The Great Plains Water Worries

by Editor

Whether it is 20, 50, or 100 years in the future the mining of underground water in North America will make future generations much poorer.  The aquifier that stretches between Texas and Dakota is being mined at a rate that will eventually see this precious resource disappear.

News Source: JournalStar

What Will We Do When This Runs Dry?

Donald Worster didn’t come to Lincoln to predict an Armageddon.

But the University of Kansas history professor thinks the Great Plains and the massive Ogallala Aquifer are headed for trouble.

“The Great Plains is going to be a loser when it comes to water,” he said Wednesday. “So when it comes to the idea of this country feeding the world, it’s just not a realistic option.”

There’s no arguing that an underground water resource that stretches from Texas into South Dakota is being mined for irrigation and other purposes, he said before an evening E.N. Thompson Forum lecture at the Lied Center.

“At some point, whether it’s 20 years or 50 years or 100 years, that resource is gone.”

His appearance was a kickoff for the three-day “Making of the Great Plains” symposium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, marking the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad Act and other landmark legislation that opened the way to settlement of the country’s mid-section.

The title of Worster’s address, “An Unquenchable Thirst: How the Great Plains Created a Water Abundance and Then Lost It,” is a big clue to his concerns. His research and publication background is another. Worster, who specializes in environmental history, is the author of several books, including “Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s.”

And he doesn’t regard the message behind the Homestead Act, a key to unlocking Nebraska’s agricultural potential in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as a cause for universal celebration.

“You could say the Homestead Act set us up for all this,” he said. “The premise was an infinite abundance of good water and good land, good soil, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.”

It doesn’t take Worster long to warm to his topic.

“We have a growing problem of water scarcity on the Great Plains,” he said in an interview.

There already are abundant signs of decline in the water table from Texas into Kansas, he said.

Worster acknowledged that Nebraska is at the deep end of the aquifer and that much of its share of water is under grazing ground in the Sandhills.

That may say something about the supply lasting longer here, but it also says that “the water is not where the land is that needs the water the most.”

Worster’s arrival in Lincoln comes less than a year after heavy snowfall and heavy rain caused the Missouri River to rage out of control.

Headed into the 2012 growing season, reservoirs are full and wide-spread drought has been out of the picture in Nebraska since 2006. Underground water tables have been relatively stable.

At the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District in York, General Manager John Turnbull is awaiting the results of spring testing of water levels.

He isn’t dreading the experience.

“What we’ve seen recently, in the last few years, is that we’ve had a general rise in the water table in this district,” he said. “Our water levels are essentially the same as they were in 1961.”

The Upper Big Blue contains 1.2 million acres of crop ground irrigated with groundwater, the most of the state’s 23 NRDs.

“People are learning they can grow good yields with much less water than they used to,” Turnbull said.

Worster doesn’t draw huge comfort from looking at the multi-state picture and the relationship between surface and underground water.

The long-term pattern for river after river is of demand outstripping supply, he said.

“The Colorado is already a river that doesn’t reach the sea. We extract everything out of it.”

He’s convinced that heavily irrigated states need to turn off the spigot.

“We can’t sustain the level of agriculture we have now in the Great Plains,” Worster said. “The best we can do is to try to transition to the dryland farming economy of the past — or something like that.”

What do you think about the mining of water from the water fields? What laws should govern water mining?

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