You may not realize it, but there are vast bodies of water beneath your feet, deep inside the ground. It is a reality that can get your imagination flowing. It is an aspect of our planet’s makeup that has determined our societies. The Ogallala Aquifer is just one example of this.
People, corporations, and governments have utilized these bodies of water in a wide variety of ways. As climate crisis and water use intensify around the globe, we need to educate ourselves around these ancient geological features. In doing so, we can vote and take action to protect the health and sustainability of our societies – and of the planet as a whole.
Today we’ll look specifically at the Ogallala aquifer, the way it works, the issues surrounding it, why it’s so important, and what’s at stake as we choose how to use this source of water for millions of people.
Perhaps you are unclear on what an aquifer is – and don’t worry, you’re not alone. For a quick visual, think of digging a hole in the sand at the beach. Experiences from childhood or later should tell you that as you dig, the hole fills up – even if waves don’t come crashing into it from above. This is an example of how below a certain depth when the ground is permeable to hold water, it will become saturated by water.
Now take this metaphor of a hole on a beach, and apply it to an area near where you live. If you were to dig a well in a proper location, you would need to dig until you hit a water-saturated area. This area is called a water table. But beneath the water table, even deeper into the ground is something called an aquifer – which often holds massive stores of water.
According to the USGS, this deep into the ground, there are rocks with porous and permeable characteristics. So an aquifer is actually a body of rock through which water can easily move. This water-bearing rock body transfers water to various springs and wells. The amount of water that is transferred is heavily dependent on what type of rock makes up the aquifer. Groundwater can flow through an aquifer at a rate of 50 ft per year or 50 inches per century.
So as you can see, different aquifers will vary a lot. Let’s sink into the porous rock of the Ogallala Aquifer to learn how this applies to our lives.
The Ogallala aquifer is a shallow water table aquifer. It is located under the surface of the great plains and the high plains region of North America. One of the world’s largest aquifers, it exists in an area that spans almost 200,000 square miles. It touches portions of 8 states: South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. The aquifer is surrounded by an underground sediment layer of silt, sand, gravel, and clay. People living in such diverse areas as the texas panhandle and the remote hideaways in the rocky mountains depend on this aquifer for their drinking water. And over 27% of US cropland lies right over the aquifer. It is a water supply for 30% of the groundwater used for irrigation in the US.
The overall life of the aquifer is mind-bogglingly ancient. It’s an aquifer system with deposited materials that date back to 6 million years ago in what we call the late Miocene era. This was a time when the picturesque Rocky Mountains were still a tectonically active zone. Erosion from the Rockies filled in the ancient channels of water and valleys. This is how the aquifer formed over time and became buried underground.
Water in the aquifer generally flows from west to east at a rate of one foot per day. The further north you go, the better the water quality. Over the course of the last 60-70 years especially, contaminants have leaked into the aquifer. This is due to factors such as irrigation density, nitrogen application, and climate change. We will revisit these contaminations and the resulting depletion later on.
The aquifer was named by a geologist in 1898 in reference to the town nearest the aquifer’s type locality (a fancy term for where the rock was first identified). Ogallala, Nebraska is still a town you can drive to today, with a population of under 5,000 residents.
As is often the case in US history, colonial-settler communities adopted this city name from the people whose land was stolen – erasing the history of genocide and dispossession that occurred as the first (and many subsequent) waves of white supremacy spread across the continent, keeping only the name.
But the original inhabitants and stewards of this land are of the Lakota Nation. This nation is a conglomerate of several bands known as the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, or the Seven Council Fires. According to the Red Cloud Indian School, the “largest of these Council Fires is the Thítȟuŋwaŋ, which means “the People of the Plains.” The Thítȟuŋwaŋ are further divided into seven sub-bands, of which the Oglala is the largest.”
The Oglala Nation traditionally lived in the Black Hills area of the state we now call South Dakota – and many legendary leaders were citizens of this nation including Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Big Foot.
In 1851, the Fort Laramie Treaty established the land stretching from Canada, south to Kansas, east to Wisconsin, and all the way west through Wyoming as territory of the Great Sioux Nation (Sioux is the name the Colonists use(d) to refer to the Lakota nation). Over time, war and massacre with individual settlers and the United States, that territory was stripped from the nation.
Today, the existing borders of the Pine Ridge Reservation are the remaining territory of the Oglala Lakota. It is the second poorest area of the United States.
To learn more about the history, culture, and activism of the Oglala Lakota and the Pine Ridge Reservation, it’s best to seek out citizens of the nation who are working to address the needs of both the Oglala community and the land they call home – both the Pine Ridge Reservation and the stolen ancestral territory at large. Sources to consider include Indian Country Today, Honor The Earth, and news features on various national news sites.
With this history and context in mind, let’s return to the topic of the Ogallala Aquifer and why it’s so important.
It should come as no surprise that an aquifer that provides drinker water to over 80% of the 2.3 million people living in the High Plains study area is important. This is water that people use to sustain crops and supports livestock.
Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, agriculture in the Great Plains underwent massive changes, including a “center-pivot” irrigation technique. This is a system that allows farmers to grow crops even in times of drought.
The high plains aquifer is vast, to be sure. But it is not endless. A recent study estimates that water levels are dropping. When comparing a 2013 study to Scientists’ recordings in the 1950s, there are wells in Texas that have dropped a staggering 256 feet. Still, other wells in more northern regions have risen.
Ultimately, if you look at the climate of the land above the aquifer, you can imply that lower water levels mean devastating impacts are just around the corner. The high plains today are dryland – it is an arid/semi-arid ecosystem where rainfall amounts to less than evaporation rates. That’s not even considering the huge water requirements of most agricultural crops and livestock. Because of this, the aquifer has a very slow recharge rate. Where water levels drop, the price of water goes up.
The recharge rate of the Ogallala aquifer is an estimated 22-25 mm per year. At the rate we are going, we will completely deplete this natural resource.
We know now that our water resources are not infinite – but they are the source of life. Is there anything more important than that?
Groundwater depletion isn’t specific to the Ogallala aquifer alone. For example, we can look to India. India is the world’s second-largest producer of wheat and grain. As India’s crop infrastructure grows, so does its groundwater use. Even though the Indian government is working hard to convert well irrigation to canals, their groundwater levels are shrinking. Even with the switch to a canal system, it will not compensate for the depleted levels of freshwater. If irrigated agriculture cannot find a solution, food sources and food systems will become increasingly insecure. Without sustainable groundwater management in every part of the globe, the forecast is grim.
A lot of people don’t realize that the dust bowl of the Depression-era wasn’t simply some random weather event – it was the direct result of unsustainable farming practices, irrigation systems, and lack of precipitation. It was catastrophic for many families and communities. It immensely impacted the US in innumerable ways. If we’re smart, it would behoove us to regard this episode of history as a warning and instructive tool for how to approach our water use today.
Many experts stress that aquifer depletion in our modern age is not a problem to solve, but a situation to manage. The key, according to John Tracy, Ph.D., director of the Texas Water Resources Institute, is innovation and openness to change.
Apart from further educating yourself and your loved ones about groundwater conservation and sustainable efforts in your region, we need to take a long hard look at agricultural practices and the ways in which consumer demands, government pressure, and corporate powers impact that industry. We are in a moment that calls for bold and swift actions – and we have to support the agricultural workers in those changes instead of pointing fingers or expecting the impossible of those who work the land and are barely scraping by.
Support the farmers, ranchers, and agricultural workers who emphasize sustainable practices. Eat less beef, and when you eat it, make sure to purchase it from the farmers who share the ethos of responsible land, crop, and livestock management. Vote for local and national politicians who demonstrate true dedication to this effort.
And here’s something to consider: you may be tending and irrigating a crop, even if you live in the suburbs or city and don’t realize it. I’m talking about grass Kentucky Blue Grass, what we might otherwise call “lawns”. It’s one of the largest crops cultivated in the US. Aesthetic choices of mower-wielding homeowners with sprinkler systems are often enforced by homeowners’ associations and city ordinances. Especially in arid and semi-arid climates, there are alternative options.
An empowering way to use less water and reconnect to the native perennial plants of your region is to tear up your lawn and engage in restorative land practices. You can begin conversations with your neighbors, lobby city council members, or engage with guerilla gardening practices. It’s time for America to awake from its green-grass stupor.
Indigenous people make up about 5% of the earth’s population, but they protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity.
When we think about impactful action steps in protecting the Ogallala Aquifer and other natural resources, it is important to look to indigenous communities and engage with worldwide efforts to restore the land to its ancestral stewards.
The Ogallala Aquifer, aquifers around the globe, and plenty of other elements “beneath the surface” of our everyday lives have direct impacts on our lives and our abilities to function as individuals and as communities.
In understanding the importance of the Ogallala water, and taking action to shift how we approach this looming crisis, we can make giant strides in water conservation – which quickly links back to ecosystem health, a critical element to life – and the civil rights we all hope to enjoy and pass on to our children.