Farmed Out: Overpumping Threatens to Deplete U.S. High Plains Groundwater

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September 17, 2013 | 37,225 views

Story at-a-glance

  • In the next 50 years, research suggests 70 percent of the High Plains Aquifer System in the Midwestern US may be depleted
  • Water-intensive cattle and corn crops account for the majority of water usage in the US, and the High Plains Aquifer supplies 30 percent of US irrigated groundwater
  • Once the aquifer is depleted, it would take an average of 500 to 1,300 years to completely refill; farmers would need to reduce their pumping of the aquifer by 80 percent for it to be replenished naturally by rainfall
  • The adoption of more sustainable agricultural practices, including a return to grass-fed cattle, will be necessary to protect water supplies for future generations

By Dr. Mercola

In the US Midwest, corn and cattle are kings, but both require large amounts of water to be sustained. Not only is corn a water-intensive crop, but cattle raised on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are fed mostly corn.

This double blow to water supplies in the region has led to the rapid depletion of one of the most important water sources to Midwestern farmers – the High Plains Aquifer System.

It is this extensive underground aquifer that allowed farmers to grow crops in what was previously known as ‘the Great American Desert.’ It was also in this area where the rush to clear out the area’s natural grasslands and replace them with plowed soil lead to one of the greatest man-made ecological disasters of all time.

Following a decades-long drought in the 1930s, farmers began to use groundwater pumping and sprinkler irrigation to grow corn and wheat in what is now more commonly known as the US ‘dust bowl,’ using the vast aquifer freely.

Now, however, the draw has proved to be too intense and this once seemingly inexhaustible source of groundwater is quickly being depleted.

70% of the Water Could Be Gone in the Next 50 Years

Farmers in the region who hope to pass their farms on to the next generation had better do some quick thinking, because if the water drain continues new research suggests that nearly 70 percent of the aquifer could be depleted in the next 50 years.1

According to the study, by 1960 farmers had already used up 3 percent of the aquifer’s water and by 2010 that rose to 30 percent. By 2060, it’s estimated that another 39 percent of the water will be gone… and this is even taking anticipated irrigation technology improvements into account.

While it’s thought that farmers might be able to pump less water in the coming decades due to newer irrigation technology, corn crops and cattle CAFOs are expected to increase, which will likely negate any of the potential water savings.

The researchers stated:

Significant declines in the region's pumping rates will occur over the next 15-20 y given current trends, yet irrigated agricultural production might increase through 2040 because of projected increases in water use efficiencies in corn production.

Water use reductions of 20% today would cut agricultural production to the levels of 15-20 y ago, the time of peak agricultural production would extend to the 2070s, and production beyond 2070 would significantly exceed that projected without reduced pumping.”

It Could Take 1,300 Years to Refill This Aquifer

Tapping this groundwater source for agricultural production is clearly not a sustainable option at today’s usage rates. Cattle and corn crops account for the majority of water usage in the US, and the High Plains Aquifer supplies 30 percent of US irrigated groundwater.

It is, in fact, because of this ‘guaranteed’ water supply that Kansas is able to claim some of the highest market value for agriculture in the US. Yet, once the aquifer is depleted, it will be gone for the foreseeable future, as it’s estimated it would take an average of 500 to 1,300 years to completely refill.

The script hasn’t been set in stone yet, however, as if farmers reduce their pumping of the aquifer by about 80 percent, it would be able to be replenished naturally via rainfall.

But in the Dust Bowl, growing two of the most water-intensive crops that exist, this is unlikely to happen unless major agricultural reform takes place. Cornell University professor of crop and soil sciences Harold Mathijs van Es told Scientific American:2

“We need to think about what’s being grown here and how we’re growing it. This is the Dust Bowl we’re talking about.”

Are We Farming Our Way to Environmental Disaster?

Many farmers in the Plains states rely on irrigation from the High Plains Aquifer to water their crops in times of drought, but what will happen if this water reserve runs out? We could once again be brewing a dust storm of epic proportions, and this is only one of the potential scenarios…

There are many other warning signs that the poor farming practices being used today could backfire in the form of major environmental disasters as well.

Soil is actually depleting 13% faster than it can be replaced, and we’ve lost 75% of the world's crop varieties in just the last 100 years. Over a billion people in the world have no access to safe drinking water, while 80% of the world’s fresh water supply is used for agriculture. This situation is simply not sustainable for much longer. Yet, as the study’s researchers said, very poignantly and succinctly:

Society has an opportunity now to make changes with tremendous implications for future sustainability and livability.”

A Return to Grass-Fed Cattle May Dramatically Lessen Water Demands

Total Video Length: 1:23:32

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences August 26, 2013
  • 2 Scientific American August 27, 2013
  • 3 Charity Water
  • 4 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights