Ogallala Aquifer: Water Pumping Could Dry It Up


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A LiveScience story picked up by NBC News has dismal news regarding the United States' water supply: the High Plains Aquifer, which runs from South Dakota to Texas and provides 30 percent of the nation's irrigated groundwater, will dry up in under 50 years unless we dramatically reduce our water usage.

According to researchers from Kansas State University, who just wrapped up a four-year study on a section of the High Plains Aquifer, over two-thirds of the water will be gone in 50 years. The study was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team collected data on groundwater levels past and present, and assembled models based on their data that can predict water depletion over the next 100 years. Their model estimated 3 percent of water was used by 1960, and 30 percent by 2010. By 2050, that number becomes 69 percent.

The study's principal author and a professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University, David Steward, said that "I think it's generally understood that the groundwater levels are going down and that at some point in the future groundwater pumping rates are going to have to decrease... however, there are lots of questions about how long the water will last, how long the aquifer will take to refill and what society can do."

The study estimated that an average of 500 to 1300 years without use would be needed to completely refill the High Plains Aquifer.

The groundwater issue can be a sensitive one because it cuts right to the American heartlands: our food producers. "Farmers are trying to make a living, and they're responding to economics... Asking them to drastically reduce water might be like asking me to retire now because there are so many unemployed people," said Bridget Scalon, leader of the Sustainable Water Resources Program at the University of Texas at Austin and a senior research scientist.

The practice of creating accurate "projections [is] so difficult because I think we're clueless about a lot of things, like extreme weather events," Scalon also said, highlighting the independent variable of sudden drought or excess rain, which was not taken into account in the Kansas State University study.

If you want to read more, a relevant study from LiveScience earlier this year may shed more light on the irresponsible use of pumped groundwater.

[Image via an educational Youtube about groundwater]