More than 1 million years ago, geologic actions created what is now known as the Ogallala aquifer, also known as the High Plains aquifer. Spanning 174,000 miles and eight states — Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming — the reservoir supports the water needs of nearly one-fifth of wheat, corn, cotton and cattle production in the U.S.,1 but it’s quickly becoming depleted.
The aquifer, which underlies about 112 million acres,2 is being tapped by farmers at rates that can’t be naturally sustained. The water-intensive needs of irrigated crops and concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) livestock are much greater than the replenishment offered by rain and snow.
The result is that 89 trillion gallons of water were drained from the Ogallala from 1900 to 2008, and in some areas, like Kansas, “‘Day Zero’ — the day wells run dry — has arrived for about 30% of the aquifer,” according to a report in The Conversation,3 and researchers have predicted that, if current trends continue, another 39% will be depleted over the next 50 years.4
Crop production worth an estimated $35 billion depends on water from the Ogallala, but it’s all at risk if the aquifer runs dry. Already, the water level has been dropping by an average of 6 feet per year, while the natural recharge rate is 1 inch or less.5 It’s estimated that, once drained, it will be 6,000 years before the Ogallala will naturally refill.6
What’s more, investigations by Matthew Sanderson, a professor of sociology and geography and geospatial sciences at Kansas State University, and colleagues suggest the aquifer isn’t becoming depleted due to occasional droughts, but because misguided agricultural policies encourage farmers to do it.
“Forty years is long enough to learn that the Ogallala aquifer’s decline is not driven by weather or by individual farmers’ preferences,” they write in The Conversation. “Depletion is a structural problem embedded in agricultural policies. Groundwater depletion is a policy choice made by federal, state and local officials.”7
Farm Policies Encourage Excessive Water Usage
Farm subsidies, which once began as a safety net focused on food security, are now contributing to environmental destruction that could lead to food scarcity via the draining of aquifers.
In 2020, farm incomes were up 5.7% compared to 2019, but that’s only because of government payments to farmers. “Corn prices were too low to cover the cost of growing it this year, with federal subsidies making up the difference,” the report notes, pointing out that federal subsidies increased by 65% in 2020, bringing them up to $37.2 billion.8
There are many problems with farm subsidies. One such program, the Market Facilitation Program (MFP), is available to producers of certain commodities, including wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans, with an average adjusted gross income of less than $900,000.9
According to the Environmental Working Group, 54% of MFP payments from 2018 through April 2019 went to the top one-tenth of recipients. And while there are supposed to be caps of $125,000 on MFP payments, rules allow relatives to also receive farm payments, even if they’re not meaningfully involved in farming.10 At a more foundational level, Sanderson and colleagues wrote:11
“Our research finds that subsidies put farmers on a treadmill, working harder to produce more while draining the resource that supports their livelihood. Government payments create a vicious cycle of overproduction that intensifies water use. Subsidies encourage farmers to expand and buy expensive equipment to irrigate larger areas.”
Low market prices for crops make is nearly impossible for farmers to be profitable, leading many to expand their acreage. The increase in crops can flood the market, causing crop prices to drop further, along with farm incomes. Subsidies bail them out, and the cycle continues.
But research by Sanderson, published in 2019, revealed that expanding into ever-greater irrigated acreage does not lead to increases in income for farmers or benefits to residents’ well-being.12 Conservation efforts, meanwhile, often target individual farmers, encouraging reductions in water usage and more efficient irrigation. But such efforts haven’t been enough to stop the aquifer’s decline.
Farm Subsidies Encourage Water-Intensive Crops
Since the 1970s, farm policies have favored the consolidation and industrialization of agriculture and the food supply. Federal farm subsidies, tax credits, crop insurance, price supports and disaster payments favor industrial agriculture and the streamlined production of cheap food.
The top commodities receiving subsidies, including corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton,13 as of 2016 are also among the most water-intensive crops. It takes 2,700 liters of water to grow enough cotton to make one T-shirt (and this doesn’t account for the water used for dyeing and finishing).14
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 80% of U.S. consumptive water (and more than 90% in many Western states) is used for agricultural purposes.15 In an article examining water scarcity and food security in the U.S., Jenny Kehl of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, notes that much of it is flowing to water-intensive crops being grown in regions with extreme levels of water stress, a clearly unsustainable combination:16
“Water scarcity and food security are inextricably linked with environmental sustainability … corn, wheat, soybeans and cottons have been the dominant crops in the USA for a long time. This is not surprising as the USA is the largest producer and exporter of these three grains in the world, and a large domestic consumer of the cotton.
What is surprising, however, is that this cannot persist economically or environmentally if the USA continues to grow its most water-intensive crops in its most water-stressed regions; it is, by definition, not sustainable.”
With drought and hot conditions occurring regularly in the Plains, farm subsidies that encourage continued planting of water-intensive monocrops could easily lead to another Dust Bowl. Further, in a 2017 report by EWG, it’s explained that a provision in the Federal Crop Insurance Program could be paving the way for an environmental catastrophe similar to the Dust Bowl:17
“[A] provision in the Federal Crop Insurance Program, snuck into the 2014 Farm Bill, encourages farmers to plant the same crops and use the same methods, year after year, repeating the mistakes that led to the Dust Bowl.
The program guarantees farmers’ earnings from their crops won’t fall below a percentage of their usual income. The percentage is set based on a multi-year average of a farmer’s actual crop yields, and averaging good and bad years grounds the program in reality.
But under the new provision, called Actual Production History Yield Exclusion, the government pretends bad years didn’t happen. In some cases, more than 15 bad years can be thrown out when calculating the average yield, resulting in artificially inflated insurance payouts, year after year. The distortion is worst in the very same counties that were hardest hit by the Dust Bowl and are now suffering from severe drought.”
Three Policy Changes to Curb the Drainage
Sanderson and colleagues argued that policy changes will be necessary to stop pressuring farmers to expand production which leads to overconsumption of water and excessive production of monocrops. They suggested targeting the following three initiatives as follows:18
1. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program — This program pays farmers to leave environmentally sensitive farmland fallow for at least 10 years. “With new provisions, the program could reduce water use by prohibiting expansion of irrigated acreage, permanently retiring marginal lands and linking subsidies to production of less water-intensive crops.”
2. Federal Farm Credit Rates — Favorable federal farm credit rates encourage farmers to go into debt to purchase irrigation equipment, then farm more land to pay off that debt. “Offering lower rates for equipment that reduces water use and withholding loans for standard, wasteful equipment could nudge farmers toward conservation.”
3. Amending Tax Code — This may be the most powerful tool of all, they suggested, as farmers receive deductions for declining groundwater levels and can write off depreciation on irrigation equipment. “Replacing these perks with a tax credit for stabilizing groundwater and substituting a depreciation schedule favoring more efficient irrigation equipment could provide strong incentives to conserve water.”
Sanderson’s research has shown that most farmers want to conserve groundwater rather than deplete it, in large part to benefit future generations in the community. Yet, most farmers feel they have little personal power to conserve groundwater on their farms, and few of them enrolled in voluntary initiatives aimed at conservation.19 Instead, “They will need help from policymakers to do it.”20
Lawsuits Over Water Rights, Land Sinking in California
Only about 3% of the water on Earth is fresh water,21 which is dependent on rain for replenishment. As the fresh water stored in aquifers is being increasingly depleted, at a rate that cannot be naturally restored,22 the stakes are growing higher for those being faced with water scarcity.
In southwestern Kansas, where many wells are already dry, the state uses a “first-in-tie, first-in-right” water rights system, which means those who have owned wells the longest get first dibs on water. In 2012, a farmer filed a lawsuit alleging that his neighbor’s pumping was impairing his own water supply.
The farmer who filed the suit also held “senior” water rights over the neighbor. In 2017, a judge ruled in the filing farmer’s favor, calling for two wells to be shut down in order to protect the water rights of the plaintiff. Ultimately, however, the issue is one of too much demand for water and too little supply in return, and one that’s only slated to get worse is something doesn’t change.23
Meanwhile in California, expanding agriculture as well as urban growth are leading to increased pumping of groundwater that, in turn, is causing land to sink. Land subsidence, or the sinking of the Earth’s surface, has since become a serious problem in areas of California.24 In the San Joaquin Valley, an agricultural mecca, groundwater pumping has caused land to sink by as much as 28 feet in some areas, and by as much as 2 feet a year in particularly troubled areas.25
The resulting sinking is uneven, which means drops upstream or downstream can affect surface water canals that carry snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada to area farmers, essentially crippling the delivery of surface water that’s available.26 The U.S. Geological Survey California Water Science Center explained:27
“Reduced surface-water availability during 1976-77, 1986-92, 2007-09, and 2012-2015 caused groundwater-pumping increases in the San Joaquin Valley, declines in water-levels to near or beyond historic lows, and renewed aquifer compaction.
The resulting land subsidence has reduced the freeboard and flow capacity of the Delta-Mendota Canal — as well as the California Aqueduct and other canals that transport floodwater and deliver irrigation water — requiring expensive repairs.”
Restoring Soil, Grasslands Essential for Water Conservation
In order to save underground aquifers from what appears to be inevitable depletion, farmers must change their practices so their crops persevere with less groundwater. Some farmers have not only been succeeding at this, but have turned portions of the Ogallala underlying their property into a “rechargeable” resource that has risen in recent years instead of declining.28
Civil Eats described Chris Grotegut’s success at his farm in the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle, which is supported by the Ogallala:29
“According to data provided by the High Plains Water District, the water levels in all of the nine monitored wells on Grotegut’s land have been steadily rising. Between 2014 and 2019, one well, located on the southeast part of his property, even rose as much as 12.55 feet. On average, Grotegut’s wells rose by 6.97 feet during this period, slightly over 1 foot per year.”
Grotegut’s successes can be attributed to his adoption of permaculture, which epitomizes sustainability by harnessing mutually beneficial relationships to create synergistic, self-supporting ecosystems. Its principles incorporate the best of organic, biodynamic and regenerative agriculture.
“To this end, he adopted a permaculture practice known as pasture cropping or intermixing crops with grassland pasture. This method helps him keep more roots in the ground, building the health of the soil. And as the soil grows richer in organic matter, it can also hold more water,” Civil Eats reported.30 About 7,600 acres on Grotegut’s farm have been converted to perennial grassland.
Other Texas farmers are also adopting no-till practices aimed at building soil health. With more organic matter in soil, it can hold more water naturally. Such practices look beyond the immediate future to rebuilding an agricultural system that’s truly sustainable. “We’re trying to get away from a 10-year business plan to move to a 100- or 1,000-year business plan,” Grotegut told Civil Eats. “People are going to need to eat. [The Ogallala] should be able to work for a very long timeline.”31