Thursday, May 30, 2013

Loss of Ogallala Aquifer Will Have Impact on Many Highway 83 Communities

An irrigated farm in Haskell County, Kansas. Photos by Stew Magnuson

When I was a boy visiting my grandparents on the Highway 83 town of Stapleton, Nebr., my grandfather Virgil “Swede” Magnuson used to chug a glass of water and tell me how delicious it tasted — perhaps in an effort to wean me off Coca-Cola.
The water, he explained, was not treated with chemicals as it was in Omaha where I lived. It emerged pure from a vast underground ocean just beneath the town. I imagined a giant cave with water sloshing around.
What he was referring to was the Ogallala Aquifer, which is indeed vast in terms of its size. On Highway 83 alone, it begins on the southern end of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and extends roughly 600 miles to Wheeler, in Texas’ northern panhandle. It touches on 21 counties along Highway 83. (To the west, it extends as far south as Midland, Texas.)
There is no cave, of course. The water is stored among rocks and sand.
The New York Times reporter Michael Wines recently visited Haskell County, Kansas, which sits between Garden City and Liberal on Highway 83 to report on the state of the aquifer.
I am not going to link to the article here because the NYT will eventually archive the story and put it behind a paywall. For those who want to search for it once that happens and pay the asking price, it is worth it. Too summarize the article titled, “Wells Dry, Fertile Plains Turn to Dust” for those who don’t want to pay, in short, the water in Haskell County is running out.
To those who understand this important natural resource, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The pumping began in earnest after World War II in the post-Dust Bowl years when new technologies and cheap and plentiful fuel allowed farmers to tap into the aquifer. After years of drought, there was suddenly an insurance policy when the rains never came.
I have no quibbles with the conclusions of the article, other than the fact he never calls it the Ogallala Aquifer, instead calling it the High Plains Aquifer. The reporter rightly states that this is a finite resource.
The water took millions of years to collect, and only a miniscule amount is refreshed every year.
So as long as farmers keep pumping at a high rate, it will run out. Some geologists call this fossil water because it is so old. And so one can look at it as other resources such as fossil fuels. Keep pumping oil from the ground, it runs out. Keep digging up coal, it runs out.
He quoted one farmer’s statistics. In 1964 one well was pumping out 1,600 gallons per minute. That dropped to 1,200 in 1975 and then 750 in 1976. In 1991, he drilled another well. That is pumping out 300 gallons per minute today.
Towns like Sublette, Kan., depend on the aquifer
And so the aquifer in areas where there has been a high rate of pumping since the post-World War II years will be tapped out if current rates continue.
Wines notes a number of strategies the farmers are employing as the amount of water coming from their wells lessens, including changing crops, raising cattle instead, watering less land, just relying on rain, or even moving to another state. One reportedly is suing his neighbor, claiming that he is tapping into his water. That is sad. Even if he wins the case, the water is not coming back — at least not in any living person’s lifetime.
Not all regions are the same. At Stapleton, in the Nebraska Sand Hills, where center pivot farming is not widely practiced because of the terrain and soil, and there are no big towns using up the water, the aquifer is in good shape.
Other parts, as William Ashworth noted in his 2007 book, Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the Great Plains, have been contaminated by pollutants. This book is essential reading for anyone who lives above the aquifer. It lays out the history, mechanics and the economic impact of this unique natural resource.
Haskell County and its county seat Sublette was close to ground zero for the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Highway 83 is just 30 or 40 miles west of the 100th Meridian until it hooks southeast in Texas. This is the dividing line between the so-called “moist East” and “dry West.” This is where yearly rainfall totals are a crapshoot for farmers. The aquifer has helped them stave off drought for decades as pumping continued without much thought for the future. But nothing lasts forever.
There is a belief that “nothing changes in these small towns, and life continues on much as it always has.” That was never true. The loss of the aquifer will have an impact on many communities found along Highway 83.   

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at
Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83. 

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