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The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S. Water Source

The massive underground water source feeds the middle third of the country but is disappearing fast. Can it be conserved?

Other farmers are turning to native grasslands for economic alternatives. Before European settlers arrived, the billion acres of grasses that blanketed the High Plains were home to pronghorn antelope and swift fox, lesser prairie chickens and burrowing owls as well as buffalo. Blue grama, green needle grass and other drought-resistant plants thrived in the short growing season. More than half these native grasslands have been converted to crops, including nearly 25 million acres since 1982, according to a 2007 General Accounting Office study.

A return to grasslands could be a potential source of income, says Amy Hardberger, an attorney with the EDF in Austin, Tex. In a project she is coordinating, farmers are experimenting with grassland restoration on fields they have been forced to retire because of groundwater depletions. In addition to providing wildlife habitat, grasslands could be grazed by cattle or even buffalo. Hunting, ecotourism and “dude ranches” are other potential sources of income from grasslands. And once a national carbon market is established, farmers could sell credits for storing carbon in grassland soil. “This is a tough group of people,” says Hardberger, whose grandfather raised cotton near Lubbock, Tex. “They don’t want to leave their land—and they shouldn’t have to.”

Several federal government programs provide economic incentives for conservation of existing grasslands—recognizing their role in reducing erosion, sequestering carbon, and providing habitat for the lesser prairie chicken and other endangered species. But these programs often work at cross-purposes with federal price-support incentives to produce corn and other commodities. Subsidies for crops are generally higher than subsidies for grassland conservation, making the choice simple for most growers.

The contradictions in these federal programs reflect America’s ambivalence about the Ogallala Aquifer. Eventually the nation will need a strategy to end its dependence on this finite resource, says Stone, the Groundwater Trust executive. But for now, across much of the High Plains it’s business as usual: drilling and pumping water, irrigating and growing crops as if the Ogallala era will never end.

For Funk in Garden City, it already has. Using technology and foresight, he has transformed his farm into a business he believes can continue into the distant future without draining the Ogallala. “Forever? We hope so,” he says. “That’s been our goal.”

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Saving the Ogallala Aquifer".

This article was originally published with the title "Saving the Ogallala Aquifer."

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