Commentary — June 27, 2012, 10:15 am

From “Broken Heartland: The looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains”

Wil S. Hylton is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. This excerpt is drawn from his July 2012 cover feature for Harper’s Magazine. Subscribers can read the entire story here.

Sprawling beneath eight states and more than 100 million acres, the Ogallala Aquifer is the kind of hydrological behemoth that lends itself to rhapsody and hubris. Ancient, epic, apparently endless, it is the largest subterranean water supply in the country, with an estimated capacity of a million-billion gallons, providing nearly a third of all American groundwater irrigation. If the aquifer were somehow raised to the surface, it would cover a larger area than any freshwater lake on Earth—by a factor of five.

Until the Second World War, the Ogallala went almost entirely untapped. Nomadic tribes such as the Comanche and the Sioux had long adapted to the vagaries of the plains by avoiding permanent settlements. They drew water from ponds and streams and gullies, and when those ran dry, they followed the buffalo elsewhere. Even when European settlers began to run massive herds of cattle on the plains in the nineteenth century, they relied largely on native plants for grazing.

It wasn’t until the 1940s, when a variety of new technologies coalesced on the plains, that large-scale irrigation sprang up for the first time—but from there, the transformation was quick. Within a decade thousands of wells were drilled, creating a spike in productivity as unprecedented as it was unsustainable. Land that had been marginal became dependable; land that was dependable became bountiful. Even as the U.S. population surged, with soldiers returning and babies booming, the output of the plains rose fast enough to meet and exceed demand.

No one worried about the aquifer. To farmers it seemed a bottomless reserve, generating the same outlandish volume no matter how many straws went in. Soon there were hundreds of thousands of wells producing the same reliable flow, year after year, without any evident stress.

Then, during the early 1990s, farmers throughout the Great Plains began to notice a decline in their wells. Irrigation systems from the Dakotas to Texas dipped, and, in some places, have been abandoned entirely.

One day last spring, I stopped by the office of Kevin Mulligan, a professor at Texas Tech University who is leading an effort to monitor the Ogallala. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mulligan and his team have spent the last decade examining data from thousands of irrigation wells across the Texas Panhandle. Their hope is to divine exactly where the water is, where it was, where it’s going, and when, if ever, it might come back.

I found Mulligan in the university’s geosciences department, in a conference room plastered with charts and maps and illuminated by so many fluorescent lights that it seemed as if the walls were shivering. He is a wiry man possessed of too many elbows and knees, with a shock of gray hair plastered down in places and bursting free in others. Though he wore a starched blue oxford shirt and a new red tie, the craggy lines across his face and his perpetual squint gave him the air of a man standing atop a windy summit.

Mulligan began laying out a series of poster-size maps of the Panhandle. The first showed the base of the aquifer in burgundy. During the late Tertiary Period, he explained, the region we know as the Great Plains wasn’t composed of plains at all—it was a stony terrain of cliffs and valleys. Gradually that surface was buried by erosion sediment from the Rockies, which blanketed the region with the smooth surface of today’s plains. But underneath, the hills and valleys of the prehistoric landscape remain, forming the bottom of the Ogallala Aquifer.

Mulligan spread out a second map on top, which showed the same region, but in shades of blue instead of burgundy. “This is the saturated thickness of the Ogallala in 2004,” he said. “So that’s basically the available water.” The contours of the prehistoric landscape remained clear: where there had been hills, the water was shallow, and where there had been valleys, the water was deep.

Next Mulligan spread out a map recording the impact of wells, which were represented with hundreds of tiny dots. The burnt-orange shading on the map indicated a rapid rate of depletion. Mulligan said, “What you’re looking at is a drawdown on the order of five to six feet per year. So over the last fifteen years, it’s gone down eighty, ninety, one hundred feet.”

None of which, he went on, is likely to come back. For complex reasons involving wind, weather, and soil composition, the Ogallala does not recharge in the way one might expect. In fact, of the eight states above the aquifer, only Nebraska, with its sandhill dunes, is permeable enough to contribute any serious replenishment.

Now Mulligan spread out the last two maps of the region. The first was covered with crimson spots. “So what we did is, we highlighted all the areas that are less than thirty feet,” he said. “Thirty feet is kind of a magic number. You’re down to so little water that you’re not going to be able to pump nearly enough.” The map was almost a quarter red. “So that’s 2004,” he said, turning, “and this is 2030.”

In the last map the Panhandle was nearly all red. “I look at that,” Mulligan said, “and I can only surmise that there will be very little irrigated agriculture on the high plains twenty years from now.”

“It’s hard to imagine what there will be,” I offered.

Mulligan smiled. “Just because we’re all born into this, we think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But our human perspective is very biased.”

As we continued speaking, I began to realize that Mulligan wasn’t particularly concerned about the disappearing aquifer. “Why save it?” he asked. “What for?” As Mulligan saw it, the water had been hidden for millions of years, and if it disappeared again, this was a return to normal. The apt comparison was not to a reservoir, but to a seam of gold: you could take it or leave it, but you couldn’t expect to harvest forever. “It’s being mined,” Mulligan shrugged. “When it’s gone, it’s gone. The interesting question is: What comes next?”

But here, for the first time, Mulligan looked troubled. “What scares me,” he said, “is wind.”

Mulligan went to a nearby computer and brought up a satellite photo of central Texas, mottled in shades of beige, and overlaid with bright-green digital markings. “This is down in Nolan County,” he said. “We’ve mapped about four thousand turbines as of 2008. There’s probably six thousand down there now. If this continues, how many are we going to have? Forty thousand? Maybe fifty?”

“What would that look like?” I asked.

Mulligan snorted. “I think this environment’s destroyed,” he said. He punched a few more keys on the computer and a panoramic view of the same region came up—a vista of one hundred miles reaching toward the far horizon, strewn all the way with a multitude of turbines standing like an army at attention.

“This whole G.E. commercial, with the green grass and the turbine and the cow grazing?” Mulligan said. “Looks very aesthetically pleasing. But it’s a completely industrialized environment. They’re everywhere. You’re always in it. You can’t get away. A little wind farm—fine. But the whole landscape is like this? And you drive and you drive, and there’s endless machinery as far as you can see, in every direction? That scares me.”


To read the rest of “Broken Heartland,” subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for just $19.97 per year. Current subscribers can access the entire article here.

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More from Wil S. Hylton:

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