Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mining the Ogallala

We had experienced a lot of surface water when we visited the wildlife refuges in the middle of Kansas. Farther west, we are now in an entirely different water basin, a portion of the vast Ogallala Aquifer that extends from Nebraska down to Texas. This enormous source of "fossil" groundwater allows the region to grow corn and grain and raise most of the nation's cattle on plains that could not be nearly as productive until the invention of efficient groundwater pumps and center-pivot irrigation sprinklers.

The Ogallala groundwater is being mined.
We learned about that situation by visiting the Kansas Groundwater Management District #3 in Garden City, (37°56', 100°54'). Director Mark Rude explained that there is less than an inch of recharge into the aquifer each year, but the withdrawal is happening, in places, hundreds of times faster than that recharge rate. Pumps are today working at reduced capacities. When the water runs out, the economy and environment of this vast region will have to change.
Meanwhile, in the attempt to slow, if not control the situation, each water user in the District is limited to a set allotment, enforced by well-monitoring meters and sensors. Some farmers, inevitably, play games with the District staff, reversing meters in the pipes so they run backward, for example.
The gloomy news is that the situation has not been stabilized, because the limits on pumping are not adequate. "Economists are winning; not hydrologists," Mark told us. Our investigation also led us to Garden City Mayor Nancy Harness and her husband Donald, and Regional Fish and Wildlife Supervisor Mark Sexson. The consensus was that, east of the 100th meridian, a plan for sustainability has a chance to work, but west of Dodge City, the "plan" is for depletion.
It was a hard thing to hear.
This story extends across the region on the surface, where up to 50,000 ephemeral playa lakes are the most important wetland habitat for birds in the region, while serving as a critical source of recharge for the aquifer.
The story also extends up the Arkansas River into neighboring Colorado. We noted the changing appearance of the Arkansas (pronounced Ar-Kansas in these parts), wet with emergent groundwater in Great Bend, bone-dry in Garden City, perking up near Bents Old Fort, and looking healthy in the mountain watershed in Colorado. But relations between the "upstream" and "downstream" user states are strained.
Before we left Garden City, Mark Sexson showed us an encouraging project he is conducting to clean the water in duck ponds at the city zoo using man-made wetlands. He hopes to extend that effort to clean up feedlot wastewater in the region.

The parallels between the mining dilemmas of the Ogallala and mountain-top coal mining are striking: in both cases, a current economic choice will leave future generations with enormous problems and environmental loss. The details of both stories will become important parts of our book.

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