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Environmental Investigations: The Great Underground Sponge: Ogallala by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

We know the value of water when the well runs dry.
~ Benjamin Franklin

The High Plains aquifer system underlies 174,000 square miles in parts of eight States (CO, KS, NE, NM, OK, SD, TX and WY). Approximately 20 percent of the irrigated land in the United States is in the High Plains and about 30 percent of the ground water used for irrigation in the U.S. is pumped from the High Plains aquifer.
High Plains Regional Ground Water (HPGW) Study

The next time you're doing the dishes, look at the sponge you may be using. It doesn't really look as if it could hold very much water, but give it a squeeze and you discover that it holds more than you thought it could. Now imagine a sponge that's big enough to cover parts of eight states anywhere from a few feet to a thousand feet thick; that's the Ogallala aquifer (a.k.a. the High Plains aquifer), a giant underground sponge. Estimates put the volume of the Ogallala aquifer at over one million billion (i.e. one quadrillion) gallons of water; enough water to fill Lake Huron and then some. And if it's still a bit difficult to envision just how much water that is, do a quick calculation. One quadrillion gallons is about 3.3 billion acre-feet of water (an acre-foot, unfamiliar to most of us, is simply the volume of water that will cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot). There are approximately 1.9 billion acres of land in the lower 48 states, which means the volume of water in the Ogallala aquifer would cover that entire land area to a depth of almost two feet! Now that's a lot of water!

With so much water in the Ogallala aquifer how could it ever run out? The main problem is that the water in the Ogallala aquifer is considered to be "fossil water", in that it originated millions of years ago and is being replenished only very, very slowly and once it's gone, it's gone. In other words, it is a nonrenewable resource and it is being withdrawn at incredibly rapid rates. As of 1990, 14 billion gallons per day was being withdrawn for irrigation of farmland and an additional 332 million gallons per day was being withdrawn for public use. At these rates water in the Ogallala should be available for about another 190 years. But unlike fossil fuels, where alternatives to their use exist, there is no substitute for water. We need water to live. We need water to grow our crops. As our population increases, the need for food increases, which means the need for water to grow the food also increases. Therefore, 190 years is probably a best-case scenario. Some people in the area understand this; others think it is their right to take as much water as they want to whenever they want to. It's easy to forget about things we take for granted.

For example, one of the most amazing things I've ever seen was a center-pivot irrigation system. Essentially, it's a giant pipe, on motorized wheels, that moves in a circular motion around a field watering up to 240 acres (over 1/3 mi2) at a time. Unfortunately, the amount of water being pumped (more than 1000 gallons per minute, 24 hours a day for the 3 month growing season) never even crossed my mind. What's even more amazing though, is that much of that water is wasted because it evaporates before it ever reaches the ground. But wasted or not, all that water has enabled states such as Nebraska to increase its annual corn crop by 700 million bushels, Kansas to increase its beef cattle herd by three million head and Texas to produce an additional two million bales of cotton. It means, water is big business and if farmers and farming corporations want to stay in business, something needs to be done to improve irrigation methods and/or conserve water, now. If nothing is done, eventually the area known as the Bread Basket of America will become the Dust Bowl of America. Maybe, once it's gone, we'll realize how important it was.

1. If you were/are a farmer whose land depends on water from the Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation, what kinds of things should you be concerned about in regards to water?
2. One thing that we might not realize is that some of us (though not all) have to pay for water. As a farmer in Nebraska, should I have to pay for water pumped by a well that I paid for? Would this hurt me? Would it help the conservation effort? If you think I should pay for the water, what would be a fair price? (A place to start would be to look at the cost of your water or that of someone you know).
3. It's been estimated that a 4-ounce filet mignon is equivalent to about 275 gallons of water. How can this be? Start by scaling this number up to a whole cow and going from there. Include as many externalities as you can think of.
Different Perspectives in the Debate

• Ogallala Aquifer
http://www.npwd.org/Ogallala.htm
A general description of the Ogallala aquifer on the website of the North Plains Groundwater District in northern Texas.
• Living on the Ogallala
http://www.fhsu.edu/kga/lp/5/ruhlen.html
This is a grade school activity developed by Betty Ruhlen of the Northeast Kansas Education Service Center in Lecompton, Kansas. A very informative exercise even if it is at this lower level.
• Geologist Project Life of the Ogallala Aquifer
http://www.ur.ku.edu/News/01N/JulyNews/July12/aquifer.html
The University of Kansas announces a report by a team of their scientists regarding the Ogallala Aquifer.
• A Water Resources Investigate Report: The Ogallala Aquifer and the White River Aquifer
http://water.usgs.gov/pubs/wri/wri004188/htms/report.htm
This is a US Geological Service sponsored research report about the state of the Ogallala Aquifer and the White River Aquifer near Cheyenne, Wyoming prepared in cooperation with the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities.
• High Plains Regional Ground Water (HPGW) Study
http://co.water.usgs.gov/nawqa/hpgw/
As part of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program the US Geological Service is studying ground water quality in the High Plains Aquifer (i.e. Ogallala Aquifer). This is their report.
• Save Our Water Supply
http://www.saveourwatersupply.com/index.html
From the website: "Concerned Citizens for Clean Water, Inc. is a non-profit corporation. We are a group of citizens in New Mexico and West Texas who are bound together by our concern about the depletion and pollution of our domestic drinking water supplies, including the Ogallala Aquifer".
• Conserving the Ogallala Aquifer: Efficiency, Equity and Moral Motives
http://www.choicesmagazine.org/current/2003-1-04_print.htm
This interesting article by Peterson, Marsh and Williams outlines some of the problems with using the Ogallala Aquifer at current rates and makes some strong arguments for conservation.
• Multistate Negotiations Proposed to Preserve Ogallala Aquifer
http://www.lsb.state.ok.us/house/news4042.htm
There are some interesting facts and figures in this announcement by the Oklahoma legislature of a multistate proposal to conserve the Ogallala Aquifer.
• TexasWater.org / The Ogallala Aquifer
http://www.txwater.org/Ogallala Aquifer.htm
This is a very interesting site with lots of information about the Ogallala Aquifer including links to facts, studies and statistics.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003