he Ogallala aquifer turned the region into America's breadbasket. Now it, and a way of life, are being drained away.
"Whoa," yells Brownie Wilson, as the steel measuring tape I am feeding down the throat of an irrigation well on the Kansas prairie gets away from me and unspools rapidly into the depths below.
The well, wide enough to fall into, taps into the Ogallala aquifer, the immense underground freshwater basin that makes modern life possible in the dry states of Middle America. We have come to assess the aquifer's health. The weighted tip hits the water at 195 feet, a foot lower than a year ago. Dropping at this pace, it is nearing the end of its life. "Already this well does not have enough water left to irrigate for an entire summer," Wilson says.
It is three days into January, and we are alone on an endlessly flat expanse surrounded by 360 degrees of pale blue horizon, not a cloud, not a tree in sight. We are 4,000 feet above sea level, the reason this is called the High Plains. The incessant wind that blew topsoil from the Dust Bowl east to the Atlantic Ocean and onto the decks of ships during the 1930s is unseasonably calm, although Wilson's SUV is packed to the roof with gear for every possible weather calamity. On the field behind us, the spindly steel skeleton of a center-pivot irrigation sprinkler stretches out over brown earth like a giant sci-fi insect, dormant until spring.
Wilson, who is 47 with a lean, athletic build, is the water-data manager for the Kansas Geological Survey and part of a team that travels to western Kansas every winter to document how rapidly this aquifer is disappearing. The water beneath our feet has been accumulating in porous rock for about 15,000 years, before the end of the last ice age. For the past 60 years, the Ogallala has been pumped out faster than raindrops and snowmelt can seep back into the ground to replenish it, thanks largely to irrigation machinery like the one sleeping nearby. As a result, in parts of western Kansas, the aquifer has declined by more than 60 percent during that period. In some parts, it is already exhausted. The decline is steady now, dry years or wet. In 2015 rain was exceptionally heavy—50 to 100 percent above normal. Even so, water levels in the wells dropped again. Wilson's field report will put the best face on it, noting it was the slowest decline in five years.
Tagging along with Wilson, I am nearing the end of a 5,000-mile journey along the back roads of Ogallala territory, from South Dakota to Texas. My drive has taken me through some of the most productive farmland anywhere, home to at least a $20-billion-a-year industry that grows nearly one-fifth of the United States' wheat, corn, and beef cattle. It's also a place facing hard choices: Farmers can reduce consumption of water to further extend the life of the aquifer. Or they can continue on their path toward an end that is already in sight. Some don't like to frame the dilemma quite so starkly. But if they don't reduce pumping and the aquifer is drained, food markets will be profoundly affected around the world. In the coming decades this slow-speed crisis will unfold just as the world needs to increase food production by 60 percent, according to the United Nations, to feed more than nine billion people by mid-century.
The draining of North America's largest aquifer is playing out in similar ways across the world, as large groundwater basins in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East decline rapidly. Many of these aquifers, including the southern Ogallala, have little ability to recharge. Once their water is gone, they could take thousands of years to refill.
"The consequences will be huge," says Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead researcher on a study using satellites to record changes in the world's 37 largest aquifers. "We need to sustain groundwater to sustain food production, and we're not doing it. Is draining the Ogallala the smartest thing for food production in the U.S. and globally? This is the question we need to answer."
Wilson's route takes us 20 miles east of the Colorado border, where little towns are named for springs that long ago ran dry. People who live on the Ogallala, also known as the High Plains aquifer, often describe their water as thick or thin. This is shorthand for the aquifer itself. The Ogallala is a giant underground sponge made of a jumble of gravel, silt, sand, and clay. All the water is contained in crevices of the sponge. If the topsoil were rolled up like a carpet, Wilson says, the sponge beneath would look like an empty egg carton, with peaks and valleys of varying depths. In parts of western Nebraska, where the Ogallala is plentiful, the sponge extends as far as a thousand feet below the Earth's surface, meaning it is "thick" with water. In western Kansas, where we are, the aquifer undulates so much that "thin" water is often separated from thick water by only a few miles.
"It comes down to the luck of where your ancestors settled," Wilson says. "Or where you bought ground."
In midmorning we arrive at Mai Farms, a family enterprise that grows winter wheat for King Arthur Flour. The Mai family, Germans who emigrated from Russia, arrived in Greeley County just in time for the Dust Bowl but lacked the money to join the exodus to California. Their first farm dusted over and went bust. Their second farm, 20 miles away, survived and thrived. Bill Mai was born on it in 1936 and lives there today. That first well we measured was drilled in 1948 by Mai's father to carry his farm through cycles of drought. It was a marvel at the time, pumping a thousand gallons a minute, a rate that would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in half a day. Most telling, however, is not the well's water level: It's that Mai hasn't irrigated crops in 16 years. His neighbors are pulling out so much from their wells that his well drops a foot every year. "The neighbor right across the road here is growing corn," he says. Irrigated corn makes a lot of money but uses a lot of water. I ask Mai what he can do about this. Nothing, he tells me. A legal battle over water rights "is pointless," he says, especially since his water will run out anyway.
Mai spent 20 years making the shift back to dryland—or unirrigated—farming, in anticipation that his water would not last. He hands me a yellowed newspaper clipping from 1976, which profiled him as Kansas District 10 farmer of the year. "We don't have enough water out here anymore," he warned then. Mai wasn't the first to say it. Reports on the aquifer as a diminishing resource date back to the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt appointed a Great Plains committee to examine the cause of the Dust Bowl. Even then, the committee noted the contradiction in basing an expanding farm economy on a finite resource.
For the eight states that overlie the Ogallala, differences in the complex hydrology belowground—and in state law, politics, and farming tradition aboveground—conspire against sustaining the aquifer rather than mining it. The states monitor water usage, creating an important record for how much is pumped yearly. But cutting use is more difficult. Groundwater in Kansas and Nebraska, for example, belongs to the public. Water rights are granted to property owners by those states, which assign a certain amount that can be legally used. The problem is that in overstressed areas, what's available on paper often exceeds what's left in the ground.