Drought in the High Plains

Welcome to Tuesday! I’ve spent the past week sniffling my way through a cold that has taken what feels like permanent residence in my nose, throat and lungs, and from my conversations with other folks, it sounds like I’m not the only one dealing with sickness. I hope wherever you are, you’re avoiding the cold/flu/coronavirus season that refuses to let us walk into summer scot-free. 

As has been documented in several previous editions of Keep it Rural, this winter, the West was doused with enough rain and snow to finally get California out of the drought that has haunted it for years. While there are plenty of reasons to rejoice about this (one reason: this year’s incredible super bloom), we are not out of the woods when it comes to water use and conservation in the United States. 

Right now, the worst drought conditions are happening in three very rural states right smack in the middle of the country: Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s drought monitor

All three of these states, plus Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota, overlap the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground layer of water that irrigates about 30% of the total crop and animal production in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

The aquifer has been in use for modern-day agriculture since the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the industry began to significantly deplete the amount of water underground. If it were completely drained, it would take approximately 6,000 years for the aquifer to recharge with water. 

Much of this rural region’s economy is based on agriculture, but as the aquifer continues to be overdrawn and conditions get warmer and drier because of climate change, small farmers are suffering, and it’s imperiling the rural communities they live and work in. “If the water keeps running out,” wrote High Plains Public Radio reporter David Condos in an article, “some of the region’s farms and towns could vanish within a generation or two.”

To support farmers, the government has provided subsidies to keep them in business, but research suggests only the biggest companies benefit from these subsidies. For small and midsize operations, it’s hard to make enough money off crop production alone, according to research from the scientific journal Social Problems. 

To stay afloat, some farmers use subsidies to buy or lease more land to grow more crops and increase profits, but by doing this, they flood the market with more product, decreasing the product’s price because it’s more easily accessible. The subsidies encourage growth but do nothing to improve small farmers’ livelihoods in the long run.

Without using technology or practices that improve water efficiency, farmers in the High Plains suffer because the water they rely on continues to diminish. This is called the treadmill of production theory, and it’s what researchers say is harming the Ogallala Aquifer.

Agriculture is the lifeblood of the High Plains. In turn, the High Plains are the lifeblood of the country, providing more than one-quarter of our total agriculture products. Farming in this region can’t just stop. But it can be reimagined. 

There are several ways to do this, according to experts. One is to rethink the way water is used and land is managed. Improving the ecology on farmland to promote recharging the aquifer is already being practiced by some farmers. 

More strategies include updating federal and state policy and tax codes to incentivize water conservation – lawmakers in Kansas approved a bill earlier this year that would require groundwater management districts to reduce water use in highly-depleted areas. Other policy changes could come from the Farm Bill, which is being reauthorized this year. 

All this to say, not all is lost in the High Plains. There are strategies already in place to conserve water, and many farmers are the ones leading these efforts. 

But other changes to save the Ogallala Aquifer are up to policymakers, and whether or not they make those changes before it’s too late remains to be determined.

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