Friday, June 15, 2012
The Buffalo's Revenge
America's historic bread basket, the Great Plains, is just about finished. Like the Canadian prairie, the Great Plains was a massive expanse of grassland inhabited by migratory creatures and native tribes that moved with them.
Then the white man showed up.
First to go were the buffalo, next the Indians. The buffalo were killed off. The Indians that weren't killed off were herded onto reserves out of the way. Settlers showed up and discovered that beneath their feet lay the giant Ogallala aquifer just waiting for those enterprising white folks to have at it. And so they did. And with that free, seemingly limitless water they transformed that barren grassland into first class farmland yielding bountiful harvests of wheat and corn and just about anything else they chose to grow. America began to feed the world.
It was a shiny example of the "can do" spirit only, in reality, it was more like the "do can" spirit. We "do" because we "can." There's a big difference between the two. That's becoming obvious today from the Dakotas to Texas. The Ogallala is just about pumped out. The settlers turned farmers took the waters because they could and nobody much worried that the day might arrive when they couldn't.
The July issue of Harper's magazine has Wil Hylton's piece, "Broken Heartland, The Looming Collapse of Agriculture on the Great Plains." Here are a few excerpts:
"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."
"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...
"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."
"...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."
Almost a quarter of the reservoir is now down to less than 30-feet of water remaining. By 2030 most if not all of the rest will be in the same state. With crop irrigation draining the reservoir between five to eight feet a year, the math is ugly.
"...Although many cities on the plains have grown, rural communities across Kansas, Nebraska, Montana and Texas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas have shrunk each decade since the Great Depression. In Kansas alone, more than 6,000 towns have vanished altogether. Nearly a million square miles of the American heartland currently meet the definition of 'frontier' used by the Census Bureau more than a century ago."
What lies in store for America's breadbasket? Vast tracts are being turned into windfarms. Once bountiful farmland is being returned to grassland for grazing. Experimental crops are being developed, perennial varieties of wheat and sorghum that will be self-seeding but without the high yield of conventional crops. Bison are making a comeback. Beyond that, no one seems to know.