Non-Renewable Water a Threat to American Farmers
In the United States, the situation in the High Plains provides a precautionary lesson about the need to more effectively manage water aquifers. The scenario below is not unique to the United States, and is a reminder that water must be managed effectively to meet the needs of the 21st Century.
The High Plains consist of a 174,000 square mile section of the Great Plains, with elevations ranging from 1,100 feet to more than 7,800 feet above sea level. This expansive area covers parts of seven states – Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The economies in all of these states are heavily dependent on agriculture.
Irrigation began in the 30s-40s in the High Plains and increased rapidly until 1980, to reach 12.7 million acres in 2002. The irrigated land in the High Plains actually represents 27 percent of all irrigated land in the United States, making it the largest irrigation-sustained cropland in the world. The area relies on the High Plains Aquifer for 30 percent of its groundwater, which supports the area’s farms and also supplies water for the homes and businesses of nearly 2 million people. This aquifer is critically important to the region.
However, as with nearly all aquifers, water from the High Plains Aquifer is not renewable on a geological short-term perspective. In some areas the recharge rate is as low as 0.61 millimeters per year (recharge is the process by which surface water enters the subsurface and becomes groundwater. In some cases, the High Plains Aquifer has experienced ground water level declines of over 150 feet. This fact has led some to speculate that at current recharge and withdrawal rates, the aquifer could be completely dry by 2035 – just over 20 years from now.
If the aquifer were to go dry it would mean the loss of a critical water supply for an area covering seven states, causing severe impacts on agriculture nationwide.