That Sinking Feeling About Groundwater in Texas

Researchers download data from a center pivot sprinkler, a type of irrigation system commonly used in the U.S. Great Plains, to reconstruct the amount of water and time it took to irrigate an area. Photo by Scott Bauer/USDA

In case we need another example of the disturbing ramifications of extreme drought for our future water security, we can look to recent news out of northwest Texas.

The High Plains Water District, based in Lubbock, recently reported that the 2011-12 drought drove groundwater levels in its sixteen-county service area to drop an average of 2.56 feet (0.78 meters) – the largest annual decline recorded in the last 25 years and more than triple the annual average for the last decade.

The lesson: as droughts intensify, our depletion of groundwater will pick up speed.

The recent Texas drought was indeed severe. Lubbock’s rainfall for 2011 amounted to a meager 5.86 inches compared to its long-term annual average of 18 inches.

Besides setting the stage for a record-breaking fire season, the drought forced farmers to pump more groundwater to make up for the rainfall deficit.  Without the extra pumping, the drought would have decimated their crops.

Farmers in the District draw from the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground water reserve that supplies portions of eight states and waters 27 percent of the nation’s irrigated cropland.  Since much of the aquifer gets little recharge from rainfall today, rising rates of pumping have led to steady depletion.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a volume of groundwater equivalent to two-thirds of the water held in Lake Erie has been depleted from the Ogallala since 1940.

Because large-scale irrigation began earlier in northwest Texas and replenishment rates there are less than in other areas supplied by the Ogallala, the region has suffered the heaviest declines. Water tables have dropped 100-150 feet in sizeable areas, and even more in smaller pockets.

But this year’s decline was exceptional.  It warns the world that as droughts become more frequent, particularly in arid crop-producing regions, groundwater reserves will be depleted even faster than in recent decades, threatening not only water but food supplies.

California farmers similarly hastened the depletion of Central Valley aquifers during the drought years of 2006 through 2010, to compensate for both less rainfall and cutbacks in surface water. And farmers in India have turned more and more to groundwater as surface supplies get less reliable.

Hope on the High Plains

My hat goes off, though, to the High Plains Water District (HPWD) for deciding to measure and monitor what’s happening to the water beneath it.  Few places in the world dependent on groundwater bother to do so, which means we’re flying blind into the future of water stress.   We can’t manage what we don’t monitor and measure.  Keeping our heads in the sand only guarantees ugly surprises down the road.

And 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 limit that gets gradually stricter.  The rule sets the 2016 pumping volume at 29 percent below 2012 levels.

Not surprisingly, farmers are not pleased with – and have threatened lawsuits over — the restrictions.  They say the rule interferes with their right to pump as much water from beneath their land as they want to.  Both Texas law and a February 2012 opinion by the Texas Supreme Court affirm that farmers do indeed own the groundwater beneath their property, but also that conservation districts like the HPCD can regulate pumping rates.

In response to the outcry and threat of legal action, the HPCD decided in late February to delay enforcement of the new rule until 2014.

But what the HPWD is attempting, and what is needed in other groundwater-dependent areas threatened by long-term depletion, is sound planning and management.  By law, groundwater may be privately owned, but in reality it is a shared resource. Just as many straws in a water glass will empty the glass faster if there’s no limit on the amount allowed per straw, so will an aquifer dry out faster if there’s no limit on the volume pumped per well.

The District’s goal is to ensure that at least half as much water remains in the Ogallala in 2060 as it contained in 2010.  While such “planned depletion” is still an unsustainable use of water, it slows the depletion down by promoting wiser choices about what crops to grow and how to grow them.  And it motivates investments in irrigation efficiency, enabling farmers to get more crop per drop.

Without question, weighing concern for future generations against that of our own, and balancing private rights with the public good is difficult – especially during hard times.  But pulling our heads out of the sand and coming up with realistic solutions to achieve the best balance we can is crucial.

It seems to me the Texas High Plains Water District is attempting to do just that.

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.”

*Note: Upon a re-read the day after publication, I edited the phrase describing farmer’s sentiments about the ruling to better reflect my understanding.

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.
  • Frank J La Lone

    Water all over that region is getting scarcer, with the space program stopped why can’t we use some stimulus money to hire some of the thousands of layed off engineers to come up with public works projects to pump sea water to plants that could process the sea water to fresh and fill the aquifers?

  • Julene Bair

    Having grown up on a dry-land farm in western Kansas that morphed into one of those irrigated corn and soybean factories now so prevalent on the Great Plains, I can personally testify to the harm irrigation is doing the aquifer and the ecosystem it once supported. The Indians thought of the rivers and streams crossing the Plains as “The Ladder of Rivers,” because they made north-south trade and travel possible all the way from what we now think of as South Dakota to Texas. Such travel, dependent on live water, or surface water, would no longer be possible today. I’ve thought much about this topic and even wrote a book about it called Where Rivers Run Sand. It will be out in 2014 from Viking/Penguin. Thank you, Sandra, for your continued coverage of water issues, certain to be the focus of everyone’s attention as we continue to waste and destroy the water we need to live.

  • Robin

    Texas’ answer will to drill for more oil and natural gas.

  • Cameron Jasper

    I tip my hat to the research that the Colorado Water Research Institute is conducting about artificial recharge of the Ogallala aquifer in Colorado. Since the the grandest of our western aquifers (the Ogallala Aquifer) is overdrafted by one million acre-feet and receives only up to 2 inches of natural recharge every year, it is a non-renewable resource. Artificial recharge will become the most viable option for Texas in the coming years because it is the most sustainable way to both store and conserve water while maintaining the water table of the Ogallala Aqufier.

  • Tex

    Frank, the reason desalinization doesn’t work, is because it costs energy and infrastructure. Either you boil the water and thus burn oil to do it. Or you let evaporation do it – but that requires massive amounts of space and materials (pipes, panels, etc.). The cost are such, it only makes sense for drinking water in desert countries. Not for irrigation.

  • Kevin

    On World Water Day this year an organization called Town Hall Los Angeles held a forum and had several speakers and organizations share their views on our local water situation. One thing I learned is these underwater basins/aquifers operate a lot like a sponge. Once they go dry, they permanently lose their ability to absorb and hold water. Hence, their recharge is critically important.

  • Peter Evans

    Didn’t the billionaire Pickens buy up a significant amount of land above the aquifer and was then granted some sort of utility status so that he could take as much water he wants to sell to major population centers?

  • Ron Hayashi

    When the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a farmer owns the water beneath his property, does that include the water from neighbouring property that will flow in as the farmer pumps it out ? I think this interpretation of the law may need some futher refinement.

  • […] Farmers in the District draw from the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground water reserve that supplies portions of eight states and waters 27 percent of the nation’s irrigated cropland.  Since much of the aquifer gets little recharge from rainfall today, rising rates of pumping have led to steady depletion.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a volume of groundwater equivalent to two-thirds of the water held in Lake Erie has been depleted from the Ogallala since 1940. Please continue reading at: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/19/that-sinking-feeling-about-groundwater-in-texas/ […]

  • Adevarul

    Great outlook: Hey I’ll pump as much water as I want and sue you if you try to stop me.

    The rest of that thought: I don’ t know and don’t care how much there is for my kids or theirs. Just as long as there’s enough for me to do what I want. Welcome to the USA 2012

  • olsnag

    Fracking could pollute what’s left in those natural water reservoirs.

  • Neville Skinner

    As one person already pointed out, these aquifers are like sponges. What most people don’t realise is that when the spanges are dry they are less able to support the weight of the rock and land on top of them. Once dry, the first big earth tremor in the area will open a few eyes, as the land suddenly starts to drop, taking housing subdivisions with it.

    Also, it begs the question, if we are to extract the water in such quantities during times of drought, then why aren’t the legislators compelling the same people to recharge the aquifer during times of flood?

  • Randy

    We need to start pumping “The Lakes” west!
    its the only solution.


    lots of good idels like plants to process sea water to fresh water n flood water pumps to holding tanks.

  • Robert Yoder

    A Billionaire Texan Wants To Build A RadioActive Waste Dump Directly Over the Ogallala Aquafer.I`m Serious! This Aquafer,As Noted in Article,Supplies Water to 8 States & 27% of All Irrigated Crops In USA.Please Do Everything Possible To STOP This Insane Idea!!!!!!!

  • Thanks for the thoughtful discussions!

  • […] (see video above). Burns also warned that we could see similar suffering again if we continue to over pump the precious Ogalalla aquifer in the Great […]

  • D2

    Install desalination plants along the Texas coastline and pipe the water for ag use etc..

  • […] For a while it was a huge success. In a good year, the High Plains produced three-quarters of the wheat traded on international markets, restocking Russian grain stores and feeding millions of starving Africans. But the Ogallala water is drawing down, many wells are going dry, and the output of the pumps has halved. A quarter of the aquifer is gone in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, and over wide areas the water table has fallen by more than 100 feet. In some places, the sagebrush is returning because farmers are giving up on irrigated planting. (See “That Sinking Feeling About Groundwater in Texas.”) […]

  • […] That Sinking Feeling About Groundwater in Texas— National Geographic, July 2012 […]

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