Changing Planet

Texas Water District Acts to Slow Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer

Aerial view of center-pivot irrigation in the High Plains, with its distinctive circular shape. Photo by John Charlton, Kansas Geological Survey.

A group of farmers in northwest Texas began 2012 under circumstances their forbearers could scarcely imagine: they faced a limit on the amount of groundwater they could pump from their own wells on their own property.

The new rule issued by the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, based in Lubbock, declares that water pumped in excess of the “allowable production rate” is illegal.

In Texas, a bastion of the free-market Tea Party, such a rule is hard to fathom.  Most of the state abides by the “rule of capture,” which basically allows farmers to pump as much water as they want from beneath their own land.  But irrigators in northwest Texas rely on the Ogallala aquifer, an underground water reserve that is all-too-rapidly disappearing.  If the region is to have any future at all, water users must find a way to curb the pumping.

The Ogallala is one of the nation’s largest and most productive underground water sources.   It makes up more than three-quarters of the High Plains aquifer, which spans 175,000 square miles and underlies parts of eight U.S. states — Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.  Water drawn from it irrigates 15.4 million acres of cropland, 27 percent of the nation’s total irrigated area.

Initially farmers settling in the High Plains relied on windmills to help them lift groundwater from beneath the surface.  But in the 1940s and 1950s, with the introduction of powerful pumps, large sprinkler systems and abundant supplies of natural gas and electricity, irrigation in the High Plains took off.  Since 1949, the area under irrigation has risen more than five-fold.  Groundwater withdrawals rose in tandem, resulting in a large-scale and ongoing depletion of this critical water reserve.

According to a new study just released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), since 1940, the total volume of water in storage in the High Plains aquifer declined by some 266 million acre-feet – a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie.  (An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to fill an acre of land a foot high. One acre-foot equals 325,850 gallons.)

Even more worrisome, the draining of the High Plains water account has picked up speed.  The average annual depletion rate between 2000 and 2007 was more than twice that during the previous fifty years. The depletion is most severe in the southern portion of the aquifer, especially in Texas, where the water table beneath sizeable areas has dropped 100-150 feet; in smaller pockets, it has dropped more than 150 feet.

Unfortunately, that water is not coming back any time soon.  The Ogallala filled slowly during the Ice Age tens of thousands of years ago.  The southern portions get very little recharge today.

“[I]n less than 100 years we are seriously depleting what took Nature more than 10,000 years to fill,” said USGS director Marcia McNutt.

The Texas irrigation district’s new pumping rule is just one step in the process of adapting to the very real threat of running out of water.  The rule is designed to help meet the District’s forward-looking “50/50 Management Goal”: to ensure that in 50 years at least 50 percent of its Ogallala groundwater remains.

It won’t be an easy goal to meet.  The new USGS study found that 29 percent of the Texas’ portion of the Ogallala has already been depleted.

But the Texas irrigators have already begun adapting. They have shifted from old-style flood irrigation to more efficient sprinklers.  The High Plains Water District maintains that irrigation efficiency rose from 50 percent in the mid-seventies to 75 percent by 1990.  Since then, more farmers have adopted low-pressure drop-line sprinklers that deliver water closer to the crops instead of spraying it high in the air.  When combined with field methods that conserve water in the soil, these precision sprinklers can achieve efficiencies of 95 percent.  Some cotton farmers that have installed sub-surface drip systems, which deliver water at low volumes directly to the crops’ roots, have achieved efficiencies approaching 100 percent.

All of this, and more, will be needed to sustain agriculture in the face of the dwindling Ogallala – especially as energy costs rise and water tables fall.

The recent drought in Texas is a reminder, too, that hotter, drier times likely lie ahead for the Lone Star state. The less crops get watered naturally by rain, the more they need irrigation to make it to harvest.

For irrigators in the High Plains Water District, the pumping cap for 2012 and 2013 is set at 1.75 acre-feet per acre per year.  It drops to 1.5 acre-feet for 2014 and 2015, and then to 1.25 acre-feet per acre for 2016 and subsequent years.

As the pumping limits get more stringent, irrigators will need to choose crops and irrigation methods that maximize water productivity – that is, value per drop. And as farmers have more incentive to boost their water productivity, engineers, agronomists and entrepreneurs will develop irrigation systems that help them do this.

It is the way of our water-limited future.  Let the adaptation begin.

 

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • Hydrologist in NM

    The sentence on the rule of capture does not do justice to its downside. This doctrine lets a pumper withdraw more than just the groundwater beneath her own land. Groundwater that naturally flows under a neighbor’s property (or further away) may also be drawn under the pumper’s property and captured by her well, regardless of the consequence to the neighbor (e.g. the water table decline could kill an orchard or dry up the neighbor’s well and there may be no legal relief). That is why all over Texas people are reaching more practical water sharing agreements and counties/regions are implementing long-term management plans.

  • jeff elliott

    Are the fracking sites being held to the same standards?

  • Julie

    My father was one of the top men in the state for water planning until his death in 2006. On the day he died, he was interviewed by a Houston TV station. He claimed that we would have difficulty meeting Houston’s water needs by 2020. That was before the devastating drought. We need to learn to conserve this precious resource. Get rid of our St. Augustine grass yards, collect rain water, use low flow plumbing fixtures. We need to learn to be water smart.

  • Cameron Salisbury

    I drive across I-70 between Kansas City and Denver. I am horrified by the massive sink holes near the highway in Kansas, and can only wonder how long before travel along I-70 is lost because the land below has subsided with the depletion of the acquifer..

  • Acequia Commissioner in New Mexico

    The politics of water use may become a dominant issue in the near future. Sounds like TX has accomplished admirable advances in water management, but still faces legislative hell updating laws to serve it’s citizens, which, in this regard, share the mutual fate of adjacent states. A real good example of ‘We’re all in this together.’

  • Andrea Renee Hall

    Texas like California is a state of total consumption both in energy and water. There’s been so many damn fires in this state, it is a wonder that there is any water at all. These states need to have major fines on their over-consumption of resourses. They both borrow water and land rights that are too ecessive and until these appetities aren’t curved drastically, how in the hell is any other state going to be mindfull, respectful, and lawful in thier uses of natural resourses. Fossil fuel use is a resourse by the way big ass Texas. Maybe exclusing them from the USA may help the over all economy… Ever think in those terms?

  • Andyvon

    Reduced supplies of fresh water is a problem that’s becoming common to many peoples and societies around the world. Surely, the only long term answer is to desalinate seawater. OK, desalination is expensive at the moment – but not as expensive in the long term issues that will result from reduced supplies of natural fresh water.

    There really must be a concerted effort by the world’s hydrologists and govenments to develop a cheap and efficient method of desalination. In company with desalination is the development of an infrastructure to transport water to all areas that need it.

  • BEATRIZVILLA DE ALVAREZ

    Earth is claiming for all the damage men (in conjuntion)has done, we rarely think how simple changes like stop buying bottled water, recicling,and even better return organic residues to soil ,in a simple year could make a BIG difference. salute from THE BIG STATE OF TEXAS Betty

  • […] it irrigates 15.4 million acres of cropland, 27 percent of the nation’s total irrigated area. http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/02/07/texas-water-district-acts-to-slow-depletion-of-th… For the study- […]

  • Memy

    Why is one of the most water wasteful practices not being addressed? The cattle industry, including both beef and dairy, is hugely water intensive. Strongly encouranging people to eat less ( or no) meat can save huge amounts of water. Don’t take my word for it. Look it up. Just don’t ignore the impact on the water table of this industry.

  • Rik

    And yet large corporations like Nestle can pump millions of gallons of water from the great lakes and on-sell it to china. I guess it pays to be a large corporation. The individual person always gets crushed by restrictions while the corporations rape the planet.

  • […] According to the U.S. Geological Survey, since 1940 “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently lost from the Ogallala […]

  • […] The average annual depletion of the aquifer rate between 2000 and 2007 was more than twice that during the previous fifty years. The depletion is most severe in the southern portion of the aquifer, especially in Texas, where the water table beneath sizeable areas has dropped 100-150 feet; in smaller pockets, it has dropped more than 150 feet, National Geographic reports. […]

  • mr san diego

    Too many people using too much stuff. Unfortunately, it’s a harbinger of things to come. Depleted everything, causing increasing stress on the world population. This all points to a very difficult time for us all in the near future. We’ve reached the tipping point in so many categories with people slowing coming to terms with the inevitable…

  • […] tapped underground water sources pretty heavily as well.  The water level in the Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwestern US has dropped more than 150 feet in some places, leaving many farmers’ wells […]

  • […] tapped underground water sources pretty heavily as well.  The water level in the Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwestern U.S. has dropped more than 150 feet in some places, leaving many farmers’ […]

  • hilarie malmberg

    How much water does fracking use mixed with the “secret” ingredients that the Petrochemical Industry adds to it to make it poisonous after the fracking takes place. What impact will full-scale fracking have on our aquifers (including the Ogalalla A.)
    With two limited resources, fuel and water, given the choice the sane person would choose the life giver over the other.

  • […] manage is what the HPWD is attempting to do.   A few months ago I wrote about the District’s new rule that places a limit or cap on the volume of groundwater farmers can pump from beneath their land, a […]

  • […] to the U.S. Geological Survey, “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since […]

  • […] to the U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey, “a vol­ume equiv­a­lent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been per­ma­nently drained from the Ogal­lala Aquifer […]

  • […] halt the depletion.  At a minimum, pumping limits could be set to slow the draining of aquifers, as has been done in parts of the Texas High Plains and elsewhere. Such measures would drive up irrigation efficiency and water productivity, and […]

  • […] According to the U.S. Geological Survey, since 1940 “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently lost from the Ogallala […]

  • Kelly Young

    The Texas Supreme Court upheld 100 years of landowner ownership of groundwater in Texas. If the public needs it they should buy it as they do in every case when cities need water. Why is it alright with liberals to steal from farmers? Do you really want a govenment that steals from you?

  • Kelly Young

    The article suggests that farmers have not had any incentive to conserve until regulations were imposed. The reality is in this region pumping costs are the most expensive input on an irrigated farm and farmers have never wanted to pump one minute more than necessary to miantain a healthy crop. Farmers are also conservationists by nature and have adopted every technology available at great expense in an effort to save their water and reduce pumping costs.

    • Kelly, thanks for writing. I completely agree that High Plains farmers have moved toward great water-use efficiency. I traveled to the HPWD over a decade ago to learn what was happening and wrote about the agricultural transformations taking place in my book, Pillar of Sand. And here’s an excerpt from a piece I posted on Water Currents earlier this year:

      …Texas irrigators have already begun adapting. They have shifted from old-style flood irrigation to more efficient sprinklers. The High Plains Water District maintains that irrigation efficiency rose from 50 percent in the mid-seventies to 75 percent by 1990. Since then, more farmers have adopted low-pressure drop-line sprinklers that deliver water closer to the crops instead of spraying it high in the air. When combined with field methods that conserve water in the soil, these precision sprinklers can achieve efficiencies of 95 percent. Some cotton farmers that have installed sub-surface drip systems, which deliver water at low volumes directly to the crops’ roots, have achieved efficiencies approaching 100 percent.

      The full post is here: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/02/07/texas-water-district-acts-to-slow-depletion-of-the-ogallala-aquifer/

  • […] strong governance, some local communities are taking matters into their own hands. For example, a community of farmers using the Ogallala aquifer in north-west Texas recently voted to place voluntary limits on their groundwater use as a means […]

  • […] started.  In areas of Texas that use the Ogallala, water districts are, for the first time ever, limiting pumping of the water.  In Oklahoma, farmers are actually asking the state to regulate the resource. […]

  • […] 40% of Texas’s water. It supplies about 80% of the population above it with drinking water. Conservation initiatives  are underway. Without improved irrigation methods, conservation, and with growing demand, […]

  • […] groundwater footprint by far, followed by the aquifers of Saudi Arabia, Iran, western Mexico, the U.S. High Plains, and the north China […]

  • […] to the U.S. Geological Survey, “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since […]

  • […] According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since […]

  • […] According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since […]

  • […] el Servicio Geológico de EE.UU., “ un volumen equivalente a las dos terceras partes del agua en el Lago Erie ”ha sido permanentemente drenado del acuífero de Ogallala desde […]

  • […] According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since […]

  • […] According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie8 has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since […]

  • […] According to the U.S. Geological Survey, "a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie" has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since […]

  • […] “[I]n less than 100 years we are seriously depleting what took Nature more than 10,000 years to fill,” said USGS director Marcia McNutt. […]

  • […] a rate of approximately 800 gallons per minute. 2. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since 1940. 3. Decades ago, the […]

  • […] Nebraska Water Science Center. He has focused on searching for aquifers in Nebraska’s Ogallala area—one that is incredibly important given the region’s breadbasket status and its water […]

  • […] course, in reality there is.  Groundwater is being depleted in many parts of the country, from the High Plains of Texas to California’s Central Valley to parts of the Southeast, to name just a […]

  • […] tapped underground water sources pretty heavily as well.  The water level in the Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwestern U.S. has dropped more than 150 feet in some places, leaving many farmers’ […]

  • […] According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since […]

  • […] to the U.S. Geological Survey, “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since […]

  • […] According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since 1940, and it is currently being […]

  • Scott

    When Guiles Hendrik first proposed this at a conference of seismologists in Oklahoma, his theory was treated as alchemy. I find it funny that after he briefed geologists and other scientists that within only a year mainstream science is now jumping on the bandwagon of Mr. Hendrik’s theory while giving zero deference to his contributions. In his defense, he published a blog on his theory almost a full year before anyone else warning of just such quake activity triggered by isolated aquifer draw down. The article is at http://www.lastminutesurvival.com/2013/12/17/earthquakes-on-the-rise-in-oklahoma-a-new-theory-to-explain-seismic-activity-in-areas-once-considered-geologically-stable/
    In fact, he goes further and shows how hydraulic fracking is being incorrectly blamed for quakes that are in fact caused by this aquifer draw down in areas such as Oklahoma City. At the crux of his theory is that when contained, lake-like aquifers are heavily drawn down over short periods of time, the ground simultaneously sinks and rebounds causing earthquakes. This is been the case in Charlottesville, Virginia and around Oklahoma City. What has yet to be proven, but Hendrik further theorizes, is if the depleted aquifer is co-located with a known seismic trigger like a fault, it could cause larger and more devastating quakes.

  • […] Ogallala Aquifer [in the Great Plains] is declining about nine feet a year and within 20 years or so it’s going […]

  • […] According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “a volume equivalent to two-thirds of the water in Lake Erie” has been permanently drained from the Ogallala Aquifer since […]

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