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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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Near Wood River Nebraska, I woke to rumble of thunder and flashes of lightening illuminating a spectacular scene. “National Geographic calls the annual migration of sandhill cranes one of North America’s greatest wildlife phenomena,” according to the Crane Trust.
Every spring 80% of Lesser Sand Hill Cranes and some Greater Sand Hill Cranes come to the Platte River, and the concentration is higher here than anywhere in the world. Fossil beds in several parts of NE contain the remains of prehistoric cranes from 10 million years ago. Sand Hill Cranes feel safe from predators here in about 2 inches of Ogallala water on the Platte.  These are the grassland birds of the great plains. They migrate from Siberia and Canada to the southern United States and Northern Mexico. Their main migratory path is north-south and vice versa over the high plains aquifer. They are constrained by the Rocky Mountains in the same way as the aquifer was when those mountains were formed.
Sand Hill Cranes land on Crane Trust property and feed on adjacent farmland, ironically, eating waste corn in the area. Ironically, because modern agriculture is what took away the constrained rivers they need to survive. Annually 560,000 come through on migration in the shape of an hourglass fanning out in the north and the south, but hitting a choke point  in the middle around Kearney NE on the Platte River.
The Crane Trust counted 413,000 Sandhill Cranes on this evening-more than they’ve ever counted before, so this image is what it must have looked like millions of years ago. Conservation groups tirelessly work to keep 20 miles of the Platte River a perfect habitat for the 560,000 cranes that fly through. Sandhill Cranes are millions of years old and evolved during the Pleistocene. One of the biggest migration corridors in the world hinges on a core of volunteers and the money they raise to dredge the rivers back to the place they were millions of years ago. So this photo is also about an unprecedented concentration of cranes because of loss of habitat.
The Platte River is a braided river, and its bed is sand and gravel, laid down long ago from ancient outwash from the distant Rocky Mountains. The Platte River Valley that runs from west to east across the state is Nebraska’s economic lifeline, one of our nation’s most important breadbaskets, and operates as intensified irrigated corn and soybean agriculture production. The great migration of cranes, waterfowl, shorebirds that migrate through and stage in the spring that flows through this transformed landscape. And people from around the world to watch this great phenomenon.
Imperial NE -A $24 million USD pile of corn that will be consumed by 53,000 cows in a matter of months. A press to get the corn under cover creates a crazed tractor rodeo harvesting corn and red milo before the storm rolls in. Much of the region’s corn, a thirsty, irrigated crop, is grown to fatten cattle. This mound eventually would stretch 300 feet long, contain five million bushels.
WATER is about CORN and CORN is about BEEF. And now this entire area is about BIG AG. Farmers with bedspring corrals are long gone. Big AG WON. A Darwinian dwindling of rural areas survived the Dust Bowl and the family farm crisis, and now they are facing the end of easy water. But BIG AG is still here to stay and will remain with feed lots like this one even after the easy water is gone.
The math on the corn: 24 million USD is 5.25 million bushels or around $3.80 a bushel.
Business is slow midday in downtown Muleshoe, Texas. A community founded in 1913 northwest of Lubbock, the name traces back to a ranch by that name in the late 1800s. Muleshoe expanded with the coming of the railroad and grew to a town of 5,000 residents in 1970. But small towns struggle in the region, and population declined. The once lively Main Street is quiet with abandoned buildings. Economic stress is intensified as the community’s water source, the Ogallala aquifer, is pumped for irrigation. Muleshoe can be described as a dying town that can’t keep its grain elevator full. Although to outsiders it looks bleak, the town claims the smallest TV station and the owners are truly kind.
A steer is coaxed into its pen at a feedlot near Garden City, Kansas. Sparse population, a semiarid climate, and abundant groundwater turned the southern High Plains into the world’s feedlot capital. A single quarter-pound hamburger requires about 460 gallons of water to raise and process the beef.
In the High Plains, water is about corn and corn is about beef. The feedlots will exist after the water dwindles although grain will be brought in from outside areas. Texas ranks first with the highest number of cattle on feed followed by Kansas and Nebraska.In rough terms–there’s a 1000 feet of water left under Nebraska, 200 feet under Kansas, and about 30 feet under Texas. If all the cows are put on one side of a scale and humans on another, there are 2.5 times more cattle than people. 
Beef compared to other meats:  Five times the global warming contribution per calorie, 11 times more water, and 28 times as much land. Eating a pound of beef has more climatic impact than a gallon of gas. “When you add it all up, it comes up to about 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas comes from the animal agriculture sector. That’s bigger than all transportation combined,”  James Cameron 
 
The cowboy culture evokes the words “freedom” and “out on the range,” but now exists primarily in feed lots or with professional rodeo cowboys. Beef Empire Days in Garden City, Kansas involves a ranch riding competition as well as steer wrestling or bulldogging. That is where a cowboy ropes a steer, drops from his horse and grabs it by the horns to pull it to the ground. It is an intense, fast paced, high energy event first performed in the early 1900s. 
The beef culture comes alive during Beef Empire Days in Garden City, Kansas. The High Plains culture of cowboys and beef queens are is where a girl can rope a sculpture of a steer and dream of being a cowgirl out on the range.
Beef Empire Days Parade and BBQ the entire town was fed a tri-tip steak for free. Small town events are an important part of belonging.  Young girls practice for a performance under the tall grain elevator along the railroad tracks that has taken corn out town to sell all over the world. But now those tracks bring corn to Garden City, Kansas  for the feedlots that ring the area.
Garden City, Kansas – Beef Empire Days Queen and Princess contest.  Celebrated with flowers for the coronation, winning the title Miss Beef Empire is the highlight of the Rodeo Queen competition.
The Lazbuddie Superintendent drives the school bus, and a family of three Mennonite children are last to get off at the end of the route. 
The Texas Panhandle school district which doubles as a public water supplier, is trying to figure out how to keep the school and community alive as they run out of water. Over 200 students are drawn partly to a celebrated robotics program, but there is only 90 days of water left for 16 families. The school received federal funds for a new $360K well, but there are 88,000 wells nearby and the area has the least water from the aquifer underneath, the least regulation, the least recharge and the highest density of wells.Counties are drawing groundwater faster than the underground aquifers can recharge.  Historically, the state’s aquifers are in a decline which has led to water suppliers drilling and pumping deeper for water.
 
 
Near Elida New Mexico – This is a bedsprings corral for a few milk cows during hard times on the high planes before the water mining began. Now that the water mining is ending the wind machines are taking over the landscape.
In a county once littered with post offices, there are now only 5 left.  Durward Dixon, Mayor of Elida, Pop 200, blames the dearth of water. When they lay internet cables in Elida and break the water line, the mayor and the judge have to run out to the edge of town to turn off the water supply and then help fix the broken main. On the plains around them are signs of hard times in the 40’s and 50’s like the dairy that used old mattress springs as a containment area for their handful of milk cows. The signs of the future for this place loom over those mattresses – huge farms of wind machines. Farmers supplement their income now with wind leases and will be more dependent on them after the water runs out. There are huge wind machine factories all over this area… one of the biggest ones is just outside Garden City KS. 
I interviewed a Research Agronomist for the USDA who says it is too late to save farming on the high plains. 
A lightening bolt cuts through the steel gray sky behind a grain elevator, a symbol of high plains rural America, that has lost more than 12 million people since 2000. Just 16 percent of the nation’s population lives in rural areas – the lowest in recorded history and down from 72 percent a century ago. 
Dodge City, Kansas like all towns on the high plains, have been seriously diminished by the rush to the cities. After the Dust Bowl and the family farm crisis and the domination of BIG AG that requires fewer people to produce more crops, communities face another crisis. With a dwindling supply of water, farmers unable to fill their grain elevators threatens communities further and grain will come in on the rails from other areas. Even with the water they have now, small, dusty towns are getting smaller and dustier.
 
Center-pivot irrigation systems etch circles of grain and other plants in Finney County, Kansas. These self-propelled, rotating sprinklers revolutionized farming, enabling more land to be irrigated efficiently. As the aquifer declines, some farmers only irrigate partial circles.  Generally each sprinkler needs to draw from a well that can produce a minimum of 400 gallons of water a minute.
Aerial is between Dodge City and Garden City, Kansas as a rainbow appears after a storm. Corn is king and a water hungry crop. Switching to milo and bison could save the aquifer for the next generation. A center pivot pumping 694 gallons a minute can pump a million gallons a day. Rain measures roughly 18 inches years  in this region and a center pivot adds an additional 18 inches or more. Most of the pivots in the 70’s pump water out at 1,000 gallons a minute.
A Muleshoe, Texas tradition on Halloween is for costumed young people ride in 50 gallon drums painted like cows in a train pulled around in the downtown. In rural areas farms are too far apart to trick or treat, so families drive to the business district for a “Trunk or Treat” and open up the back of their cars to hand out candy.  
Agriculture is responsible for 95 percent of aquifer use and the people living on the fringes of the Ogallala Aquifer are starting to feel it. There are at least 30 families around Clovis NM that can no longer get water from their wells. This family has been carrying water in 5 gallon buckets in the back of a pickup for four years. Their entire neighborhood has been out of water.
The water eastern New Mexico currently relies heavily on is the Ogallala aquifer, an underground supply of water that eastern New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas sit on top of, according to Crockett. The aquifer drops around two to six feet per year, and only regains a few inches annually. Most of the water is being used for agricultural purposes. Only 5 percent of water is being drawn from the aquifer by municipalities and non-ag industries.
Agriculture is responsible for 95 percent of aquifer use and families at the fringes of the aquifer feel it. For four years now, approximately 30 families near Clovis, NM,  can no longer get water from their wells and carry water home need for cooking and bathing.  This two-year old has a bubble bath sharing precious water with a family of nine that requires 105 gallons a day.
County Road 5 is the canary in the coal mine for Ogallala depletion. Just across the state line from here are 88,000 wells in the Texas panhandle. Those wells use approximately 200 gallons a minute according to HPWD. When they started irrigating, the wells poured out 1000 gallons a minute. Portales is a medium size city that uses three agricultural wells to give city water to the entire town and purchasing land around the wells to protect the resource.
Across the amount of water used by agriculture at the Texas border is the equivalent of 10,000 towns the size of Portales. When those wells were in full production, it was more like 50,000 cities sucking water just over the state line. A home healthcare worker lives with her daughter and partner and nine other family members require 1over 100 gallons a day to meet their water needs. She hauls water to her home daily using 21 5-gallon blue plastic buckets that she loads into the back of a small pickup truck. A daughter quit her job and returned home to help to carry water when her mother had health issues and she became the primary water carrier.
When the water crisis hit County Road 5 the family thought it was temporary, and they would get a hotel room for the weekend to shower or go to a friends home. As it became obvious the water was never coming back, they quietly started hauling water. One local county commissioners heard about this family’s situation and was aghast at the third world narrative. The commissioner said now there are only 30 or so families in this dire situation and wonders what will happen if the numbers climb to 100 and it becomes public that they running out of water.  “I think everyone will just leave,” he says.
Agriculture is responsible for 95 percent of aquifer use and communities at the fringes of the aquifer feel it. There are at least 30 families around Clovis NM that can no longer get water from their wells. Some families have carried water home in 5 gallon buckets in the back of a pickup for four years.
A daughter in a family of nine quit her job and moved home to help the family haul water-about 105 gallons a day. She fills and carries 21 5 gallon buckets in the back of the truck for cooking, bathing and other needs. When the water crisis hit the family thought it was temporary, and that they would get a hotel room for the weekend so they could shower or use the water available at friends homes. As it became obvious the water was not coming back they quietly started hauling water. A County Commissioners heard about this family and was aghast at the third world narrative. 
The water eastern New Mexico currently relies heavily on is the Ogallala aquifer, an underground supply of water that eastern New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas sit on top of that drops around two to six feet per year, and only regains a few inches annually.
Just across the state line are 88,000 wells in the TX panhandle. Those 88,000 wells now average around 200 gallons a minute. But when they started irrigation those wells were around 1000 gallons a minute. Most of the water is being used for agricultural purposes. Only 5 percent of water is being drawn from the aquifer by municipalities and non-ag industries.
Between Taylor and Burwell Nebraska — River “tanking” in plastic livestock-watering containers is a popular tourist draw along the shallow Calamus River in central Nebraska. With two-thirds of the Ogallala’s water underlying it, the state’s wealth of groundwater feeds countless springs, streams, and rivers.
There is so much fossil water in NE that a couple of cowboys figured out how to float the Calamus River in cow tanks. Now ranchers use tourism to supplement ranch income in hard times. Calamus Outfitters put college kids in cow tanks to float down the Calamus river creating income to supplement their ranches through hard times. One hot August day, 350 tourists floated the river. The Calamus is spring fed from the Ogallala aquifer.  
The city of Portales is chasing water buying agricultural wells to supply the 3 million gallon a day need of the town. “Chasing water” means finding enough underground water to maintain the current population and businesses as they operate today. Public Works Director says by buying up land and wells and pushing agriculture away they have actually raised the water table on the land they purchased for water access.
The water eastern New Mexico currently relies heavily on is the Ogallala aquifer, an underground supply of water that eastern New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas sit on top of that drops around two to six feet per year, and only regains a few inches annually. There is a 10 year temporary plan for water coming from a paleo channel near the airbase that will feed Clovis and Portales that will cost 100 million and there is a 20 year plan that will bring water from the Ute reservoir that will cost a billion USD. There’s not real clarity on these plans or if they will happen in time to save these towns.
 
 
 
 
 
Most of the water, she said, is being used for agricultural purposes. Only 5 percent of water is being drawn from the aquifer by municipalities and non-ag industries.
Sediment that formed the Ogallala aquifer sloughed off from the Rocky Mountains, creating gravel that is mined for construction materials. Rocky Mountain uplift and the natural weathering allowed the material to scuff off the slopes. Then materials transported by huge streams became the channels in the aquifer. The Rocky Mountains are compositionally different fhaving more granite than from those in the south.  Sixteen acres of the gravel are stored near Slaton, Texas.
Wood River Nebraska – These Sandhill Cranes courting dance involves wing-flapping, bowing and leaping. Sandhill Crane pairs remain together for life. Their spirited dance is more common in breeding season and plays an essential role in reaffirming their bond. 
Migration between wintering grounds in the south and breeding grounds in the north takes Sandhill Cranes across the region of Nebraska for many thousands, if not millions, of years. The link between Sandhill Cranes and the Platte River is believed to date to the river’s origins some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, following the end of the last ice age.
With a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet, the cranes land in the Platte River wetlands feeling safe from predators in 2 inches of Ogallala water. Their annual migration extends from Siberia and Canada to the southern United States and Northern Mexico. Approximately 500,000 Sandhill Cranes fly in to Crane Trust property near Kearney and adjacent farmland.
Wood River Nebraska – Morning breaks as Sand Hill Cranes fly in to sit in two inches of precious Ogallala water on the Platte River. These are the grassland birds of the Great Plains migrating from Siberia and Canada to the southern United States and Northern Mexico. Their main migratory path is north-south and then in reverse as they fly in to breed in the High Plains aquifer. The birds path is constrained by the Rocky Mountains much in the same as the ancient aquifer. They depend on these protected waterways and create an hourglass shape in their migration making a wide path following to the narrow choke point at Kearney on the Platte River, then the migration fans out as they leave. During their migration, nearly a half million Sand Hill Cranes fly in to Crane Trust property and adjacent farmland. 
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