Ogallala (High Plains) aquifer depletion

Ogallala aquifer (High Plains)

Ogallala aquifer deleption

Cumulative groundwater depletion in the High Plains aquifer 1900-2008

  • Has declined as much as 164 feet in some places.
  • 337 km3 total depletion since 1900.

The Ogallala is one of Earth’s largest aquifers, the water used in the 10 great Plains states that provides a third of all groundwater used to irrigate to grow a fifth of our food and 40% of the grain for grain-fed beef .  Over the last century, however, we’ve pumped out two-thirds of the total water, enough to fill Lake Erie.  Many geologists expect most of the Ogallala to run out of water in 25 to 30 years, and perhaps run out of “usable” water as soon as 2020.  The fossil water in the Ogallala is not renewable. Over the years, water levels have fallen by more than one hundred feet in parts of four states. The “tragedy of the commons” is writ large over the Ogallala. Like climate disruption, aquifer depletion is the type of problem that human minds aren’t well designed to handle: The problem spans generations, conditions are only gradually worsening, and most people find it in their short-term interest to behave in ways that benefit them but harm future generations. Underground water ignores property lines, so there’s no way to conserve the water under your land unless all your neighbors do the same. Therefore, it seems logical to pump out as much water as hard and fast as you can, because otherwise your neighbors will pump it out (Hayes).

Hayes, Denis and Gail Hayes. 2015. Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment.    W.W. Norton & Company.

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