Water Use: The Ogallala Aquifer

A NextGen Blog by Marianne Swan, State University of New York College at Oneonta.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

A recent graduate of the State University of New York College at Oneonta, Marianne Swan is pursuing a career in the field of environmental sustainability with particular interest in food and water security.


Life on Earth cannot exist without water. Only 2.5% of all the water on our planet is fresh, and most of it is locked away in ice caps and glaciers.1United States Geological Survey The Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the HighPlains Aquifer, is an underground store of fresh water that stretches over 112 million acres from South Dakota to Texas.2McGuire, Virginia While it does supply drinking water to a few million people, 90% of the aquifer is used for irrigation.3McGuire, Virginia4Xie, Yanhua, Lark, Tyler, and GIbbs, Holly

The Ogallala Aquifer is a common pool resource spanning eight states, meaning it’s available to everyone and difficult to regulate. Farmers pump water faster than it can be replenished due to financial incentive to mass produce harvests of corn and soybeans. This rapid depletion is impacting High Plains ecosystems and will eventually cause the aquifer to run dry.5Perkin, Joshuah et al To balance food and water needs for future generations, researchers suggest that federal and state governments work with farmers and ranchers to manage the Ogallala Aquifer responsibly.

Pivot irrigation system in Nebraska

The Ogallala Aquifer provides irrigation to one of the world’s most agriculturally productive regions.6Natural Resources Conservation Service Since 1950, it’s declined an average of 15.8 feet. Some regions in northern Texas and southern Kansas (where the bulk of current pumping is happening, along with much of Nebraska) have experienced declines of more than 150 feet.7McGuire, Virginia8Xie, Yanhua, Lark, Tyler, and Gibbs, Holly A third of the aquifer’s total volume has already been drained, and if current pumping continues, another 39% will disappear by 2063.9Steward, David et al. It is estimated that the Ogallala Aquifer will take 500-6,000 years to recharge completely.10Deines, Jillian, et al.11Biello, David

Rows of young corn on a Nebraskan farm

Monocrop Monopoly

If most of the water pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer is used for irrigation, what exactly is being watered? Corn and soybeans dominate American agriculture—and thus the majority of the Ogallala Aquifer. In 2019, an estimated 91.7 million acres of corn was planted, followed by 80.0 million acres of soybeans.12National Agricultural Statistics Service The crops are used as animal feed, ethanol and in food and drinks. About 15% of corn and half of all soybeans are exported.13Capehart, Tom and Olson, David[/mfn]Perritano, John[/mfn]14Wills, Kendra

American farmers (who have decreased in number but increased in acreage) are incentivized to grow corn largely because of federal programs. Subsidies ($46.1 billion went to soybean farmers from 1995—2019), import tariffs, loans, disaster aid and crop insurance programs encourage the overproduction of corn and soybeans.15Capehart, Tom and Olson, David16Taxpayers for Common Sense17Environmental Working Group And amidst the current trade war with China, soybean farmers are getting more financial aid than ever before.

Braided rivers at the confluence of the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers, South Dakota.

Environmental Impacts

When prairie grasslands and wetlands are destroyed to make way for corn and soybean, carbon is released, further increasing greenhouse gas emissions and threatening species with further habitat loss.18Runge, C. Ford Waterways are also impacted. Each crop field requires pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer. These chemicals and nutrients travel into streams, polluting local drinking water and causing algal blooms, eutrophication and hypoxia.19Hoekman, S., Broch, Amber, and Liu, Xiaowei

High rates of pumping have already caused surface water streams fed by the aquifer to shorten and others have dried up completely.20McGuire, Virginia This habitat loss has caused several large-stream fish populations to collapse, which reduces both ecosystem resilience and available ecosystem services.21Perkin, Joshuah et al. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) acknowledges that species such as the whooping crane (endangered), pallid sturgeon (endangered) and piping plover (near-threatened) would benefit from increased conservation of the aquifer22Ogallala Aquifer Initiative In addition, climate change is expected to worsen droughts in some regions, particularly in places where pumping is already most intense.23Braxton Little, Jane Increasing trends of erosion, deforestation and desertification (causing the loss of fertility in previously-arable land) will only further accelerate soil water loss.

Jennifer Troester and her son Barrett on the Troesters’ Elkhorn River Basin farm, Nebraska.

Bridging the Gaps

The Federal Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (OAI) is currently working with farmers who show an interest in reducing their water use by helping them implement more sustainable techniques.

Some states are taking the following actions:  

  • Kansas has a program where farmers can voluntarily designate Local Enhanced Management Areas where water use will be lessened through a legally binding plan
  • Nebraska is taking a slightly tougher approach through its Ground Water Management and Protection Act, which limits farmers’ water allocations, establishes a rotating water permit program and allows farmers to make their own water-saving plans
  • New Mexico is investing in pipeline projects and requiring that data is reviewed before new well projects begin
  • Texas is limiting pumping and encouraging farmers to space their wells, utilize efficient irrigation technology and improve crop management.

While the federal government and several state entities recognize the need to slow the Ogallala Aquifer’s depletion, current measures are mostly voluntary. To remedy this, the federal OAI could require states to devise and implement pumping reduction plans while continuing to provide technical and financial support through the NRCS/Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Plans should be tailored to the physical and social climate of each state. For example, decentralized management would probably work best in Texas, where the 1949 Groundwater Conservation District Act leaves groundwater management to localities.

Based on what states are already doing, plans for reducing water usage might include:

  • Limiting the amount of water allocated to each farmer
  • Establishing a rotating water permit program and prescribed grazing zones
  • Investing in safe pipeline projects
  • Implementing more efficient irrigation technology
  • Implementing educational programs that help farmers identify new water-saving methods and crops

Less “Thirsty” Crop Alternatives

The Ogallala Aquifer offers a dire example of threats to our water quality and quantity in the near future. Changing how farmers farm is certainly a portion of the solution; but changing what farmers sow may be even more critical. Numerous drought-resistant crops are underutilized in American agriculture and could be used instead of corn and soybean.

A sign for Hereford, beef capital of America, located in the Texas Panhandle.

In most large animal feeding operations, livestock consume mostly or exclusively feed; corn and soybean comprise two-thirds of standard feed. The more drought-tolerant crops of sorghum, winter canola, pearl millet, cowpea, peanut, chia and tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis, a species of lupin grown for its nutrient-rich seeds and beans) can all be used and exported as animal feed.24Assefa, Yared, et al.25Moloney, Anastasia26Bhattarai, Bishwoyog, et al. Subsidies could be provided for farmers and ranchers who establish grazing regions and/or increase their production of drought-resistant feed crops.

Because of import fees, duties and quotas on cane sugar, corn often replaces it in food in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Excess fructose intake due to the substitution of corn contributes to increased obesity rates, liver fat, insulin resistance, inflammation and cell damage, which indicates that any form of fructose should be consumed in moderation.27Mawer, Rudy Raw honey, raw maple syrup, and drought-resistant fruits like pomegranate and fig are water-saving, healthier alternatives to HFCS (though any form of fructose should be consumed in moderation!).28California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc. In terms of cooking oil, drought-tolerant options to soybean oil include canola, cassava, peanut, chia seed, and tarwi.29Moloney, Anastasi

Wind turbines in Nebraska

Corn provides 94% of America’s ethanol, which is often considered a safer source of fuel than coal or oil. However, additives in ethanol (denaturants) are often toxic, as ethanol’s evaporative emissions contribute to smog, ozone, “ozone-related mortality, asthma and hospitalizations.”30Hoekman, S., Broch, Amber, and Liu, Xiaowei31Runge, C. Ford CO2 is released when ethanol is burned and oftentimes during processing.32The U.S. Energy Information Administration Instead of growing corn, which destroys carbon sinks and wastes precious arable land and water, the federal government could subsidize solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal energy, all of which are more sustainable renewable energy sources than corn ethanol.

What You Can Do

As a common pool resource, responsible management of the Ogallala Aquifer should not be optional. Its overuse is a threat to national food and water security, as well as the viability of critical natural resources and dependent ecosystems. If farmers can reduce current irrigation needs, the availability of the Ogallala Aquifer’s water supply will be greatly extended, providing farmers and researchers with time to prepare for its inevitable depletion.

A field of short prairie grasses at sunset, in the dry lands of northern Texas

Dryland cropping and non-irrigated pasture production are two methods of producing food without the aquifer; but as climate change accelerates and the global population climbs, we’re certain to need additional farming techniques and approaches.33Ogallala Aquifer Initiative34Deines, Jillian, et al. If you’re a citizen concerned about water security, you can make your voice heard! Agricultural subsidies come from taxpayer dollars. We all can contact our regional representatives or a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. As we voice concern over the Ogallala Aquifer’s depletion, we can also express interest in the subsidization of water-saving techniques and crops.

It’s also important to identify and support our local, small-scale food-growers that utilize water conservation techniques. If there are farmers in our area that grow a lot of corn or soybeans, we can talk to them too to learn why they make their living and practice farming as they do. 

Together, we can foster a culture of sustainability and mindfulness by using water responsibly ourselves and then encourage our community to do the same. Here are some ways we can reduce water use and runoff pollution:

  • Rethink our thirsty lawns, and consider installing xeriscaped gardens with drought-tolerant plants
  • Wash our cars less, and only run dishwashers and laundry machines when full
  • Encourage our neighborhoods to establish systems that limit domestic water use and hold users accountable  
  • Learn about and support recycled water and green infrastructure projects to preserve the precious rain that falls
  • Replace movie-night popcorn (made from thirsty crops of corn) with popped sorghum which barely needs any water to grow and produce. (The rosemary-garlic flavor is great! )

Discussion among stakeholders is vital to resolving common pool resource issues. Farmers will need financial support to shift from corn and soybeans to water-saving alternatives, but that will only happen if we as citizens express concern over water security.

SOURCES:

“Acreage.” National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), June 2019. Accessed on July 7th, 2020 by MS.

Assefa, Yared, et al. “Major Management Factors Determining Spring and Winter Canola Yield in North America.” Crop Science, 58(1), January 2018. Accessed on July 6th, 2020 by MS.

Bhattarai, Bishwoyog, et al. “Water Depletion Pattern and Water Use Efficiency of Forage Sorghum, Pearl millet, and Corn Under Water Limiting Condition.” Agricultural Water Management, 238(1), August 2020. Accessed by MS on July 3rd, 2020.

Biello, David. “Farmers Deplete Fossil Water in World’s Breadbaskets.” Scientific American, August 2012. Accessed on July 6th, 2020 by MS.

“Biofuels Explained.” The U.S. Energy Information Administration, October 2019. Accessed on July 6th, 2020 by MS.

Braxton Little, Jane. “The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S. Water Source.” Scientific American, March 2009. Accessed on July 3rd, 2020 by MS.

Capehart, Tom and Olson, David. “Corn and Other Feedgrains: Feedgrains Sector at a Glance.” Economic Research Service, February 2020. Accessed on July 3rd, 2020 by MS.

Deines, Jillian, et al. “Transitions From Irrigated to Dryland Agriculture in the Ogallala Aquifer: Land Use Suitability and Regional Economic Impacts.” Agricultural Water Management, vol. 233, April 2020. Accessed on June 29th, 2020, by MS.

Dolezal, Adam et al. “Native Habitat Mitigates Feast–Famine Conditions Faced by Honey Bees in an Agricultural Landscape.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 116(50), November 2019. Accessed on July 8th, 2020 by MS. \

“Drought Tolerant Fruiting Trees, Shrubs and Vines.” California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc., n.d. Accessed on July 7th, 2020 by MS.

Fassler, Joe. “The World’s Largest Food Companies are Funding Bee Habitats.” The Counter, April 2017. Accessed on July 8th, 2020 by MS.

“Federal Subsidies for Corn Ethanol and Other Corn-Based Biofuels.” Taxpayers for Common Sense, June 2015. Accessed on July 6th, 2020 by MS.

Hoekman, S., Broch, Amber, and Liu, Xiaowei (Vivian). “Environmental Implications of Higher Ethanol Production and Use in the U.S.: A Literature Review. Part I – Impacts on Water, Soil, and Air Quality.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 81(2), January 2018. Accessed on July 7th, 2020 by MS.

Mawer, Rudy. “6 Reasons Why High-Fructose Corn Syrup Is Bad for You.” Healthline, September 2019. Accessed on July 6th, 2020 by MS.

McGuire, Virginia. “Water-Level and Recoverable Water in Storage Changes, High Plains Aquifer, Predevelopment to 2015 and 2013–15: Scientific Investigations Report 2017–5040.” U.S. Geological Survey, 2017. Accessed on June 29th, 2020 by MS.

Moloney, Anastasia. “Factbox – From New Beans to Ancient Plants, Drought-Busting Crops Take Root.” Reuters, March 2017. Accessed on July 5th, 2020 by MS.

Nagaraja, T.G., and Lechtenberg, Kelly. “Acidosis in Feedlot Cattle.” Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice 23(2), July 2007. Accessed on July 6th, 2020 by MS.

“Ogallala Aquifer Initiative.” Natural Resources Conservation Service, n.d. Accessed on July 1st, 2020 by MS.

Perkin, Joshuah et al. “Groundwater Declines are Linked to Changes in Great Plains Stream Fish Assemblages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(28), July 2017. Accessed on July 1st, 2020 by MS.

Perritano, John. “Why the U.S. Cares So Much About Corn … Is Complicated.” HowStuffWorks, May 2017. Accessed on July 7th, 2020 by MS.

Runge, C. Ford. “The Case Against More Ethanol: It’s Simply Bad for Environment.” Yale School of the Environment, May 2016. Accessed on July 6th, 2020 by MS.

“Soybean Subsidies.” Environmental Working Group, 2019. Accessed on July 7th, 2020 by MS.

Steward, David et al. “Tapping Unsustainable Groundwater Stores For Agricultural Production in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas, Projections to 2110.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110(37), September 2013. Accessed on July 3rd, 2020 by MS.

“Where is Earth’s Water?” United States Geological Survey, n.d. Accessed on July 5th, 2020 by MS.

Wills, Kendra. “Where do all these soybeans go?” Michigan State University, October 2013. Accessed on July 7th, 2020 by MS.

Xie, Yanhua, Lark, Tyler, and GIbbs, Holly. “Irrigation Dynamics in the Ogallala Aquifer Between 2000 – 2017.” Gibbs Land Use and Environment Lab research brief, prepared June 2019. Accessed on July 1st, 2020 by MS.

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