How to Save The Ogallala

How to Save The Ogallala

Just last week, I posted my concerns about the Ogallala Aquifer’s rapid depletion. So imagine my relief at waking up to a hopeful article on the topic from The Conversation.

Farmers are depleting the Ogallala Aquifer because the government pays them to do it, presents a three-expert take on the policy changes that could save the Ogallala.

Kansas State University Professor of Sociology, Geography and Geospatial Sciences Matthew R. Sanderson wrote the article with KSU PhD sociology student Jacob A. Miller and Washburn University’s Associate Law Professor Burke Griggs.

The three put forward some truly daunting numbers in presenting their case for change. One study they highlight that tested Kansas farm wells observed:

“So far, 30 percent of the groundwater has been pumped and another 39 percent will be depleted over the next 50 years, given existing trends.

At that rate, by 2070 the Ogallala will have only one-third of its groundwater left.

Imagine a world in which Lake Michigan, the Persian Gulf or Mediterranean Sea was on the way to losing two-thirds of its water. Humanity would be horrified!

But because the Ogallala and other aquifers are out of sight, most of us go about our daily lives oblivious to the devastating fresh water loss occurring beneath our feet.

Where, exactly, does all that water go? According to the article, 90 percent of it irrigates farm crops. And the vast majority of those crops are grown to feed cattle and other animals raised for meat.

The authors call for policy changes at the national, state and county levels:

“Depletion is a structural problem embedded in agricultural policies. Groundwater depletion is a policy choice made by federal, state and local officials.” 

Is that even possible? Could the entire U.S. come to its senses and start limiting agricultural water use?

If we follow the Netherlands’ model, YES! In 2000, it became their national agricultural commitment to grow “…twice as much food using half as many resources.”

The country did it by helping farmers to find ways of reducing their water consumption. And by 2017, some had cut it by 90 percent! Their success in growing low-water tomatoes is a striking example, according to the National Geographic.

Compare their statistics to the rest of the tomato-producing world:

  • U.S.: 15.2 gallons/pound

  • China: 34 gallons/pound

  • Netherlands: 1.1 gallons/pound

  • World Average: 25.6 gallons/pound

There’s no reason to waste water on our crops – farmers want to be part of the solution.

A 2019 study of Ogallala region farmers concluded:

“The majority perceives groundwater depletion to be a serious problem… There is overwhelming agreement that groundwater should be conserved for altruistic reasons to benefit future generations in the community.”

If the Netherlands can do it, why not the rest of the world? Money’s not the issue, if we consider the 37.2 billion dollars allotted to 2020’s American farm subsidies. With that much money flowing into agriculture, it’s time to set sustainability targets for the future.

My Grandpa – the most innovative person I’ve ever known – grew up farming in Iowa, went on a short trip to the Netherlands to study farming methods and brought back some of their ideas to improve his own practices.

Let’s take a lesson from him! See how other countries have begun moving toward sustainability and adopt the policies that inspire our farmers to achieve real water-conservation success.

In the meantime, all of us who aren’t policy makers can do our part, by eating less meat and more plant-based foods!

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