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Monday, March 7, 2011

Water Woes

US farmers fear the return of the Dust Bowl

For years the Ogallala Aquifer, the world’s largest underground body of fresh water, has irrigated thousands of square miles of American farmland. Now it is running dry.

The water in the Ogallala aquifer is being traded and sold by oil tycoons and mega corporations. This massive underground water deposit supplies water to the corn belt in Nebraska and other states, who in turn supply grain and corn to poor nations around the world. All the states that tap into this body of water have management plans that restrict and regulate how much can be harvested except Texas. The Lone Star state allows whoever has a right to the water to pull as much of it as they want and sell it to the highest bidder. The problem is that other states are being impacted and it trickles down to higher food prices in places that simply cannot be absorbed, like Africa and financially devastated areas in the United States. I have always been a conservative and a capitalist ( I voted for George W. Bush in both elections, and I am a gun owner and small business person ) but I now recognize that there are no limits to personal greed, and that sometimes there indeed must be sane limits to capitalism.

1997 map of the Ogallala Aquifer

If you'd care to read more about this aquifer and see other maps showing just how much this body of water has been depleted please click here.  The problem isn't just in the small town of Happy Texas where; " from the early 1950s the boom was on. Some of the descendants of Dust Bowl survivors became millionaire landowners. 'Since then,' says David Brauer of the US Agriculture Department agency, the Ogallala Research Service, 'we have drained enough water to half-fill Lake Erie of the Great Lakes.' Billions upon billions of gallons – or, as they prefer to measure it, acre-feet of water, each one equivalent to a football field flooded a foot deep – have been pumped. 'The problem,' he goes on, 'is that in a brief half-century we have drawn the Ogallala level down from an average of 240ft to about 80.'
Brauer's agency was set up in direct response to the Dust Bowl, with the brief of finding ways to make sure that the devastation never happens again. If it does, the impact on the world's food supply will be far greater. The irrigated Plains grow 20 per cent of American grain and corn (maize), and America's 'industrial' agriculture dominates international markets. A collapse of those markets would lead to starvation in Africa and anywhere else where a meal depends on cheap American exports. 'The Ogallala supply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm,' Brauer says. 'That is beyond reasonable argument. Our goal now is to engineer a soft landing. That's all we can do.'"  Source of quote.

So, the reality is that our senseless water policies are going to result in starvation and deaths in poor countries like Africa and result in turmoil and economic hardship for average Americans. The town of Happy Texas gets about 10" per rain a year and the choices are stark; adopt advanced permaculture crop technologies and harvest the rain or return to the dust bowl era and watch that dying town perish for once and all.

Of course, the agencies that define policy and regulate consumption can't agree on anything and there is in-fighting and politics involved in the decisions; from this article:

“ Eight independent scientists worked on this report and have reached the same conclusion that real irrigation experts have been saying for years: that the water use efficiency potential in agriculture is limited.
The PPIC report is criticized because it doesn’t draw the same conclusions that the Pacific Institute wants. It is important to note that the Pacific Institute’s conclusions are based on flawed assumptions that have been identified by real irrigation experts from the California State University system and the University of California. A 2008 report by the Pacific Institute claimed that agricultural water use efficiency could generate 4-6 million acre-feet of water per year, a number they don’t even use themselves anymore because it was wrong.
Most, not all, excessive farm water is recaptured and reused. Is there still water conservation potential in agriculture? You bet. Is it all cost effective? Not yet but as water conservation technology becomes available and affordable, farmers willingly adopt it. … “

It would be amusing if the situation were not so serious. This is life and death. We have no choice but to change the way we think about and use water. The vast aquifers under California are so depleted that salt water from the Pacific Ocean is seeping into them and raising the salinity levels; crops don't grow in salt water. See here for the U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet # 030-02

So, what is my interest in Texas water? I obviously have a financial interest in rain water harvesting as I am a seller of barrels, but I don't sell in Texas. My interest is as a human being because I know that our policies and practices have huge impacts on other people; there will be starvation and deaths because of the United States water policy, this is not really in dispute. Wars will be fought over water.

Wouldn't be nice if we just changed the way we think?

I also don't mean to imply that there is 100% agreement on what is causing the aquifer depletion. Some scientists suggest that as the earths crust cools as our planet ages more surface water is pulled into the mantel.
There is evidence that periodically the core of the earth heats up and much of the aquifer water is expelled from the mantel causing massive and relatively sudden rising of the sea levels. If it rained for forty days and forty nights things would be really muddy and flooded, but the mountains would not be covered with water; it would take something more dramatic, like the under ground oceans unleashing their contents.
When the planet was young, steam came from the deep interior to the surface as volcanic gas and eventually produced today's oceans. But as Earth's interior ages and cools, it becomes easier for water to return below the surface.
"So, rather than degassing, now [Earth] may be losing water into the mantle," Sleep said.
This gradual suction of water back below the surface may be a good thing for Earth's geological stability, he notes."

You can't make the oil billionaire and corporate raider T Boone Pickens stop speculating on Texas water, but you can do your part by getting rid of grass, changing to native drought tolerant plants and capturing as much water as you can so that instead of letting the water run along paved roads and into concrete culverts you take personal responsibility and help get that water where it belongs; into the soil under your feet.
You can also write the law makers in Texas and let them know that their " right to capture " law is ignorant, outdated and is going possibly result in starvation and deaths in millions of people. Remember that Mr. Pickens is absolutely unconcerned about killing off small farming communities in his quest to make billions on water rights when you hear his name being mentioned as possible presidential material. He doesn't care about the states that surround Texas or that there are millions of Americans who are beginning to find food and fuel prices unsustainable.
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