You’ve probably never heard of the Ogallala Aquifer, but you’ve eaten food thanks to it—and it is under severe duress

Illustration by Makalah Hardy

About three hundred feet below the asphalt of I-70, west of Colby, Kansas, lies a geological miracle: an immense cache of groundwater known as the Ogallala Aquifer. The Aquifer, one of the world’s largest, was created ten million years ago as streams flowed eastward from the Rocky Mountains. 

The Ogallala Aquifer is the single most important source of water in the High Plains, stretching across parts of eight states. It supplies 2.3 million people with eighty-two percent of their drinking water. Today, however, it is disappearing at an alarming rate. Once the size of Lake Huron, the aquifer has been drained for years to irrigate the semi-arid land in western Kansas, Nebraska and the Texas panhandle. One-sixth of the world’s grain is produced with water from the aquifer.  

“On the high plains of Kansas, the demand for water far outpaces the sustainable and renewable practices now in place,” says Mark Rude, who oversees the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District based in Garden City.

As it stands, thirsty crops such as corn are depleting that aquifer at rates that rain and snowmelt cannot possibly offset. As a result of fourteen million acres being irrigated annually, aquifer levels have dropped precipitously. In northwest Texas, the Ogallala has nearly vanished. Replacing that water naturally would take six thousand years. A future in which the area receives less rainfall could also affect a possible replenishing.  

Without water from the aquifer, all High Plains agriculture and its related businesses would become entirely unsustainable—that’s $20 billion worth of food and related products, endangering the country’s economic stability and the world’s food supply.

Going dry

Although irrigation is still the norm for farmers and ranchers in the region, some Kansas farmers have switched to “dryland” methods. The crops they grow, including wheat and grain sorghum, do not require irrigation. It’s not as lucrative as planting corn, but the demands on the aquifer are greatly reduced. Dryland farming techniques include leaving stubble on the ground after harvesting instead of plowing fields.  This stubble reduces soil erosion, decreases evaporation and catches more blowing snow than bare ground does.

New rules and crops

Because the depletion of the aquifer is an issue that will impact the entire country, the Department of Agriculture is studying the problem with a project it calls the Ogallala Initiative. The aim is to make the agricultural industry more sustainable by improving irrigation techniques and animal feedlot management. Conserving the aquifer has also encouraged the creation of new agricultural practices including Kansas’ first “local enhanced management area,” where there are restrictions on irrigation use. Researchers are also working to develop drought-tolerant corn.  

Bigger threats

But even as those developments look to reduce water usage, the use of biofuels and the profits from growing corn might make the problem worse. There are plans to double the number of ethanol production facilities on the High Plains, which could drain 120 billion gallons from the aquifer every year.

Moonshot from Missouri?

However, Rude sees a glimmer of hope: the idea of creating a network of pipelines or open ditches that would transport floodwaters from the Mississippi River Basin to the aquifer. Those channels could even move the water across the Rocky Mountains to augment the Colorado River, where water levels are dangerously low. “Negative water value would become positive,” Rude says. It’s a serious proposal: The Senate’s Energy Committee briefly discussed this idea on November 2.

Without such an extraordinary intervention, the Ogallala Aquifer will vanish.  Without water to grow corn and ranch cattle, the High Plains will become even more depopulated, reverting to vast grasslands where bison graze and ecotourists visit—a place where immense vistas of sky and earth remain undisturbed by human folly.

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