Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Here We Go With the Generalizations - Again...

I wish folks could make it more clear in their writings on the Ogallala Aquifer of specifically where they are referring to.  Take the recent (March 15, 2011) article on the Ogallala - "The Next Oil", by Johnathan R. Grammer.  He spends a good deal of effort describing the entire Ogallala (all 8 states worth), and makes a few statements about the Ogallala in the Panhandle of Texas that easily could be true of anywhere in the aquifer.  Then he starts off a new paragraph that seems to be describing the entire Ogallala again:  

"..the Ogallala does not recharge. Simply stated, while most aquifers enjoy the benefit of "recharge zones" ... the same replenishment due the Ogallala is denied it either by evaporation or is diverted by the underground and surface geology. What results is a finite water supply much like an oil and gas reservoir. Once it is depleted, it is gone forever." 

What?  While he likely may be discussing smaller, isolated areas of the Ogallala in the Texas Panhandle, this certainly can't be true for the entire Ogallala.  But he says it is.  I happen to believe the Ogallala does recharge in Kansas - albeit a tad bit on the conservative side - but that water got there somehow.

" As a result [of no recharge], the Ogallala Aquifer has been depleted by crop irrigation and domestic use at a rate equaling 1.5 feet a year in some parts. Scientists have speculated, though, such a possibility represents a worst-case scenario, that the aquifer itself may be dry beyond utility within 25 years. Others have speculated that its supply will last for at least another 100 years."

Again, no inkling of where he is speaking, but his words say this is true of the entire Ogallala Aquifer.  Our portion of the aquifer in Graham County, KS is as full or fuller than it was in 1977.  There are even larger areas of our groundwater management district that have a solid 250 year life time projected.  In Nebraska there are large areas of the Ogallala that still have 1200 feet of water and are not declining.  This statement cannot apply to the entire aquifer.

While the Ogallala Aquifer does have its "OMG" overdrafted areas, and there are eye-opening overdrafts in many other areas of the aquifer in virtually every state, you simply cannot describe the entire aquifer in such sweeping terms.  And the range of conditions that exist make average values just about as useless as well.  Our average Ogallala decline rate in GMD 4 is .5 feet per year, but we range from almost 2 feet/yr to areas that are not declining at all. 

And the consequence of this is?  I was on #agchat tonight (topic was "water") and the following conversation came up regarding the declining Ogallala:

She:  "A friend & cotton farmer on the TX High Plains had CNN out on his place today."

He:  "Do you know what the CNN story is concerning? Thanks!"

She:  "yes, its on the Ogallala aquifer. what's happening with that water table, what farmers are doing."

The press has been focused of late on Happy, TX, a place smack dab in the middle of the most serious decline area of the Southern High Plains Aquifer in Texas.  See here;  and here; and here.  No doubt the CNN crew was also interested in this region.  These articles all read like the entire Ogallala does not recharge at all; and is dropping so fast there may be only 10 years of pumping left.  Doesn't it sound like this is what the agchatter took away from her sources?

The USGS Says:  "The areas of significant water-level declines are not common to the entire region. In fact, the area of the greatest water-level declines (25 feet to more than 150 feet) is focused in...15 percent of the entire High Plains aquifer area."  (USGS Circular 1243, 2004)

Total water in storage in 2005 was about 2,925 million acre-feet, which was a decline of about 253 million acre-feet (or 9 percent) since predevelopment. (USGS Fact Sheet 2007-3029 by V.L. Mcguire)

While the Happy, Texas area has obviously taken a considerable amount of water from the aquifer in their specific area, a 9% depletion since pre-development (1950 in most cases) does not sound like the end of the world for most of the remaining aquifer area to me.  Indicative of a serious problem - Yes, but immediate disaster - No.  Future articles written I hope are situated and qualified better.  These writers all need to be aware that many non-Texas folks are reading this material too, and need more accurate and less sensational material.


  1. Wayne - Thanks. I've been thinking about writing about the New Mexico piece of the Ogallala, your observations are helpful.

  2. John: I have no doubt that your NM Ogallala article will be focused, on point and will avoid all the generalizations. Thanks for the comment. Make sure you tweet a link to it so others can partake - including me. WAB