Sample Essay on Depletion of the Ogallala High Plains Aquifer

Depletion of the Ogallala High Plains Aquifer

The depletion of the high plains aquifer, often referred to as the Ogallala aquifer, poses a significant threat to society.  This Aquifer underlies Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska, covering a total of 174,000square miles (McGuire). The map below describes the regions served by the Ogallala aquifer. Nebraska lies right within the heart of the Ogadalla aquifer. All activities agricultural taking place in the region are provided for by the water from the aquifer. The destruction of the aquifer has great negative implications on the economic activities and income sources in the region.


                        Source: World Commission on Environment and Development

This area is primarily known for its crop production, producing nearly 20 percent of America’s corn and wheat.  It is easy to postulate a significant drop in production rates if the primary water source in the region is significantly reduced.  There are many individuals that would be impacted by this, beyond the obvious 2.4 million individuals living in the region that will notice a significant reduction or elimination of their water source altogether.  In America there is an adequate amount of agricultural land to, for the most part, sustain the resident population.  Gutentag’s observations indicate that the farmers of this agricultural land in turn rely heavily on whatever water resources they can exploit to bolster production. Irrigation is a major issue causing a depletion of the water table in this region, posing a major threat to the Ogallala aquifer (Gutentag).  The recharge is considered a factor of interest in this paper.  Cities located on the aquifer will also be considered as possible factors. This paper will examine the origin of the Ogallala aquifer, its depletion, consequences of this depletion on the economic status and conditions to the state of Nebraska and the possible measures which can be taken to curb its depletion. Besides, I will also address the counter arguments to this depletion.

Before evaluating whether depletion in aquifers is anthropogenic or natural it would benefit to address where the ground water came from.  Multiple factors play a contributory role in the establishment of underground water among which are glacial melt, underground water movement through infiltration and percolation (MacNeill; McDermott &. Horne).“Glaciers account for more than scenic alpine landscapes.  Glacial deposits form fertile soils in the United States and southern Canada and many ground-water aquifers”(Smith 438).  21,000 years ago a massive glacier covered most of the United States.  As this glacier receded to what now the glacier is covering Greenland, it ground the surface rock, creating fertile soil in its wake as well as saturating the aquifers below.  Since then there has been small amounts of recharge from rain and snow absorption, but the vast majority was accumulated from the last ice age (Hutson, Barber, Kenny, Linsey, Lumia, and Maupin).

During the thawing process, when snow water melts, some melt water find their way to the underground channels through the soil pores and rock joints. This seeping water upon reaching the aquifer often settle within the underground rocks in the region to form the underground bank. Besides, the glacial moraine forms fertile grounds for agricultural practices, a common phenomenon which obscured in the southwest region after the universal glacial recession, the geologic ice age, about 250- 350 million years ago.  The presence of fertile soil and convenient access to groundwater below the surface have created an agricultural oasis in the Midwest, but the many straws stuck into the aquifer are draining it at an alarming rate.

Groundwater in aquifers is typically discharged through natural and anthropogenic means.  “Permanently flowing streams intersect the water table and gain discharge from ground water flow. Streams, not in contact with the water table are dry during periods of limited rainfall.  When streams above the water table receives runoff, some of the flow is lost to ground water through infiltration through the bed” (Smith 418).  In nature, without anthropogenic effects, an individual would note that Aquifers are constantly ‘full’, giving off whatever rainfall or snowmelt acquired in the form of discharge into local streams.  This is almost never the case currently, due to the result of the anthropogenic effect on the Ogallala aquifers.  As humans have tapped into the aquifers, they have dropped at accelerated rates, much faster than they can naturally fill.  Essentially, the discharge rate is vastly exceeding the recharge rate.

The primary source of anthropogenic discharge is the result of water wells. Water wells vary in the amount of flow they can get in a given amount of time, as well as the population of water wells per a given area of land.  McGuire notes that wells that provide public water for a city are much larger than an agricultural well, though there are a lot more agricultural wells, which overall draws more groundwater than the larger, city wells (McGuire).  As a result of heavy areas of anthropogenic activity, a drop of up to 242 feet in the water table has been observed.  These areas are at severe risk of loosing accessibility to fresh ground water.  An absence of natural discharge through lakes and streams is also observable in areas noting a significant decrease in the water table.  Such places experience recharge as the only naturally observable process at work.  The recharging process is however affected, or curtailed, by means of pumping rivers and streams to be used as another source for irrigation on crops.  The water spread throughout a field by some method of irrigation is soaked into the unsaturated surface of the field or evaporated with very little of it actually reaching the saturated aquifer layer, where more of the water could migrate into the aquifer through the stream bed if left to its own devices.

Map 2. Areas irrigated from the Ogallala and the streams served by the aquifer

Source: World Commission on Environment and Development

The causes of the aquifer decline in the Ogallala region are both anthropogenic as well as natural as discussed in this piece. It is simple here; the world is on the verge of overpopulation, some may even say we’ve already gone over this precipice.  In any case, there are well over seven billion hungry mouths to feed causing a high demand for food.  Farmers are responding to this excessive demand through the use of high output crop strains and irrigation.  Naturally, there is a higher density of agricultural activity over the Midwest due to its rich soil and access to the Ogallala aquifer (Dowgert).  Here, the plot thickens.  Farmers need the water to produce as much as possible in a desperate attempt to keep up with demand, but in doing so they end up exhausting the bank of underground water available in these regions hence the rapid decline in the levels of underground water in the Ogallala acquifer. Extensive agricultural production in the Midwest region is traced back to the period after the second world war(Schroeder).

Most farmers and people either directly or indirectly dependent on the Ogallala aquifer for their water needs have since assumed that the aquifer would recharge immediately after the rains comeback. The processes of groundwater recharge cannot be equated to that of the lakes, rivers and ponds which get recharged immediately after the rainy seasons. This assumption has led to the rapid underground water withdrawal in the region. It takes far longer time to be replenished. Horne observes that irrigation farming in southwest Nebraska was started as a move to respond to the harsh climatic conditions in the region that discouraged the agriculture especially when the rains totally failed (Horne). The farmers were only allowed to use irrigation farming, not as a supplement for rain-fed agriculture, but rather to alleviate the drought conditions. This regulation is no longer the case here, irrigation farming in Western Nebraska is carried out as a supplement to rain-fed agriculture driven by the demand for high yield production and a bumper income.  Most of the users of underground water in these regions always take it as a gift, that which is received by the first getter at no cost. This has led to a profligation of the Ogallala underground water reserve, leading to its diminishing scales and gradual depletion.

Map 2. NASA ASTER image showing an approximate area in Nebraska that is watered from the Ogallala aquifer

Source: World Commission on Environment and Development

Addressing the implications of underground water depletion requires an extensive knowledge of the implications of water shortages in the region with high resident population as well as growth rates. Water is very essential to human life, and the absence or limitation of it often leads to serious health and economic problems (McDermott &. Horne). Water requirements are almost fundamental in every sector of the economy. To begin with, the immediate impacts for the shortage of underground water in the Ogallala aquifer will be felt first in the agricultural sector. Primary income generating activities such as agriculture Glantz records are the first to feel the pinch of water shortage. Negative impacts upon the primary productive activities, agriculture and manufacturing bear similar impacts upon the other related sectors of production  (Glantz). Irrigation farming is a major pull factor to the swelling number of agricultural activities and human population in the regions served by the Ogallala aquifer. This is because the water bank is still available for use, and the long-term effects of its overuse are not envisioned by its users.

Once this source has been depleted, there would be little to no water for agricultural practices in the region. Besides being used on the farms, nearly all farmers in these regions depend either directly or indirectly upon the underground water reserve from the Ogallala aquifer for their domestic water supplies. The exhaustion of this important water bank will, therefore, mean diminishing water for domestic applications. As has been mentioned earlier in this text, man requires water for numerous other reasons other than for domestic and agricultural uses. The industrial sector uses a lot of water too. Various industries relocated to these regions will end up in water cuts limiting their production. The overall limitations of water in the regions will then be translated to all sectors of production.

Researches and detailed studies have been conducted in the region to establish the helm of the problems surrounding the depletion of underground waters in the Ogadalla region. Different propositions have been made by various persons, NGOs and resident governments to this effect, both chating the course for action to be undertaken in a bid to marshall the rapidly degrading water bank. According to Glantz the immediate step that has been taken in line with seeking appropriate solution to the problem of excessive underground water withdrawal in these regions is to enact policies promoting sustainable water use in these regions (MacNeill). The governments of the region have come up with policies governing water use and exploitation in order to develop a stable conditions for adequate water provision to all residents of the region. It is very crucial that the present generation has acknowledged the implications of groundwater depletion in the Ogallala aquifer so that water use can be carried out in a sparing manner. Policies controlling water use and irrigation activities can be devised by the governments of these regions to help properly manage water withdrawal from the Ogallala aquifer.

Following the stipulations put in place by the World Commission on Environment and Development as a move to implement the propositions developed during the Rio Summit in 1992. Sustainable development principles have been cultivated to help actualize the pending needs of the future generations. Water is a precious resource that, if misused, may push millions of lives into the brink of economic despair. Nearly, all lives in the regions served by the Ogallala aquifer depend directly on the provisions from the region. Segarra and Feng have proposed several measures that can be taken by the government agencies as well as other interested parties to help reverse the overgrowing water demands that have overstretched water provisions along the Ogallala water line. A number of these possible propositions have been enacted for the implementation in a move to conserve the waters in the region. To be specific, the Ogallala aquifer lies within a formally dry region. The desertlike conditions are sure to re-energize its potential should drastic measures not be taken into consideration. In this regard, extensive and intensive campaigns have been initiated to help sustain water provision in this region by planting numerous trees to maintain the natural water supply to the aquifer below. The sustainability of conservation mechanisms adopted to ensure water sustainability in the region has been the prime driving force behind their choice.

Sustainable water management practices such as the use of drip irrigation and water recycling mechanisms have been put in place to ensure that the water used in farms is as limited as possible. Moreover, the overall change in perception of the people living in these regions and who use the water has been called upon to view the process as vital and one which needs protection and conservation.Perception change is being geared towards viewing underground water as an exhaustible resource which is available only in a limited range of time if used unsustainably. Awareness creation on the relationship between underground water withdrawal and the rate of underground recharge have been centrally placed among the key policy strategies for addressing the issues of underground water sustenance. It is advisable that people are made aware of the length of time it takes for underground water to be fully replenished after an exhaustion.

Some scholars such as Segarra and Feng have argued that widespread agricultural practices in the region facilitated by irrigation farming has attracted more settlements as well as promoted urbanization rates. Besides, these scholars argue that the extraction of underground water in the region has improved the health status of the people living in western Nebraska. It is very true that the entire population in this region depends very heavily on the Ogallala aquifer for their water supplies. This water is used in meeting various domestic needs such as drinking, cooking, cleaning among other activities. Being that the surrounding region is water deficient especially when the rains fail for a long period of time, this activity has been seen as a great breakthrough in offering a long lasting solution to the water shortage issues in the region (World Commission on Environment and Development).

Diseases related to the drinking and use of unclean or unsafe water have been curtailed since safe and adequate underground water is now available for most families besides ensuring food security in an area which was formally stricken by acute cases of food insecurity. Water borne diseases such as bilharzias, cholera, dysentery (diarrheal diseases) have been curtailed due to the provision of adequate and safe water drawn from the Ogallala aquifer. These scholars, though opposed to the limitation of economic activities being carried out in these regions, have however admitted that the underground storage is diminishing, and therefore actions must be taken to ensure a timely recharge.

In conclusion, the state of Nebraska’s economy is determined by the waters from the Ogallala aquifer. It is, therefore, good to note here that the underground water bank in the Ogallala aquifer has been diminishing over time. This has been majorly contributed to by extensive underground water withdrawal in the region as a result of extensive agricultural practices as well as rapid population growth. These inefficient agricultural practices need to be minimized as the renewal rates for Geo-hydrological processes take longer than is expected. Sustainable and more efficient water resources should be employed such as the adoption of drip irrigation and reduced water wastage through awareness creation and education strategies.

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