark, people have to be ready.”

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