Acute scarcity drives the search for water underground. But the West’s major aquifers are in trouble, too.
Matt Black / Magnum
December 26, 2021, 7 AM ET
About the author: Lucas Bessire is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and author of Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains.
GARDEN CITY, Kan.—A century after the Dust Bowl, another environmental catastrophe is coming to the High Plains of western Kansas. The signs are subtle but unequivocal: dry riverbeds, fields of sand, the sound of irrigation motors straining to pump from dwindling aquifers.
“We face a fundamental choice,” Connie Owen, the director of the Kansas Water Office, said to a group of state legislators, lobbyists, groundwater managers, and experts who assembled here last summer to debate the future of the region’s groundwater, now in steep decline due to overuse by industrial agriculture. “What hangs in the balance is even more than the loss of livelihoods, communities, or an entire region’s economy—it is the character of who we want to be as a people.”
Similar conversations are under way across the American West, as an unprecedented water crisis comes into sharp focus. It is no secret that one of the worst droughts in 1,000 years is intensifying heat waves and megafires; that historic drops in surface-water levels coincide with historic spikes in demand as the region grows hotter, drier, and more populated; or that conflicts are escalating over who gets to use how much of what remains. Acute scarcity drives the search for water underground. But the West’s major aquifers are in trouble, too.
Aquifers are essential resources for human survival. Groundwater provides the only source of drinking water for one-third of the world’s people and supports nearly half of the planet’s irrigated agriculture. Yet far more groundwater is being pumped out than can be naturally replenished. Most dry-area aquifers are vanishing. These include the two primary groundwater systems in the western United States: California’s Central Valley aquifer and the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies America’s heartlands from South Dakota to Texas. If we lose these aquifers, we lose nearly 20 percent of the world’s grain crop, more than 40 percent of our nation’s beef production, and about 40 percent of the vegetables, nuts, and fruits consumed in the United States.
Aquifers are not underground lakes or oceans, but complex mosaics of sediment, fluid, and movement. Each behaves as if it has a unique personality. Shallow aquifers tend to be volatile, reacting quickly to surface activities such as construction, farming and pollution. Deep aquifers are usually older and self-contained; they recharge slowly or not at all. Aquifers do not die all at once. Patchy even when full, they run out piecemeal, too.
Some consequences of aquifer loss are already visible in western Kansas, where I grew up and where my family has farmed for generations. Eight decades of intensive pumping caused the water table to plummet. Nearly all springs and streams have gone dry. Most wells have dwindled, and many have been emptied altogether. Now the same place that nurtured generations of my family has one of the world’s highest rates of aquifer decline.
Today, the same deep-well irrigation that gave farmers like my great-grandfather a second chance after the Dust Bowl, in the 1930s, is exhausting the portion of the aquifer that remains. This poses a threat to the existence of many Plains communities, which have already been hit hard by the corporate takeover of farmland, declining populations, rising deaths from suicide and substance abuse, and racial and economic inequities. The profits of industrial agriculture flow from groundwater; so do our communities’ tax bases, land values, and budgets for hospitals, schools, and social services.
Many people on the Plains would like to save the aquifers and share some of this groundwater with future generations. But stopping depletion is not as straightforward as it may seem. The deeper reasons for aquifer loss are hard to pin down, often eluding explanation in the myths and slogans of today’s partisan divides. That is, depletion condenses many of America’s problems into a single drama.
One myth about aquifer decline is that conservative rural farmers are solely to blame for this self-destructive loss. This is not true. Instead, farmers’ choices to continue pumping groundwater reflect a wider system of finance, profiteering, and resource consumption.
Many independent Plains farmers scrape by, break even, or lose money to grow irrigated crops. Depending on yearly market fluctuations, the earnings from corn, alfalfa, and wheat may not cover the costs of production. These losses are papered over by federal farm subsidies, crop insurance programs, and bank loans, aid that compels farmers to double down on wasteful practices. To make up losses, some farmers cultivate more acres. This does not always improve their income, but it does trap farmers in an irrational cycle of debt and waste, glut commodity markets, and drain the aquifers.
Corporate profiteering is a major driver of depletion. Big industries, their shell companies, and distant investors have displaced many family farms here over the past three decades. Absentee owners control about 60 percent of the land around my family’s farm. Some of the nation’s largest meatpacking plants, mega-dairies, and ethanol factories have moved in. They pay nothing for the groundwater they use other than the cost of pumping it. Their profits are exported to shareholders and managers far away. When one area goes dry, such businesses just move to another, while local residents are left to face the growing bills.
Running Out – In Search Of Water On The High PlainsLucas Bessire, Princeton University Press
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Groundwater governance can also be sullied by corporate influence and exclusionary rules. The state of Kansas set up “groundwater management districts” to allow communities in regions of heavy water use to decide their own futures. In principle, it was a good idea. In practice, it caused the opposite result. Today, only those who own at least 40 acres of land or substantial water rights can vote on aquifer policy, which means the people allowed to decide the fate of the Ogallala Aquifer include the same producers and corporations that reap the most short-term benefits from draining it. Yet the majority of rural Kansans are excluded from the processes that will determine the long-term futures of their families and communities. The burdens fall most heavily on those already struggling to make ends meet.
Together, these dynamics form one of the great groundwater swindles of our time. Rural people and lands are being exploited and then blamed for the conditions of their own marginality. Corporations reap the reward and spread distrust and division to do so. Failures of policy, democracy, and perception turn into an environmental calamity. Similar dramas of groundwater loss are spreading around the world. Most of the planet’s arid-region aquifers are in decline. As Earth warms and droughts intensify, these pressures will only increase.
When groundwater runs out, myths of growth and profit collapse into dust. Drying aquifers can result in starvation, migration, and violence. Or they can prompt us to rethink our relationship to one another and to the irreplaceable natural resources that we share. Aquifers belong to everyone, and especially to future generations.
Soon, the Kansas House Water Committee is expected to release its proposal for revising groundwater policy. It is a unique opportunity to find a better way ahead. If the measure fails, pressure will increase on state authorities to impose restrictions. But challenges remain, including the preference of powerful agribusiness interests to continue pumping what water is left.
Reasons to hope might be found in Kansas, too. Citizens are mobilizing for inclusion into conservation districts. Environmental groups are filing lawsuits to protect wetlands drained by irrigation. In 2016, farmers in northwestern Kansas worked with their management district and voluntarily agreed to cut extraction; a study published the next year showed that they were able to make more money by pumping less water. That news may ease resistance to change. Recognizing the need to slow aquifer loss, more farmers are speaking out and calling for state officials to impose transparent, fair limits.
Groundwater loss is a generational test of our ability to come together around shared problems. The solution is obvious: We cannot keep taking more water out of aquifers than can be naturally replaced. Aquifer use must be sustainable.
Meeting that goal will require better policy, public action, personal responsibility, and political leadership. Authorities should establish benchmarks for reductions in groundwater use and be prepared to impose mandatory restrictions if those are not met. Benchmarks should be tailored to local conditions and coordinated across regions. At the same time, the long-term economic and social value of groundwater should be correctly calculated. Everyone—including small farmers, growing cities, and giant agribusinesses—should be held to the same standards of sustainability and pay for what they use. Profit alone cannot justify eradication. We need guidelines to make sure that sustainably managed groundwater is distributed in transparent, effective, and equitable ways. Federal farm subsidies, crop insurance, and conservation programs should be rebuilt with sustainable agriculture as the goal. Such programs should allow farmers to save groundwater while making ends meet. Additional programs should help support rural people and communities during their transition toward a sustainable relationship with their aquifers.
These steps may help prevent an environmental calamity in the American West. And they may help us begin to value aquifers for what they are: precious national treasures that deserve our protection, stewardship, and care.
Lucas Bessire is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and author of Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains.