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


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.”

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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

The Plains were once an area of natural grasslands… and grass is the natural diet of cows. By moving away from water-intensive crops like corn, and dramatically increasing the number of grazing livestock, experts such as Allan Savory believe we could not only stop rising trends toward desertification, but also reverse it.

Savory has developed a holistic management and planned grazing system that is now being implemented in select areas on five continents. In one area, increasing grazing cattle numbers by 400 percent, planning the grazing to mimic nature, and integrating the cattle with local elephants, buffalo and giraffes, has achieved remarkable results. I encourage you to view the remarkable video because seeing is believing.

Earlier this year, I attended the first Savory Institute Conference in Boulder, Colorado and had a chance to meet and talk with Allan. He is an inspiring and passionate man and has developed the strategy of holistic herd management. This could go a long way towards reversing the trend of increasing deserts across the world, which is radically limiting the soil’s capacity to absorb water and also take carbon from the air in the form of carbon dioxide and put it back into the soil.

In the US, where monocultures like corn and soy — much of which are genetically engineered — are rapidly overtaking native grasslands, a return to smaller-scale agriculture, complete with grazing herds, may be necessary for creating a more sustainable food system. Following Savory’s strategy, large herds could be moved across areas in planned grazing patterns, which would be beneficial for the environment, including water usage, the health of the animals, and subsequently the health of humans consuming those animals.

Are We Heading Into a Global Water Crisis?

It’s not only the Plains states that are in danger of running aquifers dry and depleting available water sources. The average American uses 150 gallons of water every day, yet those in developing countries can scarcely find five gallons. Of the seven billion people on Earth, 1.1 billion don’t have access to safe, clean drinking water.3

Traditionally, governments have delivered water to the public as a service. But over the last decade, with growing economic pressures and water shortages, water is turning into a commodity to be bought and sold. A few large multinational corporations have begun delivering water on a “for profit” basis and making big money, as a result. Water comprises most of the human body by weight and its regular consumption is necessary for survival, so whoever “owns” the water owns you. Could nations soon be fighting over clean water in the same way they’ve spent decades dueling over fossil fuel? Many scientists say this is exactly where we are heading, and soon – not in the distant future.

Most people don’t realize that only 10 percent of the world’s fresh water supply is used for homes. The remaining 80 percent is used by agriculture (70 percent) and industry (20 percent). So if change is going to occur to protect existing groundwater supplies, it’s got to involve agricultural practices.

Yet, on an even broader scale there is a petition proposing the addition of one more article to the 30-article Universal Declaration of Human Rights,4 and they need your signature. In 1948, the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were ratified by all the nations of the world. These 30 articles guaranteed a broad sweep of human rights across many human endeavors, from life to liberty to freedom of thought. Now, 60 years later, recognizing that over a billion people across the planet lack access to clean and potable water and that millions die each year as a result, it is time to add one more article to this historic declaration.

Article 31, the Right to Water, states:

“Everyone has the right to clean accessible water, adequate for the health and well-being of the individual and family, and no one shall be deprived of such access of quality of water due to individual economic circumstance.”

Please consider signing the petition for this important measure. If you’re interested in more information about water, we have an entire section of our website devoted to it, and you can also view the documentary Flow, below.

Total Video Length: 1:23:32