Sunday, April 26, 2015

Texas Panhandle Running Out of Water

The New Republic:
“Some of the first wells here were hand-dug,” Morris said. “So that tells you how shallow it was to water. Then in the 1950s, they were still finding some water at fifty feet down.” Morris grew wistful. “Today you have to dig all the way to red bed.”
By the onset of the latest drought, the groundwater shortage had grown so severe that the State of Texas commissioned an in-depth study to quantify the problem. The results, published in the Texas Water Report in January 2014, could hardly have been more dire. “Since the 1940s,” the study reported, when ranchers, in a surfeit of optimism, began trying to grow cotton on the arid rangeland, “substantial pumping from the Ogallala has drawn the aquifer down more than 300 feet in some areas.” But the real trouble has been recent. One hundred feet of the 300-foot decline of the aquifer occurred in the decade between 2001 and 2011. This period coincided with a run-up in commodity prices that tempted farmers to start growing thirsty feed crops. With rising temperatures and what the report described as “the near-total absence of rain” of the current drought, water use for irrigation has jumped another 43 percent.
Worst of all, the portion of the Ogallala Aquifer south of the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle, where Lockney and Plainview sit, is cut off from the main aquifer system. As a result, the reservoir recharges more slowly than the northern portions that supply irrigation water for most of the Central Plains. So as Texas Panhandle farmers chased commodity profits and tried to keep pace with corn production in Nebraska and Iowa, they pumped out the aquifer faster and faster, draining the great basin of water that had sustained Texas cattle for two centuries.
All of which helps explain why wells at the edge of the Ogallala basin are starting to come up dry. To show me, Morris pointed to a satellite map of the area on his office wall. “Most of Floyd County is cut up in one-section blocks,” he said. The dirt roads, spaced at even mile markers, describe a perfect grid over the landscape. Around Lockney and stretching west back toward Plainview, each section contained a green circle, where a center pivot was irrigating a field of corn, soybeans, or cotton. But east of Lockney, the circles were smaller—pivots covering just one or two quarters of the section—or the larger circles were only covering part of the square, like a half-eaten pie. Still farther east, moving toward the edge of the caprock, there were no green circles at all. “This was all, at one time, irrigated farmland—all of it,” Morris said with a sweep of his hand. But the wells there have run dry. And the farmers have all picked up and left—which means ranchers are left without water and feedlots are left without food.
100 feet in 10 years?  Wow.  The whole article is informative, and the map included with the article shows how far the aquifer has been drawn down in the Texas Panhandle and southwest Kansas.  A region which has already significantly emptied out is going to shrink further as the water disappears.

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