Ogallala Aquifer Depletion

Ogallala Aquifer Depletion
Ogallala Aquifer Depletion

Ogallala Aquifer Depletion

As we drove between Colorado’s national parks, the herds of cattle grazing peacefully in grassy fields backed by two snow-capped mountains presented a picture-perfect scene.

“These cows have a pretty good life.” observed my daughter, before adding, “That is, until they go to slaughter.”

Driving by them cattle, it was easy to wonder how the cattle could be so environmentally damaging. That is, until we saw clear indications of water shortages and dried-up streambeds, ponds and reservoirs.

For more than a century, agricultural interests have been diverting water from the Black Canyon. Snowpacks continue evaporating at an unprecedented rate.

The most imperceptible water loss, however, comes from underground aquifers. Putting the problem bluntly, the Nature.org site states:

“Unlike the concern generated when major reservoirs reach dangerously low levels, many of our aquifers have been quietly overused for decades.”

Underlying parts of:

  • Colorado

  • Kansas

  • Nebraska

  • New Mexico

  • Oklahoma

  • South Dakota

  • Texas

and Wyoming, the Ogallala Aquifer is the largest fresh-water underground reservoir in the United States. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, there’s no mystery about why its shallow water table is shrinking.

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service of the USDA, “Agriculture is a major user of ground and surface water in the United States, accounting for approximately 80 percent of the Nation’s consumptive water use and over 90 percent in many Western States.” 

The majority of the Ogallala’s water goes to grow livestock feed

There is a limited supply of water. In 2015 The U.S. Geological Survey measured the Ogallala’s total volume at 2.91 billion acre-feet, or 978 trillion gallons.

According to the American Geosciences Institute In 2010 alone, we extracted an estimated 27.7 trillion gallons of groundwater in the United States. We drained 18 million acre-feet, or 5.85 trillion gallons from the Ogallala alone. Continuing to deplete it at this rate would drain the Ogallala completely in 7 generations.

Replenishing the aquifer could require a clearly unsustainable 6,000 years of rainfall.

The cows grazing between Colorado’s national parks undoubtedly have a beautiful backdrop. Beneath the grass they browse on, however, an insidious problem develops.

In the not-too-distant future, drought will become an undeniable issue. Farmers will be forced to deal with the reality of losing their access to fresh water.

But there’s still time to prevent that catastrophe, if we act wisely. We can start today, by replacing meat with plant-based options!

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