Ogallala Aquifer | What Happens When the Water Runs Out, National Geographic Magazine

This is a water story. There are only six great aquifers in the world and the only great aquifer in North America is the Ogallala – it stretches from South Dakota to the Texas panhandle. Even though it is in better shape than most of the others – we’ve pumped 2/3rd’s of it out in some places and we’ve pumped enough out to fill TWO of Lake Erie. This is important because we get 20% of all our food off the aquifer and 40% of our beef. Thirty percent of irrigated land is over the Ogallala.

It’s important to understand the varying geology of the aquifer in order to regulate it… and it will need to be regulated… especially in Texas …

Ogallala Aquifer | What Happens When the Water Runs Out, National Geographic Magazine

This is a water story. There are only six great aquifers in the world and the only great aquifer in North America is the Ogallala – it stretches from South Dakota to the Texas panhandle. Even though it is in better shape than most of the others – we’ve pumped 2/3rd’s of it out in some places and we’ve pumped enough out to fill TWO of Lake Erie. This is important because we get 20% of all our food off the aquifer and 40% of our beef. Thirty percent of irrigated land is over the Ogallala.

It’s important to understand the varying geology of the aquifer in order to regulate it… and it will need to be regulated… especially in Texas which is a classic “tragedy of the commons.” The Ogallala is like a bunch of egg crates filled with rocks that sluffed off the Rocky Mountains as they were forming. These rocks created the apron for the aquifer and were not stuffed off equally. There’s a lot of rock interstices holding water in NE and north KS and nowhere near as much in the TX Panhandle. The materials deposited on top of these rocks was not deposited equally either which affects the recharge rate. In NE where the water can come to the surface, the recharge rate is much faster than TX where the recharge can reach 4,000 years… thus the phrase “fossil water.” So what works in KS for regulation may not work in TX. The state owns water rights in Kansas and Nebraska and leases them back to the farmers and meter their irrigation wells. In TX the farmers own the water under their feet (unless they sold it) and the state does not regulate an area of the aquifer that has the least water and the lowest recharge rate. All the farmers I talked to in TX knew the water would run out but explained that they had to buy an acre of land (with water) for $4K and when it didn’t have water it would only be worth $400 and they had to pump and drill and pump and drill until they produced enough crops on that land to pay off the note before the land value dropped precipitously. There are 20,000 regulated wells in all of KS and 88,000 unregulated wells in the TX panhandle. The Ogallala is the source of almost ALL water across the high plains – if it was spread across the entire USA it would be 1.5 feet deep. Before the discovery of the Ogallala this area was the great American desert. For thousands of years there were no settlements here and surface water was scarce – the homestead act of 1860 changed that. This is a place that can have a drought for 60 years and, more recently in the 1950’s, ranchers fed cows cactus mixed with molasses when there was no water.

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