VANISHING AMERICA: THE OGALLALA AQUIFER

Most of you have heard of John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath, an account of the terrible days of the Dust Bowl in the United States.  Some of you may dust-stormknow that the transformation of midwestern agricultural fields into clouds of blowing, choking dust was caused by very poor farming practices.  Very few of you probably know that those days were followed by a drastic change in midwestern agriculture — vastly increased pumping of water from the ground.

Do you know what an aquifer is?

The term comes from two Latin words meaning “water” and “to bear/carry.”  That is descriptive, because an aquifer is a natural underground reservoir of water.

Look at this picture:

That immense blue area, spreading through eight different states in the midwestern United States, is said to be the largest aquifer in the world.  It supplies water for irrigation and water for drinking and other farm and residential uses.

It underlies nearly the whole state of Nebraska, where one of my favorite writers, Loren Eiseley, was born.  It is very important to the agricultural production of the United States.

And it is rapidly disappearing.

It is not vanishing because of global warming.  It is vanishing because it is being heavily overused — an overuse that began only in the 1940s.

Not long ago — only a few decades back — the Ogalalla aquifer had an average depth of about 240 feet.  Now the average depth is 80 feet.

What is the reason?  Humans are pumping the water out much faster than Nature can restore it.  It is said that the time required to restore the aquifer naturally would be some 6,000 years.  At present usage rates,  it is likely that the water in the aquifer will be gone in about 20 to 25 years.  Imagine what that will mean for all the people living in those states, and consequently for the rest of the United States.

The problem is that just as humans seem to be willing to use every last drop of oil in the world rather than conserve, so they are willing to use every last drop of water in the aquifer rather than to seriously limit pumping and to change their lifestyles.

One study* of the problem states,

Crops that benefit from the aquifer are cotton, corn, alfalfa, soybeans, and wheat. These crops provide the Midwest cattle operations with enormous amounts of feed and account for 40% of the feedlot beef output here in the U.S.

What that means is that a good part of the water depletion in the Ogallala aquifer is for the purpose of growing crops used in feeding cattle for slaughter — cattle (and pigs) for use as human food.  

Now that is just one more good reason to stop eating animals and become vegetarian or vegan.  And it is a good reason not to wait to do that.

David

*The Ogallala Aquifer
Manjula V. Guru, Agricultural Policy Specialist
Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture
http://shadesofgreenweb.org/dancingflames/EnvSci/Articles/EnvScipdffiles/water/ogallala_aquifer.pdf

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